The Terrifying True Story Of Netflix’s ‘Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

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“Dahmer” has become a kind of shorthand in popular culture for pure evil. As such, even if you know the name Jeffrey Dahmer, it can be hard to grasp who the actual man was, his crimes, the saga of catching him, and what ultimately happened to him. Dahmer may have been a monster, but he was a complicated monster.

The new, aptly named Netflix limited series Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story explores the gruesome history of not only Dahmer, but also his victims and the community that suffered for years because of his murders and was underserved by justice. The show comes with big names attached: From co-creator Ryan Murphy of American Horror Story and American Crime Story fame, Monster stars Evan Peters as an adult Dahmer and Niecy Nash in a rare dramatic turn as Dahmer’s suspicious neighbor Glenda Cleveland.

Here’s an explainer on the grisly true story that inspired Netflix’s Monster.

What were Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes?

Jeffrey Dahmer was one of the most notorious serial killers ever in the United States, having murdered 17 male victims between the years of 1978 and 1991. But the horrifying nature of what he did to his victims, including rape, dismemberment, necrophilia, and cannibalism has long overshadowed the individuals who suffered from his acts, as well as the biography of Dahmer himself. (Fair warning, however, for graphic descriptions of his extreme crimes below.)

Born on May 21, 1960, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Dahmer seemed to have a relatively normal childhood, but emotional trauma lurked under the surface: according to his own account, his mother had a nervous breakdown, his parents’ bitter divorce afflicted him, and he believed his brother was the family favorite. We know that Dahmer became more withdrawn as he grew up. By high school, he had developed a heavy drinking habit and a fascination with animal carcasses. (The graphic novel by Derf titled My Friend Dahmer and its 2017 film adaptation, starring Ross Lynch as Dahmer, both explore this period of his life)

Dahmer committed his first murder when he was 18. He picked up a hitchhiker named Steven Hicks, bringing Hicks back to his parents’ home in Ohio. Dahmer hit Hicks with a 10-lb dumbbell, then dissected, dissolved, pulverized, and scattered the remains in the backyard. He would later confess to killing Hicks because he wanted the stranger to stay.

Though Dahmer managed to graduate high school, he dropped out of college due to his alcoholism and enlisted in the army, serving as a medic in Germany from 1979 to 1981. As his drinking continued causing problems, he was discharged, and sent to live with his grandmother in West Allis, Wisconsin. In 1987, he killed his second victim, Steven Tuomi, after picking him up from a bar and taking him to a hotel room. Dahmer reportedly woke up next to the dead body with no memory of killing Tuomi.

Dahmer’s murders continued sporadically through the late 1980s. He frequently lured men back from bars and committed increasingly disturbing acts using their remains, including sexual intercourse and eating body parts. He got in trouble with the law for sexual crimes, but his murders went on undetected.

After moving into a Milwaukee apartment in May 1990, his murdering spree escalated: he began killing about one person a week by the summer of 1991. Neighbors, like Glenda Cleveland (played by Niecy Nash in Netflix’s Monster), complained to police of strange smells and noises coming from Dahmer’s apartment. In one case, a victim lobotomized by Dahmer made it out of the apartment and asked for help. When law enforcement questioned Dahmer, he avoided capture, saying the man was his intoxicated boyfriend. Dahmer had become obsessed with the idea that through mutilation he could put his victims into a zombie-like state, using them as submissive sexual partners.

How did he eventually get caught?

Dahmer was caught only after struggling with one of his victims, Tracy Edwards, on July 22, 1991. Edwards was able to get free and bring police to Dahmer’s home, where he was arrested after the discovery of pictures of dead bodies and dismembered limbs.

Dahmer’s victims were largely men and even boys of color. The absence of justice for so long spoke to how authorities neglected the very community Dahmer exploited. When he was finally caught, investigation of his home found a total of seven skulls and a human heart in his freezer.

A jury indicted Dahmer on 15 murder charges, and the trial began on January 30, 1991. Facing a mountain of incriminating evidence, Dahmer pleaded not guilty by way of insanity. The defense argued that his impulses were uncontrollable. After a two-week trial, he was found sane and guilty on all 15 murder counts. The court sentenced him to 15 life terms, one for each victim.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

How did Jeffrey Dahmer die?

Dahmer expressed remorse and wished for his own death while serving time at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin. But the pure viciousness and grotesquery of his acts had already cast him as an unmitigated monster in the public eye. He was also, unsurprisingly, a target within the prison system. He was attacked twice by fellow inmates, surviving the first time. But on November 28, 1994, he died from head trauma while being transported to a hospital, after a fellow inmate beat him in a shower. And so the haunting life and crimes of this serial killer came to an unceremonious close: Dahmer was killed in a prison fight.

How does Netflix’s Monster fit into all this?

Monster comes from creators and executive producers Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan. Per the press notes, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a series that exposes these unconscionable crimes, centered around the underserved victims and their communities impacted by the systemic racism and institutional failures of the police that allowed one of America’s most notorious serial killers to continue his murderous spree in plain sight for over a decade.”

Emmy winner Evan Peters’ dead-eyed performance as Dahmer is just as chilly and frightening as his notable work on American Horror Story. Fellow Emmy winner Niecy Nash (so lovable in Reno 911! and Claws) is once again a standout as the neighbor Glenda Cleveland, who warned police of the misery she suspected within Dahmer’s apartment.

A scene between Peters’ Dahmer and Nash’s Cleveland, in which he insists that she eat a sandwich he’s gifted her, is uncomfortable to watch. Nash grounds the heinousness all around her with a relatable presence, dialing back her more outrageous comedic mannerisms. Her narrative underlines the tragedy of authorities’ inability and/or unwillingness to diligently investigate Dahmer’s crimes and bring him to justice sooner

Of course, the fascination with Dahmer’s deranged personality and the lurid nature of his acts still permeates Monster. In classic Ryan Murphy fashion, the dated period styling (with some remarkably chunky glasses frames) is laid on thick. But with Nash and others offering the perspective of real people whose voices were often lost in reporting at the time, Monster is a worthy reframing of the Dahmer saga.

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