‘I stared into the abyss of evil’: What Joe Berlinger learnt when making Netflix’s new Jeffrey Dahmer documentary

‘People do wonderful things and terrible things,’ director Joe Berlinger says  (Netflix © 2022)
‘People do wonderful things and terrible things,’ director Joe Berlinger says (Netflix © 2022)

I literally stared into the abyss of evil and saw things most people shouldn’t see.” So Joe Berlinger, the director behind Netflix’s new Jeffrey Dahmer documentary, tells me over Zoom one sunny autumn afternoon. He is bespectacled with a grey beard and an avuncular whiff of Mandy Patinkin about him.

Through those glasses, Berlinger has seen more than his fair share of things most people shouldn’t. Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, is out this Friday. It comes, very intentionally, two weeks after Ryan Murphy’s controversial dramatisation of events – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, starring Evan Peters – hit the streaming platform. The Dahmer Tapes rounds off a trilogy of serial killer documentaries Berlinger has released over the past three years. His first subject was the most famous – the “charming” murderer, Ted Bundy. Then came John Wayne Gacy, another nightmarish American killer who sometimes dressed as a clown when butchering his victims. And now Dahmer, a sick predator who drugged, killed and defiled 17 predominately gay men and boys of colour between 1978 and 1991. For each series, Berlinger has pored over tens, if not hundreds, of hours of interviews and crime scene footage of the most harrowing nature. The obvious question to me is: why?

Each series has drawn a healthy ladle of the same, tired criticism against “glamourising” heinous criminals. None more so than when Berlinger simultaneously directed former Disney star Zac Efron as Bundy in the 2019 thriller film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and released his documentary about the killer. “As much as it seemed like I had this big master plan to own Bundy in 2019, all that was super coincidental,” he says. When I ask if he’s relieved not to be facing viewers’ wrath for the scripted series this time around, Berlinger tells me he’s intentionally avoided watching Murphy’s show: “I don’t want to be asked and I don’t want to give my opinion on somebody else’s work on the same subject.” He will, however, speak to the general criticism directors like him and Murphy have faced for dramatising abhorrent events. “I know there are a lot of people who say, ‘Why are we always doing these shows?’ Well, if you do them in the right way, there are really compelling reasons to do these as a cautionary tale,” he says. For 10 minutes, I listen, offering no counter as he quietly tirades against an invisible detractor. “There’s a difference between humanising and romanticising,” he argues. “To dismiss these people as monsters is to do a disservice to the dilemma of the human condition… It’s too easy to say, oh, he’s a monster. What’s scarier is to say, no, this person’s a three-dimensional human being.”

The director is convinced that his 30-year career in true crime has served a vital purpose. It has certainly had a major impact on several lives. In 1996, Berlinger and his collaborator Bruce Sinofsky released Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills – the first in a trilogy of films spanning 15 years about the case of the West Memphis Three, three teenage youths accused of the murder and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys in 1993. It was a catalytic masterpiece of documentary-making – earning the pair an Oscar nod – and led to the eventual release of the condemned young men 18 years after their imprisonment, as renewed media attention highlighted the lack of evidence and police failings in the case. With Paradise Lost, Berlinger blew the door open for a tidal wave of imitators – some good, many bad – that have come to saturate the true-crime market. “Certainly, there’s irresponsible work in this category,” he admits, “but there is just a knee-jerk negative reaction to these shows… I just keep moving forward.”

His most recent work, however, lacks the aspect that made Paradise Lost so compelling: a cause. The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes has the same sheen as his last two documentaries. This is no shoestring budget, Channel 5, six o’clock romp. But it still feels slightly aimless in comparison. As Wisconsin detectives remove severed, human heads from Dahmer’s freezer, it’s hard not to wonder: Why would anyone watch this? Justice was served with Dahmer’s imprisonment and, some would argue, his death at the hands of another prisoner in 1994. What is there to gain? Like most serial killer documentaries, its finer moments come when the camera turns away from the murderous subject. “When I first went in to see him, it was a very small interview room,” Dahmer’s attorney Wendy Patrickus, who was just 25 years old when she took on the assignment, says in the programme. “There was Jeff sitting in the corner of the table. I was incredibly nervous, because this is something that I felt was way over my head... I felt like Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.”

Patrickus acts as the kind of supporting actor in the show, her young voice warbling up with questions for Dahmer in their interviews together, the answers to which were vital in identifying many of his victims. “In our patriarchal way of telling stories, [Patrickus] has never been given any credit,” Berlinger says. The documentarian argues that by looking at the Dahmer case through a “2022 lens”, he’s able to shine a light on those whom history has skimmed over, and the patriarchal thinking, racism and homophobia that helped the killer thrive for as long as he did.

The series’ most striking moment comes when two young Black women call the police on Dahmer after 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone runs into the street from the killer’s apartment, drugged, wounded and naked. Despite the overwhelming physical evidence glaring the police in the face, Dahmer is able to convince the officers that the Laotian boy is his adult boyfriend, and is allowed to take him back into the very prison from which he’s just escaped. The police neglect to search his bedroom, which has a dead body lying in it, and leave Dahmer to torture and kill Sinthasomphone that same night. “It was an era where racial biases and homophobia actually had a direct impact on how these cases were solved or not solved,” Berlinger says. “I feel good about framing the show through a social justice lens of racial bias, homophobia and female empowerment.”

Joe Berlinger (left) and his ‘Extremely Wicked’ star, Zac Efron (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Joe Berlinger (left) and his ‘Extremely Wicked’ star, Zac Efron (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Dahmer was finally arrested in 1992 after 32-year-old Tracy Edwards managed to flee his captor’s apartment in handcuffs and alert authorities, who found the property full of various human body parts. He was sentenced to fifteen terms of life imprisonment and killed two years later by an inmate who beat him over the head with a barbell. It was, arguably, the outcome Dahmer wanted. The documentary subtly alludes to the idea that the killer fought to be put into the prison’s general population in order to be knocked off. “I told him, ‘Please don’t do this, you’re not gonna make it,’” Patrickus recalls. A detective later remembers being told that Dahmer didn’t defend himself against his assailant. It’s this desire for atonement that Berlinger finds most fascinating: “People will disagree and go crazy when I say this, but he shows signs of remorse.” While the “typical serial killer” denies or lies about their crimes until the very end, he says, Dahmer was cooperative with police from the moment he was caught. “In fact, he went out of his way to give information to help police solve the IDs of victims. I mean, that is highly unusual,” Berlinger says. “And to me, that’s a clue that somewhere in there is a complex human being who understood what he was doing is wrong.” Though Dahmer is certainly cooperative, it’s hard to tell how much is remorse and how much is him wishing to understand why he did what he did. As Dahmer himself tells Patrickus in one of their haunting conversations, “I didn’t seem to have the normal feelings of empathy.” It’s hard to have remorse without empathy. In a TV interview conducted in 1993, Dahmer admitted that if he was released, he’d probably continue killing: “I can’t think of anything that would have stopped me.”

‘Conversations With A Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes’ (Netflix © 2022)
‘Conversations With A Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes’ (Netflix © 2022)

Berlinger believes we shouldn’t shy away from studying serial killers just as we don’t shy away from covering any of life’s more disturbing aspects. “People do wonderful things and terrible things,” he says, pointing out that “depending on which study you believe” there are eight to 25 serial killers at large in the United States right now. “We wouldn’t not do films about greed or cruelty or sexual assault or kindness or love or adultery… All aspects of the human condition are ripe for storytelling as long as you do it responsibly.”

He made this documentary, he says, as a cautionary tale – not only for those who “blindly trust people”, but also for “for those who might be afflicted with mental illness”.  “Because if somebody along the way…” he says, thinking, “if Dahmer had got to the right people, maybe the outcome would have been different”. He knows he will be criticised for humanising Dahmer, but he can’t help it. “I think he’s the most human of the troika that I’ve done shows about.”

‘Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes’ is out now on Netflix