Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


I Need You to Be Dead

Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen were both ordinary people who became quiet killers, merging their sexual excitement over corpses with an intense loneliness that they wanted to alleviate. Exploiting others for their own needs, to the extent that the others had to die, made these men evil.

Former army veteran Dennis Nilsen lived in London and picked up his victims in pubs. As Brian Masters, author of the definitive biography of Nilsen put it, he was "killing for company." His first murder occurred near the end of 1978, which sexually excited him. He strangled the man with a necktie and then placed him beneath the floorboards of his apartment until he could cremate the remains in his garden. He continued to acquire companions in this way, strangling them, bathing the corpses, sometimes taking them to bed, and finally butchering them or storing them in various places in his apartment. Often he flushed parts down the toilet, which eventually proved to be his undoing. When the septic system clogged in the building, an investigation led to Nilsen and he pointed out a closet where police found the dismembered parts of two different men, the head of one with the flesh boiled off. Another torso was found in his tea chest, and he was arrested. He then confessed to killing 15 men over the past five years, partly because the idea of them leaving his apartment made him feel too alone and partly because he simply enjoyed it.

Jeffrey Dahmer (CORBIS)
Jeffrey Dahmer

Similarly, Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, came to the public's attention in July of 1991. He managed to murder 17 men before one potential victim ran away, handcuffed, to get the police. He led police back to the apartment from which he'd just fled and they noticed the smell of decomposition right away. A look inside the refrigerator revealed human heads, intestines, hearts, and kidneys. Around the apartment they found skulls, bones, rotting body parts, bloodstained soup kettles, and complete skeletons. There were three torsos in the tub. Polaroid snapshots showed mutilated bodies, and what was going on there came clear with the discovery of chloroform, electric saws, a barrel of acid, and formaldehyde. Dahmer, a soft-spoken, apparently ordinary man, was killing men and preserving their parts, and then cutting off pieces and dissolving them in acid. In all, investigators were able to find the remains of 11 different men. When Dahmer confessed, he added six more.

Robert Ressler (Louis Myrie/LMI)
Robert Ressler
(Louis Myrie/LMI)

His first murder happened when he was only 18 years old, according to American Justice's "The Mystery of the Serial Killer." His parents had abandoned the family home, going their separate ways, and Dahmer lived there alone for a few weeks. He wanted company, so he went out and spotted an attractive hitchhiker named Steve Hicks. He lured the man home with the promise of getting high. Hicks stayed a few hours and when he decided to leave, Dahmer smashed a barbell against the back of his head and then strangled him. "I didn't know how else to keep him there," he later said during an interview with former FBI profiler Robert Ressler. He discovered that he was aroused by the captivity of another human being, and then when he cut the body into pieces for disposal, he was excited all over again, so he masturbated over the body.

Later he moved in with his grandmother, but felt the compulsion grip him once again. Going to the funeral of a young man, he made plans to go to the cemetery at night and dig up the body, but thwarted in that, he began again to pick up men to bring back to his grandmother's house. There he drugged and strangled them, and then had sex with the corpse. After that he dismembered them. One man he believed he'd beaten to death in a hotel room while intoxicated. To take care of the matter, he simply went out, bought a larger suitcase, packed the body inside, and rolled it out for disposal. While living with his grandmother, he killed four people and cut them up in her basement.

Psychiatrist Park Dietz believes that Dahmer became conditioned toward sexual excitement over corpses from sexual fantasies surrounding the mutilation of dead animals. What might have started as a boy's curiosity about road-kill became a young man's obsession. Killing became a sort of bonding, and Dahmer later claimed that he ate the people he liked in order to make them a part of him.

Then he got his own apartment. In an effort to create zombies to do his bidding, he tried drilling holes into the heads of his unconscious victims and injecting acid or boiling water into their skulls. He also tried to cut off the faces of his victims and to preserve them as masks, but they deteriorated. Even more macabre, he designed an altar made of skulls that he hoped to build one day when he'd killed a sufficient number of men. While he was careless at times, allowing victims to escape, so were the police, who always bought his stories. That allowed Dahmer to get away with murder again and again until he was finally stopped.

When the sole survivor told police about his encounter with Dahmer, he described how Dahmer had seemed to become another person altogether. "It wasn't him anymore," he insisted. "He told me he was going to eat my heart."

Robert Ressler talked with Dahmer for two days in an attempt to learn more about his MO and his motives. He came away with a feeling familiar to him from interviews with other psychopaths, aware that the lives of their victims had been trivialized when compared against their own transient pleasure.

"There's murder and there's murder," Ressler said. "There's the kind of murder that I think the average person can understand as not justified but nevertheless understandable. For example, a man kills someone during a felony. He wants to get away. Or two guys fight in a bar and a knife comes out. There are all sorts of homicides along those lines. But when you get pure unadulterated repetitive homicide with no particular motive in mind and nothing that would make it understandable as a gain, that indicates that you have something above and beyond rational motivation. You just have evil incentive and evil tendencies. I've had the feeling in interviews with these people that there's something beyond what we can comprehend.

"What's different is that there's no rational motivation and when they're stalking people looking for a victim, and capturing them and taking them and locking them upsome of them would keep them for days and weeksthe emotion is gone. It's a cool-headed decision to do all this. It's very methodical. There's no rage and the goal is just to get the victim and use the victim in various ways and then eliminate them.

"Dahmer killed because he was lonely. Well, a lot of people are lonely and they don't kill other people. His solution to his loneliness was to get someone to his house, drug him, kill him, and keep the body for days at a time. Even though his defense was along the lines of insanity, I think in fact he did understand a lot of right from wrong. He went to lengths to conceal what he was doing. He did it in a manner that was designed to keep himself out of harm's way with law enforcement. It was pretty evident that Dahmer knew what he was doing and knew it was wrong, and yet at the same time he had this element of fantasy that drove him to dismember his victims and experiment with them by putting acid into their brains. He went way beyond the realm of what a person could understand."

One perspective on evil that uses Dahmer as a case example is Richard Tithecott's discussion in his book, Of Men and Monsters. He shows Dahmer to be the embodiment of our own social myths. The director of the Office of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Southern California, Tithecott took a good, hard look at how we treat our serial killers in the media. "What sparked my interest initially," he says, "was the media interplay between the Dahmer story and The Silence of the Lambs." He shows how the narratives we construct about our serial killers actually scratch certain cultural itches.

In short, Tithecott explains how the language that we accept to depict our killers helps us to keep cherished cultural mythologies intact. Our idealization of masculinity and our need to keep it virile are the forces behind the impulse to frame the killer in a Gothic narrative: We send in heroes to grab the deviant and set things right.

Dahmerhomosexual, educated, peculiar, and not-quite-maleis the perfect foil. He's supposedly extraordinary, an Unknownsome monster who kills and eats people. We can project onto him plenty of prejudices and fears about the dangerous Unmale Other, and feel justified in granting our law enforcers a Rambo-esque license to do whatever they must. The police become the Hand of a masculinized God, detecting and eradicating evil without the need for sympathy or comprehension. The psychiatric approach is too feminine; it yields no heroic narrative and it's dangerous: Trying to understand the killer risks unraveling valued social structures that make him what he is. We want the sort of action that will reinforce our patriarchal myth, not analysis that might prevent the formation of such monsters.

Yet Dahmer also challenges the narrative. He's not "set apart" in the right ways. There's no obviously abusive family to blame, no way to completely isolate him as being discontinuous with normal, wholesome society. Thus, Tithecott finds him an excellent subject to illustrate how our killers grow out of the culture, not out of some perverse family.

Yet do we really wish to know our complicity? Do we want to be shown that our desire for killers to be utterly savage is nearly as obscene as what he actually does to his victims? That would mean looking at how we run in droves to films that depict such monsters, how we crave every gory detail the media feeds us, and how we applaud Hannibal Lecter's cleverness in ripping off the face of an orderly to disguise himself with the skin. Tithecott claims that we want Dahmer to be like Lecterclever, sane, evilso that the FBI, not psychiatrists, can be matched against him as righteous opponents. Through the language of our narratives, we create a gladiatorial arena in which we see ourselves merely as spectators. That way, we can distance ourselves from that which our own social myths contribute to the killer's perversions. Yet if left intact, those norms will only ensure a repetition of the same.

Thus, evil is cultural and it serves a certain psychological function that we can't dispense with. It will continue. And just as Dahmer and Nilsen viewed their victims as nonentities who could serve a function in their lives, so do other killers believe that those they target are destined for roles in their particular games. Ted Bundy was one of these.


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