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Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story creator Ryan Murphy said he and his team reached out to 20 victims’ families and friends during the three and a half years it took to research and prepare for the Netflix series about the serial killer.
“It’s something that we researched for a very long time,” Murphy said at an event for the show at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles on Thursday. “And we — over the course of the three, three and a half years when we were really writing it, working on it — we reached out to 20, around 20, of the victims’ families and friends trying to get input, trying to talk to people. And not a single person responded to us in that process. So we relied very, very heavily on our incredible group of researchers who — I don’t even know how they found a lot of this stuff. But it was just like a night and day effort to us trying to uncover the truth of these people.”
Between 1978 and 1991, Dahmer gruesomely murdered 17 men. According to the show’s description, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a series that exposes these unconscionable crimes, centered around the underserved victims and their communities impacted by the systemic racism and institutional failures of the police that allowed one of America’s most notorious serial killers to continue his murderous spree in plain sight for over a decade.” Despite the stated goal, the show has been criticized for the heavy focus on Dahmer’s horrifying behavior and framing of the victims’ stories.
Additionally, the series has received backlash from victims’ families, some of whom have accused the streamer and the team of not reaching out to them. Rita Isbell, sister of Errol Lindsey, who was murdered by Dahmer at age 19, criticized the streaming giant for profiting off the tragic story. Shirley Hughes, the mother of Tony Hughes, who had a relationship with Dahmer before he was murdered, said the series dramatized her son’s story. But Murphy and Paris Barclay, who directed episodes six and 10, said that the show was about showing the victims as more than a statistic.
“Something that we talked a lot in the making of it is we weren’t so much interested in Jeffrey Dahmer, the person, but what made him the monster that he became,” Murphy explained. “We talked a lot about that … and we talked about it all the time. It’s really about white privilege. It’s about systemic racism. It’s about homophobia.”
Barclay added: “We really want it to be about celebrating these victims. When Tony writes, ‘I won’t disappear,’ on that last card, that’s what this show is about. It’s about making sure these people are not erased by history and that they have a place and that they’re recognized and that they were important and that they lived full lives. And they came from all sorts of different places, but they were real people.”
He continued, “They weren’t just numbers. They weren’t just pictures on billboards and telephone poles. They were real people with loving families, breathing, living, hoping. That’s what we wanted it to be about.”
Rodney Burford plays Tony Hughes in the show, and through an interpreter said, “You see that Dahmer is just killing people left and right, with no feelings, no remorse. But then, however, Tony shows up. He’s deaf, he’s Black, like, all odds are against him. But yet, Jeff took a liking to him compared to other people, and they created a connection. I had Evan [Peters], and I had everyone supporting me, so seeing that reflected on Netflix was beautiful.”
Niecy Nash, who plays Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer’s neighbor who on many occasions tried to alert police about Dahmer’s murders but was always ignored, questioned why no memorial had been set up for the victims.
“Anything that we could do to get that to happen, you know, I would even be happy to pay for it myself,” Murphy said. “I do think there should be something. And we’re trying to get a hold of people to talk about that. I think there’s some resistance because they think the park would attract people who are interested in paying homage to the macabre … but I think something should be done.”
Peters and Murphy had previously worked together on American Horror Story, and Peters had expressed that he wanted to play someone “normal” and maybe do a rom-com, Murphy explained. He said that after auditioning around 100 people for the part of Dahmer, he went to Peters with the script: “He called me the next day, and he said, ‘It’s so challenging. It’s so difficult that I kind of have to say yes to it, even though I’m terrified of it.'”
Peters chimed in about his process of encompassing Dahmer, saying he read all the books and articles about the killer as well as psychological reports, confessions and timelines “in an attempt to try to understand why he did what he did, and the struggle that he had with it.”
He added: “Then the physicality of it, which I know was going to be so hard. He has a lot of external things from the way that he walks, he doesn’t move his arms when he walks and talks. And so I did a lot of research on watching him and seeing how he moved and working with weights on my arms, wearing wardrobe, all sorts of things that I would carry with me throughout the day to try to stay in it, so it would be second nature. And then I created a 45-minute audio composite, which I listened to every day to try to get his dialect and how he spoke and really try to understand why he did what he did or what his mindset was.”
Peters was so deeply immersed in the process that Nash said she didn’t even really get to know the actor on set.
“I didn’t get to know Evan, because Evan stayed in his process,” Nash said. “So, you know, being his nosy neighbor, and a thorn in his flesh, we didn’t really get to connect. I think maybe we said good morning twice? Because I forced it on him … I realized, [I have to] stay in my lane because I did not want to upset your process and what you needed to do to stay where you needed to stay.”
The show reached the No. 1 spot on Netflix in its first week of release, and Murphy said that sometime in the next few days, it will pass 1 billion hours streamed.
“I have no idea how this became a phenomenon,” Nash said. “But what I do hope is that wherever her spirit lives in the universe, that Glenda Cleveland finally feels heard.”
Netflix screened episode six of the show prior to the Q&A. Writer David McMillan was seated in the audience.
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