I won't disappear: How Ryan Murphy's "Monster" turns Dahmer victims into people – but is it enough?

"Monster" Episode 6 centers the story of Tony Hughes — a Black, deaf and mute model killed by Jeffrey Dahmer

By Kelly McClure

Nights & Weekends Editor

Published September 29, 2022 4:01PM (EDT)

Rodney Burford as Tony Hughes in episode 106 of Dahmer. Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Courtesy Of Netflix)
Rodney Burford as Tony Hughes in episode 106 of Dahmer. Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Courtesy Of Netflix)

When Ryan Murphy first announced that he'd be adding the story of Jeffrey Dahmer to his chamber of horrors alongside a new season of "American Horror Story" and upcoming miniseries, "The Watcher," the gut check first reaction from many was to question, "Why?" 

Dahmer's cannibalistic killing-spree — in which he primarily preyed upon gay men of color in Wisconsin between the years 1978 and 1991 — has already been told in gruesome detail via umpteen documentaries, movies, true crime books and even comic books. The question of why "Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story" needed to be added to that list was, and is, a valid one. And Murphy offers what he sees as a valid answer. This latest retelling, which stars "AHS" alum Evan Peters as Dahmer, uses Murphy's near formulaic skill for curating horror to shift the focus away from the killer and tell the stories of the people he killed in a way that's never been done quite this effectively before. 

Unlike other "Milwaukee Cannibal" vehicles such as "My Friend Dahmer," "The Jeffrey Dahmer Files" and "Dahmer," just to name a few, "Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story" shows Dahmer's 17 victims as more that just body parts in a fridge or pieces left to dissolve into nothing within big plastic tubs. Here we're given the chance to see these men when they were living and laughing and breathing, not just as distant screams in the background of Jeff's story. And no episode from this limited series is a better example of how Murphy and his team set out to accomplish this than Episode 6, "Silenced."

While all of the other nine episodes of "Monster" introduce the men that Dahmer killed on or near the day they died, the Paris Barclay-directed "Silenced" takes us all the way back to 1960 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to witness the birth of Anthony (Tony) Hughes. Shortly after his birth, Tony's mom Shirley (Karen Malina White) is informed that an antibiotic called Gentamicin that was used to treat a bout of pneumonia caused him to have permanent hearing loss, then we're shown how he grew into an adult – played by deaf actor Rodney Burford – who refused to see that as any sort of roadblock to his dreams. 

In just about every serial killer documentary you can name there's always a nurture/nature angle where a medical professional is brought on screen to tell "why" a person became a killer. In John Wayne Gacy's case; getting hit in the head with a swing is said to have had something to do with it. David Berkowitz (aka The Son of Sam) and Richard Ramirez were also said to have suffered severe head injuries as children that are attributed to their penchant for murder. In Dahmer's case, no reason is hinted at other than childhood loneliness and a love for sucking down cheap booze. After his arrest, he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder and a psychotic disorder, conveniently timed with his lawyer's attempt to have him found unable to stand trial, but the judge wasn't having it. Dahmer targeted and killed men who had every obstacle life had to offer stacked up against them while he, even if just subconsciously, relied on his privilege as a white man to evade police scrutiny for years. 

According to Murphy's "Monster," which remains relatively true to the events as they took place, but not 100%, Tony first met Dahmer after returning to his home town of Milwaukee after breaking out on his own to pursue modeling in Madison, just under 80 miles away. Tony has a small group of supportive friends, several who are deaf themselves, but he's feeling unlucky in love, having a hard time meeting a man who won't run away the minute they learn that he's deaf. Unfortunately for Tony, Dahmer ends up being that man. 

Breaking from his norm of luring men to his apartment with money or booze and then drugging and killing them, here Dahmer is shown to fall into a brief relationship with Tony before ending his life. In reality, Dahmer and Tony knew each other for a year or more before the killing took place, according to witness reports in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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Even the most casual fan of true crime can likely rattle off the name of the street that Gacy lived on when he killed 33 young men and buried them under his house, or the make and model of the car that Ted Bundy drove when he hunted down women to kill them. Before "Monster," how many could have named even one of Dahmer's victims? 

We're spared having to witness the actual act of Tony being killed in "Silenced," but seeing him dance, have dinner with his family, hear from his sister Barbara that she's pregnant with a niece he'll never meet; a niece she plans to name Tony, saves this series from being just another retelling of Dahmer's story. It gives Tony, and the other men who died by Dahmer's hand before, and after him, a name. 

As for Dahmer's other victims who are not given a stand-alone episode in the way that Tony is, a woman named Glenda Cleveland lived the later part of her life in their memory. Played by Niecy Nash in "Monster," Glenda lived next door to Dahmer in the Oxford Apartments at 924 North 25th Street in Milwaukee where Dahmer killed the vast majority of his victims. On a now infamous night in 1991 she attempted to warn police about Dahmer's attempt to kill 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, but they personally led the boy right back to Dahmer's door. He was killed almost immediately after they left. Up until Glenda's death in 2011 she fought ceaselessly to have the former site of the Oxford Apartments made into a memorial park for Dahmer's victims, but it never happened. Whereas she was only recognized with small plaques for her bravery and a few pats on the back for her efforts, John Balcerzak, one of the cops who walked Konerak back to his death, was elected president of the Milwaukee Police Association. 

Despite these efforts to humanize Dahmer's victims and call attention to the homophobia and racism exhibited by police, "Monster" has received considerable backlash. Some families of the victims have claimed that they were blindsided by certain portrayals or that watching the series was retraumatizing. However, the series is currently at No. 1 on Netflix despite the controversies, and the heartbreaking "Silenced" in particular has struck a chord with viewers.

In Tony's last scene in the series, he writes a note to Dahmer to soothe his visible anxieties over him leaving. The note reads, "I won't disappear," which is as much a message to the man in front of him as it is to us. 

By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is a journalist and fiction writer who lives in New Orleans. She is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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