Jeffrey Dahmer, otherwise known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, is by far one of the most disturbing killers in America’s, if not the world’s, history, having confessed to the rape and murder of 17 young men and boys between 1978 and 1991. Some of which he consumed. Forensic psychologists and true crime fans alike are intrigued by what motivates a man like him and we have to wonder why Jeffrey Dahmer wanted to eat his victims.
Unlike many other killers, Jeffrey says he didn’t have a “profoundly unhappy” childhood. He told NBC in 1994 that his childhood was “fairly normal”, though his parents Lionel and Joyce are said to have been neglectful. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1994, Lionel admitted to being largely absent throughout his son’s formative years, that he was an “emotionally distant” father, but working hard and providing for the family was his way of showing love. At age four, Jeffrey underwent a double hernia removal operation and Lionel says his little boy was never the same. Jeffrey apparently became withdrawn and developed an interest in animal carcasses, which his father initially encouraged because, as a scientist himself, thought it showed his son possessed a scientific mind. So how did Jeffrey Dahmer go from being a seemingly normal boy to someone obsessed with the idea of killing, dismembering and eating some of his victim’s body parts?
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Why did Jeffrey Dahmer eat people?
Why did Jeffrey Dahmer eat people? It boils down to having total domination and ownership of his victims. After taking their life, Jeffrey said he “had these obsessive desires and thoughts wanting to control them, to, I don’t know how to put it, possess them permanently,” during an episode of Inside Edition in 1993. “And that’s why you killed them,” the reporter asked. “Right, not because I was angry with them, not because I hated them but because I wanted to keep them with me. And as my obsession grew, I was saving body parts such as skulls and skeletons.” But eventually, killing his victims wouldn’t be enough. When Jeffrey was arrested, investigators found a myriad of gruesome evidence in his apartment, including severed heads in the freezer, human hearts, a whole torso, and human skulls atop his computer. There were Polaroids of his deceased victims, which he said during Inside Edition that it was his way of “remembering their appearance and their physical beauty.” A sort of trophy. Then there was the evidence that some of Jeffrey’s victim’s body parts had been consumed. During his sanity trial, detectives relayed information provided by the killer during his confession. Police recorded over 60 hours of audio in which Jeffrey described in gruesome detail some of his crimes. Once he fried the biceps of a man in oil, used a meat tenderizer and ate the muscle because ″it was big and he wanted to try it,” police Detective Dennis Murphy said, according to the Associated Press. “He stated it tasted like beef.″
Cannibalism is extremely rare in the world of serial killers. Of some 2,000 serial killers–that is, killers defined by their multiple victims over a period of time–it’s estimated only between five and 10 are cannibals. Dr. Eric Hickey, professor of forensic psychology at Walden University, told A&E that cannibals are different from psychopathic killers. While psychopaths (and a note here that not all psychopaths possess violent tendencies) tend to struggle to make meaningful connections with others, those with cannibalistic urges develop extreme attachments. “Cannibals tend to feel really insecure and can’t have normal relationships,” Hickey said. “Eating their victims gives them a sense of power because their victims can never leave.” That certainly seems to align with the theory that Jeffrey was dealing with abandonment issues stemming from early childhood. When Lionel and Joyce divorced in 1978, both accused the other of “extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty,” per an LA Times article from 1991, and other people that knew Jeffrey from a young age painted a much darker picture than his parents’ anecdotes. “He was tortured and lost at a very early age,” Martha Schmidt, a sociology professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, who knew Jeffrey in high school. “His behavior was always on the edge. He seemed to cry out for help, but nobody paid any attention to him at all.”
Extreme attachment is or often turns to be sexual in nature, Hickey continued, and that their desire to consume their victims happens gradually through experimentation and fantasy. “Whenever killers eat other people, they’re acting out a fantasy about relationships and intimacy. They start experimenting with sexual fantasies about voyeurism and necrophilia, and as they’re fantasizing they explore that behavior,” he said. “You don’t usually see people jump from killing to eating. It starts with watching people sleep, then drugging victims, then you want to be with someone who’s buried or unconscious—and it progresses from there.” Indeed, Jeffrey explained in the ’94 interview with NBC that throughout the course of his crimes, his desire to possess his victims involved more “deviant type behavior to satisfy my urges,” explaining that the cannibalism made his victims “feel them feel like a permanent part of me”.
Which other killers are cannibals?
As mentioned, killers that turn to consume their victims are pretty rare and it’s almost always sexually motivated. The most recent example is one from Germany in September 2020, where a math and chemistry teacher known only as Stefan R. was found guilty of murdering then eating, Stefan Trogisch, a man he’d met online. “The accused killed the victim because he sought sexual satisfaction through the killing and wanted to eat parts of the corpse,” the prosecution alleged on the first day of the trial, according to the New York Post. Stefan R.’s horrific crime echoes that of an earlier one from 2001, where Armin Meiwes invited Bernd-Jurgen Brandes to his apartment. It was a particularly unusual case because Brandes had agreed to be killed and eaten. The court heard how Brandes had originally replied to a March 2001 internet posting by Meiwes seeking a “well-built male” for “slaughter and consumption”, per The Guardian. Meiwes had eaten over 44 pounds of Brandes’ flesh before he was caught in December 2002.
Andrei Chikatilo was given the nickname the “Butcher of Rostov” as one of Ukraine’s most prolific killers–confessing to 56 murders (though he was charged with 53) over the course of 12 years. He would lure young women into the woods to rape, dismember and eat their sexual organs. “I was like a crazed wolf,” Chikatilo told the court in his statement in 1992, reports the LA Times, that observed: “There was no remorse in his voice; if anything, he sounded proud that he ‘just turned into a beast, into a wild animal’.” Chikatilo was executed four years later.
Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes are available to stream on Netflix.
For more about Jeffrey Dahmer, check out Jack Rosewood’s Jeffrey Dahmer: A Terrifying True Story of Rape, Murder & Cannibalism. The biography—which is a part of Rosewood’s The Serial Killer Books series—tells the true-crime story of Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer, a serial killer who terrorized Milwaukee, Wisconsin and murdered more than a dozen people (not to mention committed acts of necrophilia and cannibalism) throughout the 1980s until his eventual arrest in 1991. The book explains how Dahmer, who had an above-average intellect and is described as “conventionally good-looking,” was able to fool everyone around him, including his family, his neighbors and the police, to avoid capture for so many years. Jeffrey Dahmer: A Terrifying True Story of Rape, Murder & Cannibalism also takes readers through Dahmer’s murder trial, his death at the hands of his fellow inmates and how his crimes rocked Milwaukee for decades to come.
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