Jeffrey Dahmer vs The Movies: Separating the Fact from the Fiction

Jeffrey Dahmer: a deranged, queer, cannibalistic serial killer who intended to make an altar out of his victims’ corpses… or an autistic romantic whose crimes were the result of an initial, terrible accident?

Jeffrey Dahmer was all of these things. One of the world’s most notorious serial killers, he was convicted of killing young boys and men and was sentenced to life in prison, where he was eventually bludgeoned to death by Christopher Scarver, a fellow inmate.

Known as the Milwaukee Cannibal and the Milwaukee Monster, Dahmer could either be awkward or a total charmer described as “a honey” by his eventual police interrogator. Inevitably, several feature films have been made about his life.

Here we take a look and some of the most accurate, and most mind-boggling, feature film depictions of Jeffrey Dahmer…

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The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (1993)

The only feature film to be completed while Dahmer was alive, this was the passion project of Carl Crew, who wrote the screenplay and stars as Dahmer. The film moves between the time when Dahmer was a 16 year old alcoholic, prior to his first murder, through to a time of contemplation following his final arrest. A title card at the outset tells us that the “events and characters in some instances have been fictionalised and combined in order to make a story that can be shown”.

This fictionalisation is stated as the result of editing the violence so that it can be shown on screen, but also seems to be the desire to alter details to create a more stereotypically evil serial killer character.

Factually, key details are present and correct. For example, we are shown his first murder, the assault of a minor, his attempts to dissolve body parts in barrels of acid and his final encounter with Tracy Edwards, the victim who escaped and led police to Dahmer’s flat for the last time.

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However, much of the rest of the piece is embroidery, as might be guessed from a film in which the first murder is shown in slow-mo. In The Secret Life, Dahmer commits the murders out of malice, asking one victim if he is enjoying being strangled and toying with a deaf victim by whizzing a buzzing chainsaw behind his head.

While the real Dahmer did have alcoholic rages, he stated in interviews that he tried to kill his victims as painlessly as possible rather than torturing them. He was also courteous enough to others to evade suspicion, despite what is shown here. Furthermore, when we are shown the police entering his flat to arrest him for the abduction of a minor, we see an (unpainted) human skull clearly in view when this was far from the truth. He even manages to look malevolent when crying on his grandmother’s knee…

Verdict: The facts are ‘souped up’ for a serial killer slash-a-thon

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Dahmer (2002)

The most accurate depiction, this film sees Jeremy Renner as Dahmer from the time he spent living with his parents to the escape of his final would-be victim.

The film incorporates details from his crimes in unflinching (though artistic) detail, such as meeting with and murdering Stephen Hicks, his attempts to create living sex zombies of his partners by injecting acid into their brains and the dalliances at gay bars wherein he would spike the drinks of his intended conquests.

Renner conveys Dahmer both as the charmer who was a hit on the gay scene and could entice men back to his flat as well as the deeply awkward and (psychologists later claimed) Asperger’s Syndrome-sufferer who sits, stiff and on his own, in the middle of a buzzing party.

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Equal to this are the depictions of his alcoholism: a vision in which a tear-sodden Dahmer collapses in on himself on a sofa. It is far more similar to images we have of the unconscious drunk during his days in the military.

The film finishes with him walking off into the woods behind the family home, smashing at trees with sticks in frustration, exactly as Dahmer did in real life when his divorcing parents fought each other.

Verdict: Drills down to unflinching detail with an apparently accurate portrayal.

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Raising Jeffrey Dahmer (2006)

Raising Jeffrey Dahmer was made in co-operation with Dahmer’s father, Lionel, and his stepmother, Shari, to the extent that footage of him owned by them was withheld from the simultaneously produced The Jeffrey Dahmer Files. Here we see Jeffrey and his crimes from Lionel and Shari’s perspective and are told what they saw and then knew in hindsight.

The in-film timeframe takes place from when Lionel first received the call that Jeffrey has been arrested on suspicion of murder and leads through to the court sessions. Jeffrey’s life, such as his childhood and time in the military, are dealt with through flashbacks.

We are told, for example, that Jeffrey has convictions for exposure, but barring brief (and heavily stylised) snippets of him lowering a weapon on an off-screen victim or talking of killing a goldfish in a childhood flashback, the most anti-social thing we see him do clearly is stumble around drunkenly, apologising for crude Satanic symbols scratched on a table during a party that gets slightly out of hand.

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The use of fantasy effects, music and filters has the effect of making oblique references to real incidents, such as his placement of a human head in a box, seem like an illusion. Such instances are depicted as misdemeanours that become worrying mainly in retrospect.

This is underpinned by the portrayal of Jeffrey himself. He’s played here by Rusty Sneary and is all ineffectual handsomeness with a constantly dazed expression that makes the idea he could be a cannibal killer look utterly laughable. He comes across as shy rather than awkward.

That said, it’s worth watching to see how Lionel and Shari are portrayed, considering that they collaborated with the project. They are shown in constant support of their ‘Jeff’ and are horrified when allegedly inaccurate details about their mistreatment of him are discussed on a TV chat show. Raising Jeffrey Dahmer (originally entitled I’m Sorry, Dad) is, arguably, more about them than about him.

Verdict: Putting the perplexed, petrified parents’ point of view.

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Dahmer vs Gacy (2010)

Directed by Ford Austin, this one does what it says on the tin: it is a balls-out exploitation movie.

Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy are reanimated by the government as killing machines marked by the media. They, naturally, break free and go on a rampage to get revenge on the scientist who dragged them back from card games with Charles Darwin (he cheats, apparently) in Hell.

It deserves a twisted kudos for being so utterly brazen in stepping away from reality, but there are nods to the real, such as Dahmer’s sexual interaction with the corpses of his victims and reference to his attempts to create ‘sex zombies’. It is utterly offensive, OTT and complete piffle but has some value for viewers with a particularly strange sense of humour.

Verdict: Self-consciously sick ‘n’ silly fantasy with references to the real chucked in.

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The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (2012)

The most recent addition to the Dahmer feature film canon, this documentary by Chris James Thompson splices ‘talking head’ interviews, crime scene photographs and newsreel footage with re-enactments of Dahmer’s life during his later murders.

We see Dahmer (Andrew Swant) as a quiet and awkward man buying alcohol, the oil barrels in which he would dissolve his victims’ bodies in acid and purchasing the baiter fish that became a talking point with the men who would join him at his home. These segments give an impression of the man rather than just voyeuristically reflecting on his crimes.

The rest of the film shows how Dahmer impacted on those around him. Newsreel footage and photographs show the forensic investigation, but the key point is the interviews. The excitable Detective Pat Kennedy discusses how Dahmer’s demeanour changed from one of denial through to providing the pages and pages of evidence that would seem him sentenced to life in prison, and make all involved in the case famous.

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Conversely, a friend of one of Dahmer’s victim’s visually grieves his loss. Fascinating is its focus on Pamela Bass, Dahmer’s neighbour at the time of his final arrest. Near the start of the documentary, Bass recounts how Dahmer used to be friendly, feeding her sandwiches. By the end of the documentary, she is stating that Dahmer filled the snacks with human flesh and that she had eaten them unawares.

There is no evidence to suggest this was the case and, indeed, Dahmer stated that he would eat his victim’s flesh himself, seeing it as a quasi-religious exercise. Bass’s comments, despite being part of this documentary ‘reflection of the real’, are pure guesswork. Fiction. That said, as Dahmer’s depictions in these films show, the truth is often stranger….

Verdict: Forensic detail disturbed by subjectivity and personal conjecture.

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