Arts and Entertainment

Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story

A review of Netflix’s “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” as well as the controversy surrounding its release.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Henry Bansbach

Seventeen young men and boys were gruesomely murdered and mutilated by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer between 1978 and 1991. Also known as the Milwaukee Monster, Dahmer primarily targeted young men of color, luring them back to his home with the promise of money if they posed for pictures. On numerous occasions, neighbors and even family members suspected Dahmer of criminal activity. On top of these suspicions, Dahmer was a registered sex offender and had multiple encounters with the police throughout his 13-year felony span. All of this poses the question: why did it take 13 years for Dahmer to be recognized as the monster that he was?

Netflix’s “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, attempts to answer that question as it explores Dahmer’s life. The series chronicles Dahmer’s childhood, family history, substance abuse, and criminal offenses, as well as various stories of Dahmer’s victims.

The cast of “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” makes for a compelling and binge-worthy series. Evan Peters, an Emmy award-winning actor best known for his various portrayals in the “American Horror Story” (2011-2022) anthology, puts on a chilling performance as Jeffrey Dahmer. To create as authentic of a series as possible, Murphy read various biographies and police reports and listened to recordings of Dahmer’s 1992 confession and interactions with a psychiatrist. Murphy also had Peters watch Dahmer’s infamous interview with Stone Phillips to prepare for the role. However, even with his meticulous preparation, Peters admitted in an interview with Netflix that playing Dahmer was easily the toughest role he’s taken on. Unsurprisingly, playing the part of a serial killer can take a toll on one’s mental health. In the same interview, Peters admitted he had to learn how to be comfortable with going into “really dark places and staying there for an extended period of time.” In the end, though, Peters’s alarmingly brilliant portrayal of the serial killer concealed any struggles that the actor faced when taking on the role.

But Peters is not the only actor who contributed to the show’s masterful storytelling. In the Netflix series, Niecy Nash takes on the role of Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer’s neighbor. Nash magnificently dives into Cleveland’s role as the primary—and perhaps only—person who really articulated her suspicions about Dahmer. During her time as Dahmer’s neighbor, Cleveland continuously looked out for his various houseguests, whom she suspected were in danger. When Dahmer brought home and drugged 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone (Kieran Tamondong), Cleveland urged the police to investigate the situation. However, they believed Dahmer instead, a registered sex offender.

Episode two, “Please Don’t Go,” ends with an authentic phone call made on the night of Sinthasomphone’s murder. The call was between Cleveland and Officer John Balcerzak (Scott Michael Morgan), who sent Sinthasomphone back into Dahmer’s apartment, thus exposing the police’s disregard for Cleveland’s concerns. The decision to incorporate the authentic phone call as the conclusion to the episode adds a necessary aspect of actuality to the series, cleverly reminding their viewers that Dahmer’s story is not merely fiction, but a real, 13-year-long tragedy.

Throughout the series, Cleveland also fights to resist Dahmer’s harassment, which is seen in an intriguing portrayal by Nash in episode seven of the series, “Cassandra.” In this episode, Cleveland convinces their landlord to evict Dahmer, and in return, Dahmer brings her a sandwich made of human meat. When Dahmer tries to force her to eat it, she boldly refuses and insists that he leave her apartment, until he reluctantly concedes.

Despite Peters and Nash’s impressive acting, the show has its imperfections. For one, the storyline’s lack of linear chronology is at fault for confusing the audience at times. The viewer bounces back and forth between Dahmer’s childhood and adult lives, as well as between his murders and the events leading up to them. All of this can make the show difficult to follow. However, the more prominent flaw of this series is that despite being advertised through media as largely told from the victims’ points of view, the series primarily follows Dahmer’s life and perspective.

These misdirections ultimately landed Murphy and Brennan in hot water. Many believe that monsters like Dahmer should not be constantly immortalized through media, especially because of the lack of focus on the victims. While one victim, Tony Hughes, had an entire episode dedicated to his story, many believe that this was the bare minimum, as the show fails to explore or even mention the majority of Dahmer’s victims. On top of this, the families of Dahmer’s victims had no knowledge of the show’s production despite their inherent involvement in the tragedies. Many of the victims’ relatives took to social media to express their frustration. Eric Perry, a cousin of Errol Lindsey, who was just 19-years-old when he was murdered by Dahmer, said, “It’s retraumatising over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”

The show also recreates Lindsey’s sister Rita Isbell’s court appearance following Dahmer’s arrest. However, despite being directly featured in the show, Isbell herself was never contacted. In an interview with Insider, she voiced her frustration and said, “When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself—when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said.” Isbell also proposed that Netflix should have offered some of their profits from the show to the victims’ children and grandchildren, saying, “If the show benefited them in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless. It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed.”

Many also believe that there is an inherent issue with the way that true crime media feeds into the disturbing trend of dramatizing the life and crimes of serial killers. Many argue that this dramatization often allows criminals like Dahmer to retain an undeserved audience, and, in some disturbing cases, a fanbase. Additionally, this sensationalism usually results in misinformation, as seen with Dahmer. For example, although Cleveland was Dahmer’s suspecting neighbor, she did not live directly next door to him in the Oxford Apartments as the show portrays. In reality, his next-door neighbor and victim of the aforementioned sandwich scene was a woman named Pamela Bass.

In the end, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” offers racism as an answer to why it took so long for law enforcement to capture Dahmer. The majority of Dahmer’s victims were young men of color, and their sporadic cries for help were often overlooked by the police. Additionally, Dahmer lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and the suspicions of his neighbors were also often ignored. The series resulted in understandable anger within the Black community of Milwaukee for dramatizing the tragedies that occurred. While the show aimed to shed light on Dahmer’s victims and the horror that he inflicted, it ultimately resulted in overwhelming controversy regarding the humanization of monsters like him.