Three weeks ago, Netflix released Mindhunter, a show that tracked the nascent stages of the F.B.I. Behavioral Analysis Unit, which is devoted to studying serial killer psychology. The show's main characters interview notorious killers to piece together a portrait of their lives before they killed: Their relationships with their mothers, their adolescent dreams. Yet by that point, the killers were already incarcerated and responsible for many lives lost.
What if we saw the killers during their formative years? In the movie My Friend Dahmer, we’re offered a vivid glimpse into what the Mindhunter agents were interviewing their subjects about. We see boy on the cusp of the killer he’d become. We see Jeffrey Dahmer in his last days of being human.
Dahmer, the "Milwaukee Cannibal," was a serial killer, rapist, cannibal, and necrophiliac who, over the course of his 13-year spree from 1978 to 1991, killed 17 men and boys. But that’s not the Jeffrey Dahmer that cartoonist Derf Backderf knew back when they were classmates in northeastern Ohio’s Revere High School between the years 1974 and 1978. Back then, Backderf told Refinery29, Dahmer was just another kid.
In 1991, Backderf discovered what Dahmer had been up to since graduation. He spent the next two decades rethinking his encounters with Dahmer, researching his crimes, and writing the graphic novel that would become My Friend Dahmer, published in 2012.
“This is a guy who is universally regarded as an inhuman monster. And rightly so,” Backderf told us. “But remember, the Jeff that I knew had committed no crime. He was just a kid who was falling into the abyss while the adult world stood by and watched.”
On November 3, a film adaptation of Backderf’s graphic novel will hit theaters, which couches Dahmer’s “fall into the abyss” in something that, on the surface level, resembles a 70s-era coming-of-age story. In My Friend Dahmer, Jeff (Ross Lynch) and his friends do what kids in other coming-of-age movies do: Play pranks, dawdle, smoke pot in parent’s wood-paneled basements.
Dahmer, though certainly strange, provided some comic relief for Backderf (Alex Wolff) and his friends. He regularly did a strange spasm routine that Backderf's friends found so funny they called themselves the Dahmer Fan Club. For a while, Dahmer fit in.
“If you take away the fact that Dahmer’s going to go on to become a serial killer, is really just a film about a troubled teenager,” Ross Lynch, Disney channel star and lead singer of the boy band R5, who plays Dahmer, told Refinery29.
On the surface, Dahmer really could be any troubled teenager slouching through any high school hallway, as Lynch remarked. His parents are in the middle of a gruesome divorce. His mother systematically neglects him in favor of his younger brother. He comes to class drunk and reeking of alcohol, and no one intervenes.
But go a little deeper, and you'll find that Dahmer's not just "troubled." While the adult world sits back and bickers, Dahmer conducts "chemistry experiments" disintegrating animals with acid in the backyard. He slices open fish. He stalks a runner (Vincent Kartheiser) who passes by his house every day.
What we know, and Dahmer’s classmates and parents and teachers in the movie don’t, is that the events seen in My Friend Dahmer are a prologue for horrors that were not so far off. Dahmer killed his first victim only a few weeks after graduation.
Since My Friend Dahmer never gets that far into Dahmer's timeline, what you'll see instead are the events leading up to Dahmer's crimes, recreated in vivid — eerily vivid — detail. In fact, the movie was filmed in Dahmer’s actual childhood home, where he killed his first victim.
The opportunity to film at Dahmer's house arose when Backderf took director Marc Meyers on a tour of Bath Township, his hometown, to get “the vibe of the place” right. They stopped by Dahmer’s house, and the new owner was willing to rent it out as a set.
“It was surreal, going there. I don’t like visiting the house a lot. Somebody died there. It’s no joke. No one was joking on that set, either. They felt it,” Backderf said.
Then, there’s Dahmer himself. In a performance that Backderf called “jaw-dropping,” Lynch fully inhabited Dahmer’s mannerisms, like his lumbering walk and the spasm “schtick” that entertained the Dahmer Fan Club so much. Once Lynch put those square glasses on, he looked just like Dahmer — so much so that Dahmer’s former classmates, who visited the movie set, couldn’t shake the resemblance.
“There were multiple times that people who went to high school with Dahmer would show up on set and they would compliment me on my walk and my physicality. They were basically saying that’s exactly what Jeffrey Dahmer looked like, and that’s exactly how he moved,” Lynch said.
But more than resemblance, more than the set, and more than the slow build-up of horror that runs throughout the movie as Dahmer begins to indulge his murderous impulses, what makes My Friend Dahmer so terrifying is the fact that it implies Dahmer’s crimes could have been prevented had someone just been paying attention.
In one episode of Mindhunter, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) gives a presentation to an elementary school classroom about identifying alarming behaviors in classmates, including being “mean” to animals. From his studies of serial killers, Ford suspects that if troubled children can be found and rehabilitated early, they won’t become killers. Well, Dahmer is mean to many animals throughout My Friend Dahmer — but no one says a thing.
When I asked Lynch whether Dahmer was born or made, he replied, “That’s the million dollar question.” Like Lynch, My Friend Dahmer refuses to come down hard on whether Dahmer was born or made. That ambiguity is the scariest part of the movie.
“My Friend Dahmer is a story, at its heart, of failure. Everybody fails. And the result is a pile of bodies,” Backderf said.
When watching My Friend Dahmer, I couldn't help but think of other figures who have committed similar acts of violence. Who was watching them grow up, and form? Were they, too, stories of failure? Given the implications in My Friend Dahmer, you’re likely to leave the theater feeling uneasy, as I did. Backderf hopes people seize that feeling, and walk away from his graphic novel and the story depicted in My Friend Dahmer with their awareness heightened.
“I would like them to think about how they treat dysfunctional kids and the mentally ill, and how we need to be more involved in these things, or tragedy will ensue. We see it happen over and over again.”
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