Ryan Murphy and Joe Berlinger are two sides of the same Netflix coin, creating (respective) fiction and non-fiction cottage industries out of notorious true-crime tales. It’s apt, then, that both have simultaneously turned their attention to the most infamous serial killer of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Jeffrey Dahmer—Murphy with his Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and Berlinger with his new Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes. The third installment in his Conversations documentary series (following 2019’s Ted Bundy and 2022’s John Wayne Gacy efforts), which boasts audio interviews with the madmen themselves, Berlinger's latest (October 7) is, like its predecessors, light on headline-worthy revelations. Yet it’s also, thankfully, a cut above Murphy’s dramatized version, investigating the fiend’s reign of terror with comprehensiveness and clarity.
What makes Dahmer different from so many other serial killers is, quite simply, the depths of his depravity. When defense attorney Wendy Patrickus says that, upon first meeting her new client, she felt like Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, the reference is fitting, since Dahmer is the sort of monster normally found solely in the multiplex. He’s Leatherface, Hannibal Lecter and Henry (from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) rolled into one, except in a mild-mannered everyman guise that allowed him to go undetected as he carried out his crimes. The fact that a neighbor recalls once seeing movie-like mist coming out of Dahmer’s door, as well as Dahmer’s fondness for The Exorcist III and Return of the Jedi—to the point that he even bought, and wore, yellow contact lenses in order to better resemble the Emperor—further reinforces the impression that Dahmer was a mild-mannered predator fit for a horror film.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes is not, alas, fiction, and despite the usual array of superfluous dramatic recreations, it treats its material with requisite sobriety. Per its title, Berlinger’s three-part series is most notable for a collection of previously unreleased recorded chats with the killer that were conducted by Patrickus from July-October 1991 following his arrest and before his 1992 trial, at which he was found guilty and received fifteen life sentences. This material is fascinating not only because there’s so much of it, but because Dahmer is intensely candid, discussing the details of his childhood, the gradual evolution of his deviant impulses, the execution of his slayings, and the necrophilia, dismemberment, grisly experiments, and cannibalism that ensued. Dahmer’s first-person perspective is central throughout, and conveys his cold, calculating insanity.
“It has to be faced… It’s just so bizarre, isn’t it?,” remarks Dahmer early in The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes. “It’s not easy to talk about. It’s something I kept buried within myself for many years, and yeah, it’s like trying to pull up a two-ton stone out of a well.” Regardless of such difficulty, though, Dahmer proves a surprisingly forthcoming and introspective pseudo-narrator, expressing consistent interest in analyzing his thoughts, urges and actions in an effort to better understand why he “didn’t seem to have the normal feelings of empathy” and ultimately resorted to perpetrating unthinkable atrocities. “What triggered it all? I wish I could give you a good, straightforward answer on that,” he muses at one point. Later, he admits that “talking about it and analyzing it shows me how warped my thinking was.” Full self-awareness, however, remains elusive, as does any apparent compassion or remorse (a throwaway statement notwithstanding) for the lives he heinously took, and the families and communities he left in ruin.
If the fundamental “why” regarding Dahmer’s spree is unknown—to him, and to us—The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes nonetheless scrupulously examines the killer’s well-known motivations. The byproduct of a broken home, Dahmer was fond of dead animals as a child, and became a heavy drinker as a young adult, flaming out at college and in the military. A habitually anti-social and lonely gay man, Dahmer fantasized about being with incapacitated males that he could control (physically and sexually), and he first made those twisted dreams a reality in Ohio in 1978, when he used a barbell to kill his maiden victim, 18-year-old hitchhiker Steven Hicks. Nine years passed before Dahmer killed again, at which point he was living in West Allis, Wisconsin, with his grandmother, a devout and caring woman who never suspected that her grandson was picking up strangers at gay bars and bath houses, drugging and murdering them in her home at night, and then coming down to have breakfast with her in the morning.
Dahmer eventually moved to Milwaukee’s Oxford Apartments, where—driven by a series of triggers—he lost whatever slivers of control he had over his homicidal compulsions. The bloodshed he wrought was unthinkable and included drilling holes in the heads of some men, and pouring acid into their brains, in an attempt to turn them into compliant zombies; eating others as a way to keep them with him forever; having sex with corpses; using acid to dispose of bones; and keeping skulls as keepsakes. The fear of abandonment, and longing to prevent it, was at the core of his malevolent behavior, and Berlinger scrutinizes those warped issues via interviews with attorneys, forensic psychologists, police officers, and journalists that were involved in the case. Also made up of home movies, family and crime scene photographs and archival TV news reports, The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes gets as close to its subject as seems possible, all while touching upon the socioeconomic and racial dynamics inherent to this tale of a sick white man preying upon poor gay people of color, and repeatedly coming into contact with—and then avoiding arrest by—local police.
Dahmer was no doubt the beneficiary of cultural prejudices and circumstances (such as the then-rampant AIDS epidemic, which made vanishing gay men a relatively common occurrence). Still, the question of what begat in Dahmer’s heart and mind a craving for carnage (“The murdering someone and disposing of them right away gives no great lasting pleasure or a feeling of fulfillment. And yet I still felt the compulsion to do it throughout these years”) goes unanswered in The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes. For all its insight into the various factors and feelings that led him to do what he did, Berlinger’s docuseries is most chilling because it stares into the abyss and sees only unfathomable darkness.