Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer (May 21, 1960 – November 28, 1994) was an American serial killer and sex offender. Dahmer’s childhood growing up was quite devastating. He suffered through familial issues, was sexually molested at the age of eight, struggled with his sexual identity, and became an alcoholic by the time of his high school graduation. Dahmer was responsible for the murders of seventeen men between 1978 and 1991. His murders involved rape, dismemberment, necrophilia, and cannibalism. Neither the police nor the media knew a thing about Dahmer until after his arrest in 1991. At least seventeen people died before Dahmer’s murderous escapades eventually ended, and a virtual media circus erupted overnight. At his trial, he was given fifteen consecutive life sentences, requiring him to serve 936 years before being eligible for parole. While serving his sentence at the Columbia Correction Institution in Portage, Wisconsin, he was beaten to death by fellow inmate Christopher Scarver. In this essay I will discuss the role of the media in the Dahmer case. Stemming from the media interest, I will also discuss why Americans in general are so intrigued by the wayward actions committed by Dahmer. On a grander scale, I will be discussing why Dahmer, as well as many others involved – including Dahmer’s parents, law enforcement officials, the media, and the American public – can all be viewed as wayward.
“Jeffrey Dahmer Mugshot,” Image courtesy of Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department, 1982.
Jeffrey Dahmer was born in West Allis, Wisconsin on May 21, 1960. He was faced with many hardships throughout his early life. One of the most critical factors in Dahmer’s adolescence was his parent’s marital problems. His parents fought over custody of Jeffrey’s younger brother David, but no one seemed to particularly want him, causing Jeffrey to feel neglected, useless, and lowered his self-esteem. Dahmer’s parents can be viewed as wayward for their negative attitudes and neglectful actions toward their older son. At the age of eight, Dahmer was sexually molested by a neighborhood boy. This event went unreported and it may have been a contributing factor to the acts committed by Dahmer. By the time Dahmer began junior high school, the isolating loneliness began to show which led to the initiation of his drinking. Dahmer was a homosexual leading him to feel even more ostracized. All of these events during his adolescence have amounted to the wayward acts committed by the man we know as Jeffrey Dahmer.
“Young Jeffrey Dahmer,” Image courtesy of Derfcity Publications, 2012.
This illustration reinforces the importance of Dahmer’s adolescence. Dahmer was ostracized by his classmates because of his differences. The artist illustrates Dahmer getting beat up by one of his classmates. In the second frame, Dahmer is sluggishly walking down the street after getting beat up. Note the dead animal on the road. Dahmer developed an unusual interest in dissecting animals in his childhood. The artist may be stating that the extreme bulling Dahmer faced, led to this unusual hobby.
It is for his heinous crimes that Dahmer will be remembered. He killed seventeen people over three decades. One of Dahmer’s victims was a fourteen-year-old Laotian boy, Konerak Sinthasomphone. After an emergency call from a neighbor about a naked boy bleeding on the street, police arrive on the scene. Dahmer then persuaded the police to allow to boy to return back to his apartment, where the boy was killed minutes later. One of the officers who had been called to the scene sent a message to the dispatcher: “The intoxicated Asian naked male [laughter heard in background] was returned to sober boyfriend and we’re ten-eight . . . [officers sent to a battery complaint] . . . “Ten-four. It’ll be a minute. My partner’s gonna get deloused at the station [laughter]” (Tithecott 76). After allowing the victim to go back to Dahmer, the officers joke about being contaminated by the homosexual couple. This is an act of extreme deviance on the part of the law enforcement officials. American culture as a whole attempts to lump together all of its “others” in order to exploit minorities as well as maintain heteronormativity. The gross negligence on the part of the law enforcement officers can be linked to this phenomenon.
To understand Dahmer’s crimes, one has to examine his full repertoire of criminal activity. Dahmer did not just kill his victim. He kept body parts as souvenirs, ate their body parts, and preformed sexual acts with the bodies of his deceased victims. “Wilson and Wilson describe what police found in Dahmer’s apartment: The freezer compartment of the refrigerator contained meat in plastic bags, one of which ominously looked like a human heart. Another freezer contained three plastic bags, each one with a severed head inside. A filing cabinet contained three skulls – some painted gray – and some bones; a box contained two more skulls, and an album full of gruesome photographs. Two more skulls were found in a kettle, while another contained some severed hands and a male genital organ. The blue plastic barrel proved to contain three male torsos” (Gibson 96). Along with hoarding his victims’ bodies, Dahmer also ate body parts of them so they would “permanently be a part of him.” “He claimed that he had used salt, pepper, and steak sauce to season the bicep of a victim, which he consumed” (Gibson 97). The cannibalistic acts performed by Dahmer are perhaps the most wayward and have sparked the most interest among the American public. As time passed, Dahmer got more and more out of control. Killing was no longer enough. In 1991 he initiated some awful new crimes, including necrophilia, performing sexual acts on his deceased victims. These actions collectively reveal the depth and diversity of Dahmer’s deviance.
The mass media played a major and negative role in the Dahmer investigation. “As the body count grew higher, so did the media interest” (Gibson 99). As the media became more interested they repeatedly and seriously interfered with the investigation. The media tampered with witnesses, contaminated the crime scene, and exaggerated the facts. “Tracy Edwards said on the Geraldo Rivera Show that eight locks were on Dahmer’s door and he “luckily” opened the correct ones. Rivera then produced a photograph of Dahmer’s apartment door taken the night of his arrest. It showed only one deadbolt lock, and a small push-in-type lock on the doorknob” (Gibson 100). This is clearly an exaggeration of the facts in the Dahmer case.
Everyone wanted to profit from the crimes committed by Jeffrey Dahmer, down to the children with concession stands selling lemonade and cookies to the reporters. “The job of the local journalists was made especially difficult when the national media showed up and checkbook journalism ran rampant” (Gibson 101). The wallets of deep pocket media companies are tailor-made for events of this magnitude and they pounced on the opportunity to cash in. The media can be viewed as wayward for wanting to contaminate the minds of Americans, as well as their drive to profit from these cases.
Stemming from the media interest is the interest of the American public in the Dahmer case. Americans are fascinated with Dahmer because there is an inability to settle how to depict him. “Repressed hostility, frustrated acceptance, and intense fear of rejection by his peers were freely voiced by Dahmer when specifically questioned about them” (Kocsis 96). There are many professional assessments done on Dahmer, yet it is still uncertain what exactly caused his wayward actions. “A possible explanation for Dahmer’s abhorrent conduct is that he was driven by compulsive, hostile aggression. His violence was so profound that he killed, cut, dismembered, and dissected in an obsessive, sadistic way, the body that attracted and repelled him at the same time – a body that he wanted to torture and destroy because he felt that by doing so he would be able to get rid of his inner, torturing homosexual drives and unwanted attraction to men – a body he really did not love, contrary to what he wanted to believe or wanted others to believe” (Kocsis 97). From this professional assessment we can deduce that Dahmer may simply be a product of our detached society. These are the questions, when raised that spark fascination about Jeffrey Dahmer.
“Jeffrey Dahmer Interview – Extended Footage,” Video courtesy of YouTube, 2008.
In his interview with Stone Phillips, Dahmer stated that he was relieved when he was arrested so it no longer had to be kept it a secret. Once he saw he had no choice but to face it, he decided to face it head on and make a full confession. It’s hard to believe that he is speaking truthfully. Dahmer didn’t confess until he was caught by police. He stated it was his decision to make a full confession, but he didn’t do so until he was apprehended.
Dirk C. Gibson, Serial murder and media circuses: Jeffrey Dahmer (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Press, 2006).
Richard N. Kocsis, Serial Murder and the Psychology of Violent Crimes: Narcissism, Sadism and Loneliness: The Case of Serial Killer Jeffrey Dahmer (Totowa, New Jersey: Humana Press, 2008).
Richard Tithecott, Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).