Illustration by Marlowe Pody for an article on Jeffrey Dahmer

Into the Forensic Psychology of Jeffrey Dahmer and His Crimes

Now that the series 'Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story' is cleared for production, the serial killer is once again being talked about. What was behind his gruesome acts of brutality?
October 25, 2020
9 mins read

After the success of his Netflix series “Ratched,” Ryan Murphy, known for creating and producing “American Horror Story” and “Pose,” has been cleared for another Netflix limited series called “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Nellie Andreeva from Deadline wrote that “Monster” will focus on the victims’ perspectives and that “the series dramatizes at least 10 instances where Dahmer was almost apprehended but ultimately let go.” It will also touch on how his white privilege and charisma elicited lenient treatment from law enforcement. Many other films have been made about Dahmer, most recently 2017’s “My Friend Dahmer” starring Ross Lynch as the infamous serial killer.

There has been a gruesome fascination around Dahmer since the news of his crimes came out in 1991 following his arrest.

He had gotten away numerous times prior to his capture, even tricking the police into believing that a 14-year-old boy he molested was his adult boyfriend with whom he was arguing. He drilled a hole inside the boy’s head and injected hydrochloric acid into his brain. The boy escaped while Dahmer purchased alcohol and spoke to three women while he was naked and bleeding. The police handed the boy back to him, believing Dahmer’s lie, and he killed the boy shortly after returning to his apartment.

Over the course of 13 years, Dahmer killed 17 young men — most of whom were LGBTQ+ Black and Asian men. The knowledge of these horrifying crimes leads people to question both the reliability of law enforcement and Dahmer’s psychological state.

So, how do law and psychology collide in Dahmer’s gruesome and complicated case?

Daniel Goleman wrote in The New York Times that Eric Tyson, a neighbor of his, said “Neighbors had also found frogs and cats impaled or staked to trees, and knew that young Dahmer kept animal skeletons in a backyard shed, near his pet cemetery.”

Goleman further noted that “For forensic psychiatrists, such a fascination with death and cruelty to animals is an almost predictable sign in the lives of people accused of being serial killers.”

On the day of his arrest, Dahmer’s victim escaped naked and handcuffed, after being drugged and assaulted. After finding the police, they walked into Dahmer’s apartment finding “partially skeletonized bodies in a 55-gallon drum, seven skulls, large muscle filets and desiccated male genitals.” Jentzen noted that “the evaluation of the scene allowed investigators to establish methods of death, begin the preliminary identification process, and demonstrate the deteriorating mental capacity of the assailant.”

Goleman brought up that “the most striking emotional theme in Mr. Dahmer’s life is his dread of being abandoned and alone,” especially after his parents divorced. “Mr. Dahmer told the police that these fantasies overcame his feelings of frustration and emptiness.” This feeling of loneliness was the probable source of his crimes. Performing lobotomies to make zombie-like men, preserving the corpses, saving body parts as souvenirs and cannibalizing his victims all allowed Dahmer to keep the men with him.

In an interview with “Inside Edition,” Dahmer discussed his crimes in a calm, matter-of-fact manner: “If I couldn’t keep them there with me whole, I, at least, felt I could keep their skeletons.” He also divulged that he “de-sensitized” himself to the crimes, which suggests he had moral comprehension of them. This means that his actions bothered him substantially enough that he had to remove his emotional response.

Ted Cahill, who wrote about serial killer John Gacy, mentioned that Dahmer’s extreme homosexual denial also contributed to his crimes: “We’re dealing with some of the same dynamics that we can see in Gacy: the dysfunctional family, a guy who denies his homosexual feelings to erase whatever shame he might feel in committing these acts, who destroys the people who attracted him in the first place.” His internalized homophobia could have played a part in his violent acts against the men he deemed sexually attractive.

Dahmer waived his Miranda rights, and during his interrogation, he confessed to all of his crimes. He told “Inside Edition,” “There was no point in trying to hide my actions anymore. The best route was to help the police identify all of the victims and make a complete confession.”

Many forensic psychologists were called upon to analyze Dahmer’s case. Their opinions on whether or not he was legally insane were divided. In order to use the insanity defense and be not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), a defendant, by law in Wisconsin, must “[lack] substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her conduct or conform his or her conduct to the requirements of law” as a result of a mental defect. This means that Dahmer, due to a mental illness, had to not understand the wrongfulness of his crimes and not have had any control over his actions.

Despite the many diagnoses from the psychologists, including borderline personality disorder, substance use disorder, psychotic disorder, schizotypal personality disorder and necrophilia, he was not found NGRI. This was due to his comprehension of the legal and moral wrongfulness of his acts and the steps he took to hide his crimes, as well as his tendency to plan the murders beforehand, proving the crimes were not impulsive and uncontrollable acts.

Dahmer drank frequently throughout his life, finding himself dependent on alcohol. Being under the influence does not render someone legally insane due to its voluntary nature. Dahmer choosing to drink before his killings proves he had control over his actions. If you can make the decision to drink, you can also make the decision to not drink.

He was found guilty and given 16 life sentences. For one of the 17 victims, Dahmer had no memory of killing him in the hotel room he coaxed him into; he had only intended on drugging and sexually assaulting the victim. However, he woke up to the dead body, beaten and bruised. Investigators never found a body, murder weapon or other supporting evidence, so he was never found guilty despite his confession.

Dahmer’s case has caught the attention of many storytellers and directors over the past three decades because of the intricacy of his psychological state and how he was able to kill for 13 years without law enforcement finding out. He is one of the most monstrous and well-known serial killers in the United States, and his crimes will continue to evoke disgust and fear, as well as sympathy for the victims and their families. While the nightmare caused by Jeffrey Dahmer ended with his death by fellow inmate Christopher Scarver in 1994, his story lives on in hopes of better understanding the mind of a serial killer, in order to prevent similar crimes from happening.

Samantha Havela, University of Michigan

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Samantha Havela

University of Michigan
English and Women’s & Gender Studies

Samantha Havela is a passionate senior studying English and Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. She loves writing almost as much as she loves her dog.

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