There’s no question that we have a cultural fascination with serial killers. We’ve made them popular in TV and film from The Silence of the Lambs to Dexter, podcasts such as My Favorite Murder or Last Podcast on the Left, or even the slew of wonderfully trashy airport authors like James Patterson or Mary Higgins Clark. Our love of serial killers in the media is intricately tied to the love of horror films; they expose a darker side of humanity, they allow us to explore our fears and some of our dark desires by proxy, without any transgressions on our part.
My own fascination with serial killers led me to My Friend Dahmer, a graphic novel by cartoonist Derf Backderf, which depicts his recollections of his high school classmate, Jeffrey Dahmer. My Friend Dahmer doesn’t just tap into our interest with serial killers, but it also checks off a very specific subset of that fascination: the answer to how someone could do something so heinous. How could Jeffery Dahmer go from awkward teenager to someone who murdered and cannibalized seventeen men? In both the graphic novel and the film adaptation, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, we get some insight into just that.
Ross Lynch does an excellent job of portraying the young Jeffery Dahmer, an awkward loner who collects roadkill in part to satisfy his obsession with “what’s on the inside” and in part to escape his chaotic homelife, where his unstable mother, Joyce (a terrific Anne Heche) is constantly at odds with his father, shunning Jeffrey for his younger brother and acting erratically as a result of mental illness and an addiction to pills. During his senior year of high school, Jeff finally finds himself accepted by a misfit group of nerds, who form The Dahmer Fan Club and encourage him to act out and throw epileptic fits in the hallways of school and in public for laughs.
But the connection, while important, is also superficial and for Jeff it also comes too late. He begins secretly spiraling into darker behavior, obsessing with a neighborhood jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) whom he is sexually attracted to but whom he also wants to harm. Unable to accept or express his sexuality, Jeff begins drinking heavily and giving into his more murderous impulses by harming small animals. As graduation approaches, Jeff finds his life splintering even further, until he finally crosses a line from which there is no return.
My Friend Dahmer is a faithful adaptation of the graphic novel, bringing to life in chilling detail not just the more disturbing behavior that took place in Dahmer’s teen years, but also the very normal experiences as well. As Backderf’s shows in the book’s epilogue, when news of Dahmer’s arrest broke, his wife called to tell him the news and asked him to guess who had been arrested and Jeffrey wasn’t the first person he thought of. It shows us that there are secrets we all hide, hidden layers we keep from even our friends, and how the people we think we know could also be strangers to us.
My Friend Dahmer deftly exposes how terrifying it is to peer into the darker side of humanity and to know how easily it rubs elbows alongside the more mundane. We feel more comfortable thinking of men like Jeffrey Dahmer as relics of the past, allowing time to glaze over the horrors and muddy them until they feel fictional but My Friend Dahmer is a reminder that serial killers are not horror movie villains but they are as real as you or me.