Jeffrey Dahmer is a household name in the worst of ways. Now the infamous serial killer is back in the limelight.
The biopic My Friend Dahmer gained notoriety after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21. The film is based on a graphic novel of the same name by one of Dahmer’s childhood friends and tells the story of a misunderstood high school-aged Dahmer who struggles with fitting in and accepting his own sexuality.
Critics largely praised the film from a storytelling perspective, calling it a “‘sensitive’ prequel to the madness to come” and “disturbingly compelling and original.”
But from afar the concept of My Friend Dahmer has some pretty strange, potentially dangerous connotations.
The most notable of these stems from the casting of Ross Lynch in the title role. At 21, Lynch is best known to Disney Channel fans, for starring in both Austin and Ally and Teen Beach Movie.
Disney Channel actors aren’t bound to appease their tween audiences forever, and plenty of former Disney Channel actors quickly distanced themselves from tween show typecasting — just ask Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus or Zac Efron.
But the decision to cast Lynch, even if he does bear a striking resemblance to the real-life Dahmer, is uncomfortably mainstream. You can hide him behind glasses and a pretty unfortunate ’70s haircut, but that doesn’t erase the fact that his face is continuously plastered all over Tiger Beat and J-14. Casting a guy best known for a film called Teen Beach Movie will undoubtedly bring the project to the attention of adolescent fan girls. The danger comes when they blindly idolize the actor in a role that should never be idolized.
This premise is dangerous for the same reasons putting the Boston bomber on the cover of Rolling Stone is a bad idea and the same reason 13 Reasons Why has been heavily scrutinized for its graphic depiction of suicide. Some argue it encourages copycat behavior and sends a message that horrible actions are ultimately worth it because the legacy will last forever.
Of course, a movie about Dahmer brings up topics such as mental health and sexuality, which should receive more attention. Putting them in a movie is a great way to start a conversation. But so many other stories could be given attention instead — ones that don’t surround serial killers or suggest that the only outcome for someone struggling with mental health is a life of destruction.
Plus, this is far from the first time Dahmer’s life has been adapted for the big screen. Dahmer (2002) starred Jeremy Renner as an adult in a biopic. In 2010, an action comedy, Dahmer vs. Gacy, explored the bizarre premise of combining the DNA of the world’s most infamous killers. The 2012 documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files explored his life through both archived footage and fictionalized scenes. And those are just the more popular Dahmer flicks.
The best-case scenario is that people go see the film and walk away with a greater understanding of mental health issues. Maybe it’ll create a new wave of teens who are sensitive to each other’s individual struggles.
His story is clearly one that fascinates, fitting solidly into the recent interest in serial killer documentaries and murder podcasts. But it’s difficult to see this film doing anything past Dahmer films haven’t, other than the worrisome reiteration that the best way to get one’s voice heard is through terrible, unthinkable acts.