The Jeffrey Dahmer-Hannibal Lecter Connection

Two cannibal serial killers linked by the media.

Posted Sep 29, 2014

One of the most sensationalized and hyped serial killer stories in U.S. history was that of Jeffrey Dahmer, who was framed as the “Milwaukee Cannibal” by the entertainment news media. Dahmer raped, murdered, dismembered and ate seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991 in Wisconsin.

The unrivaled gruesomeness of the case virtually ensured that it would become one of the best known serial homicide stories of all time. Although the crimes took place in Milwaukee, media interest was nation- and worldwide. The New York Times, for example, ran either a half- or full-page feature article on the case for ten consecutive days following Dahmer’s arrest in July 1991.

There were numerous features and interviews on all of the major network television talk shows and news programs such as ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’s 48 Hours. According to news reports in the Milwaukee Journal, an estimated 450 journalists came to Milwaukee to cover the case and the ensuing trial of Dahmer. A common news headline about the killer at the time asked the question, “Jeffrey Dahmer: Man or Monster?”

Shortly after Dahmer’s capture, the front cover of People magazine published on August 12, 1991 read:

"Horror in Milwaukee: He was a quiet man who worked in a chocolate factory. But at home in apartment 213 a real-life “Silence of the Lambs” was unfolding. Now that Jeffrey Dahmer has confessed to 17 grotesque murders, his troubling history of alcoholism, sex offenses and bizarre behavior raises a haunting question: Why wasn’t he stopped?"

Major news and entertainment news media outlets, including People magazine and many others, focused on the cannibalism aspect of Dahmer’s case to reinforce a connection with the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter. The blockbuster film The Silence of the Lambs which starred Anthony Hopkins as Lecter was at the very height of its popularity and cultural impact at exactly the right time for this connection. It had been released to U.S. audiences on January 30, 1991, only six months prior to Dahmer’s capture.

The author E.L. Doctorow argued that “there is no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction, there is only narrative.” This statement is certainly true of the way the news media handled the infamous case of Jeffrey Dahmer. The news media seized upon the cannibalism theme of the Dahmer case and created a connection with the fictional Hannibal Lecter from the highly popular film The Silence of the Lambs.

By linking him to Hannibal Lecter, the news media turned Dahmer into a super villain with enduring consumer appeal. Author and academic scholar Joseph Grixti commented on the social construction of Jeffrey Dahmer’s public identity and its powerful impact on society when he said:

"Jeffrey Dahmer’s elevation to the rank of ambiguous monster-hero in the iconology of contemporary culture… is not restricted to readers of popular “true crime” paperbacks… Accounts involving such figures are very frequent and prominent in the mass media—in news and… a range of popular entertainment. In a sense, such celebrations usher figures like Dahmer into a hall of fame where historical murderers acquire mythical proportions… like Jack the Ripper… Within the popular cultural domains that underlie the construction of this chamber of horrors, boundaries between fact and fiction often tend to become blurred" (1).

The news media dehumanized and sensationalized Jeffrey Dahmer, and presented him as a stylized super predator and cannibal. The vast impact of this particular case is evidenced by the wide appeal of morbid cannibalism-themed jokes and fantasy tales based on Jeffrey Dahmer that remain popular today, despite the fact that he was killed in prison by a fellow inmate in 1994. After Dahmer was beaten to death in prison the cover of People magazine celebrated his demise as the “Death of a Madman.”

As a result of his characterization or framing by the media, Jeffrey Dahmer has become an entertainment commodity and curiosity in the popular culture. There is more than ample evidence to support this conclusion. According to a former neighbor of Dahmer’s in Wisconsin, for example, there are people willing to pay $50 each to sit on a couch that the serial killer gave her and are also willing to pay just to hold a glass that he once drank water from.

Indeed, Jeffrey Dahmer has become a source of popcorn entertainment in the popular culture just like Hannibal Lecter. The news and entertainment media have blurred the distinction between reality (Dahmer) and fiction (Lecter) over the years. The two are now interchangeable in the minds of many people.

The blurring of serial killer facts and fiction has disturbing implications for society which are discussed in the new book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers. To read the reviews and order it now, click:

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(1) Grixti, J. 1995. “Consuming cannibals: Psychopathic killers as archetypes and cultural icons.” Journal of American Culture, 18 (1), p. 87.

Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website