“It was just an incessant, never-ending desire to have someone, at whatever cost. Someone good looking…really good looking…and it just filled my thoughts all day long.”


In the closing hours of July 22, 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer, a 31 year-old gay man and factory worker, began a long confession.  The confession – delivered in a colourless and mechanical monologue – led police to charge him with the murders of seventeen young men and boys.  For Jeffrey Dahmer the odyssey was over.  For the media and a tectonically-shocked Milwaukee, the drama was about to unfold around a TV dinner.

Two miles distant from the interrogation room in which Dahmer was being held, the county forensic unit was in the process of painstakingly cataloguing the evidence and the debris of a secret life that had spiralled ever downward into fetid, violent fantasy. Dahmer’s apartment on North 25th street resembled nothing less than Giotto’s vision of hell on the wall of the Scrovegni chapel at Padua: a gallery of the fallen; a glorious, visceral depiction of devils feasting on the intestines of angels.

Necrophilia and cannibalism were an important component to the crimes.

The police discovered  two freshly killed corpses in the bath-tub, a freezer stuffed with internal organs and a refrigerator containing the decapitated head of a young man.  The bedroom closet revealed four human heads, seven skulls, two complete skeletons and an ominous fifty-gallon drum awash with acid which testified to the dismembered remains of several males.

What leads men to kill – not once – but repeatedly?  In my research for a proposed documentary on Jeffrey Dahmer’s descent from seemingly unremarkable, middle-class origins to a catastrophic dénouement I interviewed various people who knew him.  Their collective description offers up the profile of an ordinary, polite, reserved loner.  Someone you might meet once and have difficulty recalling.  A dissembler, socially passive and utterly lacking in any kind of mutuality.  In other words, boring. These qualities lent him an anonymity that allowed him to murder in his very own community without arousing suspicion.  Serial killers are rarely cocktail party raconteurs.

Psychologists and criminologists believe that the capacity to kill addictively is developed through a process whose factors must all be present before a person can become truly dangerous. Their opinion is that our behaviour is determined by both genetic and social factors.  Some people are born with genes that give them a predisposition to aggression and violence.  For people with a predisposition to violence, traumatic events in childhood such as physical and sexual abuse or neglect serve only to intensify that tendency. Having not developed the coping mechanisms necessary to deal effectively with those issues, they fail to reach emotional maturity.

Serial killers are, by their very nature, emotionally retarded. Raised in a thoroughly middle-class rural American setting, Dahmer’s parents were undemonstrative in their affections. His father, a devoutly religious research chemist was rarely at home and at the brink of divorce with his mother – an often bed-bound depressive who left the family home, taking her younger sibling when Dahmer was aged seventeen.

This can lead to dissociation.  Distrusting, insecure and seeking to protect himself the boy suppresses his feelings toward those around him. This begins to preclude the possibility of developing meaningful relationships with other people.  Fuelled by rage, low self-esteem and loneliness he retreats into a world of comforting fantasies where he is in control.  For fledgling serial killers the issue of control becomes the major theme in their lives. The friendless, young Dahmer would roam the neighbourhood looking for road-kills which he would eviscerate and attempt to reconstruct; enjoying both the power and the control that this activity brought him and, perhaps, subconsciously seeking to earn the approval of his chemist-father.

While his peers might have fantasised about the school’s cheerleaders and baseball jocks, a teenaged Dahmer happened to masturbate whilst [unintentionally] thinking about the dissection of the foetal pig in biology class, or the dead dog he had acidified and deconstructed. Thus, as these thoughts intruded upon him, he inadvertently conditioned himself to become aroused by that imagery.  Unusual, certainly, and the mystery of how we develop our sexual responses – aberrant or otherwise – is not entirely solved.  However, since it isn’t imaginable that there is such a thing as, for example, a foetal pig fetish gene; a latex brain lesion or a high heel hormone, we know that our sexual response is not something we evolve biologically, it is something we learn.

In the course of adolescence, the mingling of desire for control and an emerging sexual need creates an appetite to act out newly emergent fantasies which, unrealised, will become increasingly more violent and specific.  As Dahmer sexually matured the focus of his stimulation shifted from the compliance of inanimate creatures to the compliance of inanimate people.

Inevitably, for the serial killer, fantasy becomes more beloved, more cherished than reality.  Immersed in this world, it was an eighteen-year old Jeffrey Dahmer who, finding himself alone one summer’s night at the family home in rural Ohio, took his first steps towards madness.  He took his father’s Oldsmobile for a spin and picked up a hitchhiker.  Back at the house they drank beer and lifted weights until his guest made motions to leave.  For Dahmer, his fantasy was over before it had begun.  He bludgeoned the hitchhiker to death and took him to the crawlspace beneath the house where, over the following days, he had sex with the corpse before disposal.

During his confession thirteen years later, Jeffrey Dahmer stated that he believed that if it weren’t for that one impulsive night, the other sixteen murders may never have occurred. I would somehow doubt this.

Having flunked both high school and college, his newly remarried father enlisted him into the US Army in the hope of reforming his son’s diffidence. When Dahmer was discharged for continued alcoholism it was agreed that he should relocate to his grandmother’s home in Milwaukee to start afresh.  There followed nine years of comparative tranquility where, as argued by the defence at his trial, he made a monumental effort to rid himself of the compulsions that continually surged up into his mind, threatening to upturn that relatively peaceable existence.

In his Herculean struggle to satisfy his urges and quash his murderousness, his behaviour became progressively odd, then dangerous.  He stole a department store mannequin upon which to vent his expression before moving on to gay bathhouses, where he would drug patrons in order to have congress with their unconscious bodies.  When this practice became inconvenient to him, he acquired his own apartment where he developed a modus operandi of approaching young men with the offer of cash for photographic modelling.  On returning to his apartment they were swiftly drugged with sleeping tablets as a prelude to strangulation.

Potential serial killers seek out specific kinds of pornography and literature to contain or supplement their compulsions. Dahmer, however, used material that, apart from pornography of a very conventional nature, might otherwise have been innocuous.  He would repeatedly watch segments of The Exorcist III; The Return of the Jedi and Hellraiser: Hellbound  – all scenes where a powerful person is exercising force over another – before venturing out to find a victim.  Interestingly, the document that has most inspired and influenced the imagination of serial killers is the Christian Bible; specifically the Book of Revelations with its wild, apocryphal imagery.

It should be noted here that serial killers are defined by theme rather than sexual orientation. Dahmer may have been deeply conflicted about his homosexuality, but it was his paraphilia which actually drove him to murder. Paraphilia is, in simple terms, an obsessive fetish.
[Advisory: unpleasant details]

Dahmer’s paraphilia was characterised by necrophilia: he desired to exert complete control over a totally compliant partner, an object of pleasure;  by partialism (he would later use the decapitated head of an individual both as a tool to masturbation and as a remembrance of the victim); and, significantly, he was stimulated by the appearance of glistening viscera. In every instance, his victims were opened up from neck to groin – revealing the chest cavity – into which Dahmer would insert his erect penis and ejaculate among the inner organs.  For him this particular activity represented nothing less than the  ultimate expression of power.

The chasm between violent fantasy and actual murder is wide.  A potential killer might use facilitators to distort the division between the imaginary and the real.  Facilitators such as drugs or alcohol remove his inhibitions, smother any residual moral resistance and opens the dams of compulsion.  Dahmer, Dennis Nilsen and John Wayne Gacy – all drank heavily in order to summon the capacity to kill.  His compulsions steadily intensifying toward explosion, he acts.

Murder produces in the serial killer the feeling of being; it is the moment he most feels himself to be alive.  For many serial killers, the act of murder is a gross distortion of the act of love; they are recreating the act of communion in the only way they know how.  However, the release brought forth by murder is short-lived and fleeting. It is followed swiftly by those feelings contingent upon addiction.  Intense feelings of loneliness, sadness and calamity envelops him again. Paradoxically, the act of murder reinforces the original trauma in the perpetrator.  He falls back into ever more urgent and familiar control fantasies, the further use of facilitators, and a renewed drive to murder.  It is cyclical and inescapable.

Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist attached to the University of California at Los Angeles summarises the dilemma:

“Once an individual has started to kill repetitively for sexual purposes, he is sustained in that activity by the failure of each event to satisfy him.  The fantasy is, if he can only get it right, he won’t have to do this anymore.  But, of course, its never good enough.  The reason it’s never good enough is, the truth be told, an orgasm is pretty much an orgasm and it just isn’t going to get any better”.

Between 1988-1990 Dahmer committed eight murders.  In the months leading up to the mid-summer of 1991 the killings had rapidly escalated to seventeen. He had hardly disposed of one corpse before creating another; they were, quite literally, piling up. Neighbours were, not unnaturally, beginning to complain about the unusual smells and the whine of electric sawing emanating from his apartment, and his alcoholism led to him losing his job through excessive absence. However, by this point, his logical and moral compass was incompetent and, despite an impending eviction order, his only recourse was to go out and find another person to kill.

Entrenched in his desperation to keep somebody and motivated by the terror of abandonment, Dahmer experimented with the possibility of neutralising the autonomy of his victims: to create a zombie.  This delusional plan took the form of drilling a hole into the brain of an unconscious victim through which muriatic acid was injected.  When this unsurprisingly resulted in the death of its unwitting subject, he experimented with the notion of temporarily reanimating the corpse for lifelike effect by substituting a live electrical wire through the same opening.  Again, however delusional, it indicates that he was endeavouring to prolong the stasis of his victims so as to effect a solution to the all-too-brief course of murder, decomposition and disposal.

It was also during this period that Dahmer experimented with cannibalism. The origins of cannibalism stretch back to the beginnings of human history and its significance is not related to nourishment in the ordinary sense.  Cannibalism is an issue – and these themes recur – of control and power.  By ingesting parts of the victim, the killer is symbolically asserting his total dominance over that person and, in so doing, emphasising his power or ‘superiority’ over them.  Jeffrey Dahmer consumed body parts as a means of retaining that person within him. Effectively, the person became a part of him.

The Milwaukee Police Department gathered a large collection of polaroids that Dahmer had taken of his victims. One photograph shows what appears to be fried biceps on a dinner plate, a bottle of mustard placed incongruously to one side. Others were more talismanic in their composition: two complete skeletons with the head, hands and feet still fleshed and intact, arranged in a vertical position between which stands a low table supporting four human skulls.

This was the beginning of a shrine which Dahmer had hoped to complete. The purpose of the shrine was to furnish himself with a place where he could sit and feel comfortable and, perhaps, attract a greater, darker force from which he might obtain power.  In this aspect, notwithstanding the sheer destructiveness of the project, the erection of the shrine can be construed as a kind of spiritual quest.

Surprisingly, only 2% of serial killers are found insane.  At his trial, Jeffrey Dahmer was found sane.  This returns him from the realm of the ‘monster’ where, by nature of his actions, we might safely distance him, to the realm of humanity.  Furthermore, he was not diagnosed as suffering from any mental disease or illness.  It was the court’s view, therefore, that he could have conducted his behaviour to the requirements of law had he chosen to.

Given the perilous predicament he faced shortly before the time of his arrest and his refusal to address a disastrous situation, it suggests that the possibility of choice had eclipsed him.  One gains the impression of a disorganised and frenzied individual whose mind is held in the grip, and being controlled by his compulsions.  Had Dahmer been possessed of a logical, functioning mind he would surely have gathered his wits, exercised his free will, disposed of the evidence and, consequently, improved his chances against capture.

Speaking of his former client, Gerald Boyle, Dahmer’s defence attorney expressed to me the view that current medical opinion was unable to satisfactorily attribute definition to his client’s mental status. The law in Wisconsin where he was tried, as in many other places, does not presently recognise that a person who is, in fact, mentally ill may work by logical  means to achieve an end characterised by all the hallmarks of madness.

In practice, this means that the vast majority of serial killers are incarcerated in prison where they are not required to submit to further psychological evaluation.  Secured within a hospital environment, it would avail medical experts of the opportunity to study them in the pursuit of advanced knowledge, and, hopefully, help to prevent the serial killers of tomorrow falling through the system undetected.

On a broader note the West, with particular regard to the United States, is apparently experiencing a growth in the phenomenon of serial killers.  By the formation of the Union in the last century, the United States had already established a society and culture that openly tolerated and encouraged aggression and violence as a courageous, appropriate means of achieving ends.  It continues apace.  An armed society coupled with an entertainment industry that continuously emits violence-glorifying messages has generated the highest per capita homicide rate in the developed world.

Moreover, anthropologists believe that as the United States exports more of its entertainment product to the emerging markets of the developing world, we may begin to witness a higher level of social violence with, subsequently, an increased incidence of serial killing.  Personally, I doubt that it is as simple as that. The FBI estimate that at any one time there are at least ten active serial killers operating within the United States who are presently undetected.

James Maker (Originally published in 1999 by Pure Magazine )


One response to this post.

  1. This made me think of Anders Breivik and how he seemed influenced by American Neo-Con Christian ideologies. But serial killing can’t be ‘American’ can it? I do see the links you are making though.

    I loved the opening. And the use of ‘Quite’.


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