Our Fascination with Jeffrey Dahmer
Saturday, October 8th, 2022
Our fascination with serial killers and their psychopathic ways has been enhanced with the advent of Netflix and other streaming services constantly pumping out documentaries, horror series, and docu-dramas like the newest series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. So many people are captivated by serial killers and their lives, tendencies, and unique appetite for not just murder - but grotesque, evil mutilation of their fellow human beings. Jeffrey Dahmer is regarded as one of the worst of the worst, but why are viewers drawn into his story?
I may not have been alive when Dahmer prowled the streets of Milwaukee and West Allis, WI, but I was born and raised there. The home I was raised in, that my parents still reside in, is just a few blocks from Dahmer's Grandmother's house on 57th Street in West Allis.
At this house, Dahmer killed 3 of his 17 victims right under the nose of his loving grandmother. Although the grisly reality wasn't discovered here and Dahmer took any evidence with him to his apartment in Milwaukee, this location is notable for me as I've likely driven or ran by this area on more than one occasion.
Once Dahmer moved into the Oxford Apartment building near Marquette University, his killing and sexual assault ramped up to an unbelievable level. This location is just 2 blocks from the famous Eagle's Ballroom, otherwise known as the Rave - a concert venue I've frequented with friends when I lived in the area.
SHY BUT SADISTIC
The most interesting part about Jeffrey Dahmer is his calm, welcoming demeanor. We know now that these characteristics allowed him to go undiscovered for so long, and made him seem trustworthy to the men whom he lured back to his apartment - but in every interview Dahmer seems unassuming, timid, soft-spoken, and intelligent.
For me, Dahmer's story mostly resonates because of the area he operated. But I am also perplexed at his demeanor and willingness to fully recount all of his victims, and offer himself up to psychological study while in prison.
Dahmer openly admits in every interview he gave that he knew what he was doing was wrong, but that he felt compelled to do so. What compels someone to do such heinous things to another human being? Dahmer stated that it was always about control, and that he kept body parts and cannibalized his victims to keep them close - because he was ultimately a very lonely person.
Killers like Dahmer, Bundy, and Gacy all share a very eerie similarity. They all act completely normal and would never raise suspicions. Where Gacy and Bundy failed to repent for their egregious actions, Dahmer made every effort possible to cooperate with the Milwaukee Police Department and offer what seemed to be sincere remorse and regret.
Its a weird feeling to feel some kind of emotion that is sympathy-adjacent for Jeffrey Dahmer. I of course have empathy for his victims, their families, and his own family - but Dahmer himself? It's not as easy for me to write him off as an evil maniac hell bent on killing, and that's what draws us in to further understand him as a person.
ECHOES OF THE PAST
Milwaukee County Jail - Safety Building
When I lived in Milwaukee, I had worked at JusticePoint Inc - a pretrial service agency that assisted defendants with navigating the arduous court process and reporting their behavior both good and bad to their respective judge. JusticePoint's Milwaukee Pretrial office is located in what is now known as the Milwaukee County Safety Building, connected by walkway to the Milwaukee County Courthouse and Criminal Justice Facility (Jail).
The Safety Building was built in 1929 as the original Milwaukee County Jail and to this day still has the remnants of the jail. Fully abandoned, waiting for a purpose or to be demolished. The rest of the Safety Building houses offices, courtrooms, press boxes for larger cases, and of course my former office.
The new jail was built just a few yards away and the transfer of inmates began in 1993. The pictures below are from a tour we did of the space directly above our office and depicts the now abandoned jail - the same location Jeffrey Dahmer inhabited it during his trial.
These pictures are hardly that relevant to Dahmer himself other than the fact that he lived in this exact space during his trial at the courthouse next door. But I thought it was a perfect opportunity to share my having been there, and reflect on our interest in the creepy parts of our history.
Abandoned buildings, serial killers, horror movies? I think we are all enthralled by them. But Dahmer specifically holds a place in my brain as someone who was born and raised in West Allis. My small little hometown suburb of Milwaukee is only nationally recognized for 3 things: Liberace's birthplace, home of the Allis-Chalmers Tractor factory, and Jeffrey Dahmer. I have no personal connection nor have I ever met anyone that was personally affected by Dahmer's actions - yet seeing photos from Dahmer's life and more specifically when he was caught in 1991 seem surreal.
One of the most infamous, grotesque serial killers in American history was born and operated right in my hometown. I find myself watching these dramatized documentaries to make sure they get the city and its locations correct.
2. Club 219 Bar
The well known gay bar at the time in Milwaukee was where Dahmer would frequently patron to scope out his victims and lure them to his apartment, hotel room, or grandmother's residence. While Club 219 operated until its closure in 2005, it saw dwindling popularity following the opening of La Cage in 1984. La Cage became downtown's premier gay bar and still enjoys lots of success from college kids from Marquette, MSOE, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Dahmer took advantage of a vulnerable community at the height of awful stigmas and rhetoric surrounding HIV/AIDS. To this day, venues like La Cage and other bars pay tribute to Dahmer's victims by training staff to be eagle-eyed and ensure everyone is feeling safe and protected within the walls of a social environment.
3. 924 N. 25th St. Unit 213 Milwaukee, WI - Oxford Apartments
Most of Dahmer's atrocities were conducted at this location, that has since been torn down. Smackdab in the middle of low income housing in a predominantly black neighborhood, Dahmer already stood out like a sore thumb, and made his targeting of black, Hispanic, and Asian men and boys all the easier.
To this day, no memorial or park has been built on the empty lot and many wonder what will ever happen with the location. The Netflix documentary sparked a newfound interest in making a monument to his victims a reality, but many argue its time to move on and not have constant reminders peppering the city.
Personally, I think a memorial garden along with a playset would be a perfect way to honor the innocent lives that were taken and also spruce up the city with amenities.
4. Tracy Edwards - The Lone Survivor
Edwards is the sole person to fully escape Dahmer's murderous attempts and successfully hailed a police car for assistance when running away. With his testimony in Dahmer's trial, the public got a first hand account of Dahmer's apartment, intentions, and actions. Edwards stated that Dahmer told him he was going to eat his heart, was eventually detained with handcuffs and being threatened with a machete.
Unfortunately, Edwards never sought help after the events of the trial and has since bee embroiled in his own legal troubles. In fact, his prominence in the Dahmer trial alerted authorities to his whereabouts. Edwards had an outstanding warrant for sexual battery, and was eventually arrested by Milwaukee Police on behalf of the Tupelo Police Department.
Sadly, Edwards legal troubles spiraled from there and he has consistently been in and out of custody as well as homeless. Edwards never sought psychological treatment or therapy for his dealings with Jeffrey Dahmer.
Not to excuse away any crime Edwards himself committed, but could you imagine the broken pieces of the man who escaped Dahmer? He ran away and led police to the infamous apartment, not knowing the severity of the situation - only to later find out from police that he's luckier than he thought to have escaped.
The saddest reality of Dahmer's story is his overshadowing of his victims. Many documentaries and dramatizations have been made about him and his actions with the desperate attempt to find answers in his childhood or any external forces. As human beings, we aren't hardwired to accept that someone does these heinous things with no explanation.
While on this quest for answers, we've allowed Dahmer to become a folk legend and seem to forget that he really did these terrible things to very real people and their families.
Here we are in 2022 with yet another drama series about his life, something I am sure surviving family members of the victims have a very difficult time hearing about.
However, this series was different. The director and writers set out to tell Dahmer's story from the point of view of the victims and their families - giving them their due screen time. The best example is that of Tony Hughes, 31, who was a deaf aspiring model looking to leave Milwaukee to pursue his dream.
Prior to watching, I only knew Hughes was deaf and didn't know much else about him. The series depicts a normal relationship brewing between Hughes and Dahmer and almost makes the viewer think history could turn out differently. Paired with scenes of his family life, the struggles of being both gay and deaf in public, and scenes with a charismatic Dahmer - Hughes' story captivated me and made Dahmer's actions all the more surreal and heinous.
I can only hope Hughes' family, and others, receive some compensation from Netflix rather than profiting off of people's pain and terror. Or at the very least I hope this series and any other dramatization receives a blessing from each of the 17 victims' families.
I want to reiterate that while Dahmer is a supremely interesting character, his actions are still considered to be one of the most grotesque of any serial killer. Our fascination with these grisly crimes is rooted in a sense of disbelief that anyone could every be capable of this atrocity, especially when by all accounts the perpetrator is eloquent and tranquil. Among the numerous streaming service documentaries, true crime podcasts, murder mysteries, etc. - this new Dahmer series on Netflix handles the victim's legacy in a very judicious way, giving new light and empathy to their stories.
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