The Jeffrey Dahmer Case: A Look into the Psychology and Criminal Typology of a Serial Killer

It is an indisputable fact about modern society that when an individual does gruesome or horrific things, it captures the attention of the populace. While many people blame the media for sensationalizing crimes like rapes and murders to the point that some of the worst criminals become pseudo-celebrities, the fact is that the news media generally shows what reflects the interests of society. Thus, the question must be posed, why are the most violent and disturbed criminal offenders so captivating to others? The answer undoubtedly has to do with the intrigue of a murderer’s psychological state.

One can’t help but speculate what kind of psychological maladies afflicted someone to the point that they would be driven to commit such terrible acts.

For these reasons, Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most well-known murderers in all of history. (Kocsis, 2008) Researchers, academics, and average citizens alike have long speculated on the mental health of Dahmer and exactly what disorders he might have had at the time of his killings.

(Tithecott, 1997) With all of this in mind, the following paper will explore the case of Jeffrey Dahmer in-depth, focusing on his psychology, his criminal typology, and overall outcomes.

Jeffrey Dahmer was found guilty for the murders (among other crimes) of seventeen boys and men between the years of 1978 and 1991, when he was arrested. His first murder occurred just weeks after he graduated from high school. Living alone in his parent’s house for a period after their fresh divorce, Dahmer picked up a hitchhiker and lured him back to the empty house promising alcohol.

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Once there, Dahmer bludgeoned the hitchhiker to death. Dahmer did not murder again for another nine years.

However, in the meantime, Dahmer discovered his homosexuality and gained a habit of drugging his male partners to have sex with their unconscious bodies. Dahmer committed his subsequent murders largely by luring gay males, many of whom were prostitutes, back to his place of residence, promising money, alcohol, or sex. Most of these victims Dahmer killed by first sedating them to the point of unconsciousness and then strangling them. Dahmer would perform sexual acts on his victims, both before and after death. To get rid of the bodies, Dahmer usually dismembered the bodies, often dissolving their flesh in acid, and often saving part of the body as trophies or self-described “masturbation devices.” (Tithecott, 1997)

Throughout Dahmer’s murderous years, he had several run-ins with the law. Most notably, one of Dahmer’s victims, a fourteen-year-old, had escaped from his apartment. Dahmer discovered this upon walking back to his apartment and finding his would-be victim surrounded by three hysterical women. When the police arrived, Dahmer calmly explained the boy was his boyfriend, and his half-sedated state could be explained by alcohol consumption. Despite the insistent protests of the women, the police walked the boy back to Dahmer’s apartment. The two officers noticed a terrible smell coming from Dahmer’s apartment, but only investigated briefly, completely failing to see the other human body decomposing in his apartment. (Tithecott, 1997)

Dahmer was finally arrested when one of Dahmer’s would-be victims punched Dahmer and escaped, waving down two officers. The officers went back to the apartment and upon further questioning, found several human body parts, including an entire human head in Dahmer’s refrigerator. (Tithecott, 1997)

Upon arrest, Dahmer waived his right to a lawyer, and gave interviews to the police totaling over sixty hours, during which he confessed to all of the murders in explicit detail. Upon being questioned as to why he preserved skulls and skeletons of his victims, Dahmer explained he intended to create an altar of his victims, from which he would derive power. (Tithecott, 1997) Because Dahmer readily admitted guilt, the trial’s primary legal issue was whether or not Dahmer could be certified insane as a legal defense. (Kocsis, 2008) Most of the expert witnesses testified they believed Dahmer to have borderline personality disorder, but his murders were the result of great planning.

Furthermore, Dahmer’s need to drink alcohol prior the killings demonstrated his sanity, according to the prosecution, since it was used to overcome his inhibitions about killing others. The trial court found Dahmer sane, and sentenced him to multiple life sentences, as the death penalty was not an option at this time. (Kocsis, 2008)

Dahmer’s childhood was characterized by a tense home life. Dahmer’s mother was extremely attention-seeking and because of her constant efforts to consume her husband’s attention, Dahmer was neglected. (Tithecott, 1997) He was described as a reserved and quiet child, although he had a small group of friends. As a child, Dahmer took a special interest in collecting insects and animals, often going so far as to collect and dismember road kill. A childhood friend recalls Dahmer once impaling a dog’s head on a stake. Dahmer’s father later explained that the normally apathetic Dahmer had an unusual fascination with animal bones, once having an in-depth conversation with his father about how to bleach and preserve animal bones. (Tithecott, 1997)

In high school, Dahmer discovered his homosexuality and he would later report that this is when he began to fantasize about having extreme control over another’s unconscious body in a sexual context. At the age of 16, Dahmer planned to bludgeon and have intercourse with a male classmate by attacking him on his jogging route, but the classmate didn’t take his normal route on the day Dahmer planned to attack him, and Dahmer did not recreate the attack. (Kocsis, 2008) Dahmer was diagnosed multiple times with borderline personality disorder, which largely coexists with antisocial personality disorder. (Kocsis, 2008) Dahmer had very instable relationships and a skewed self-image, reporting feeling alienation from the rest of society and self.

Following his arrest, Dahmer took a psychological test that determined he was both sane and capable of determining the difference between right and wrong. (Tithecott, 1997) Some researchers have proposed that Dahmer’s borderline personality disorder caused him to project his feelings of self-hatred about his homosexuality onto his victims. (Kocsis, 2008)

According to Robert O’Hare’s revised psychopathy checklist, Dahmer can be compared to all four factors of psychopathy. Dahmer’s lack of empathy and general lack of guilt as evidenced by his repeat offending characterize the affective factor. Dahmer’s lack of realistic life goals, in addition to his parasitic behavior of living off of his grandmother are characteristic of the lifestyle factor of psychopathy. (DeLisi, 2013) The interpersonal factor was demonstrated by Dahmer’s inability to form stable personal relationships, and his exploitation of others’ through pretending to be nice and charismatic. The final and fourth factor of psychopathy, the antisocial factor, was shown through Dahmer’s repeated contact with police for a wide variety of crimes throughout his life. (DeLisi, 2013) In addition, he had difficulty conforming to societal norms.

From this analysis, it is clear that a number of factors, psychological, cognitive, behavioral, and societal may have contributed to Dahmer’s behavior. One research article posited a possible link between Dahmer’s loneliness throughout his life and his eventual sadistic behavior. (Martens, 2011) Other researchers have proposed that Dahmer had Asperger’s disorder, which contributed to his murderous behavior. (Saborsky and Ramsland, 2013)

However, one article directly refutes the accuracy of these types of diagnoses, arguing that correct diagnoses are impossible due to the distance of the diagnosis (lack of firsthand diagnosis). (Saborsky and Ramsland, 2013) It is not exactly clear which aspects of Dahmer had the largest effects on his serial killing outcomes. It is clear that Dahmer’s interests and behavior from an early age indicate a possible genetic predisposition to violence and psychopathy. (Kocsis, 2008) His struggles with his own homosexuality (arguably a genetic factor) also contributed to his violent behavior.

Dahmer’s troubled home life and lack of interpersonal relationships throughout his upbringing likely also resulted in his criminal tendencies. It seems, based on all of this information, that rather than one single factor resulting in Dahmer’s murderous behavior, that it was a perfect storm of internal and external influences that created this extremely disturbed individual.

Dahmer can easily be characterized as a serial murderer. Dahmer committed his crimes over a long period of time, rather than all at once. As mentioned above, nine years passed between Dahmer’s first and second killings. Between his murders, Dahmer conducted many normal adult activities, such as having jobs and paying for his own apartment. (Kocsis, 2008) As is typical with many serial killers, Dahmer’s crimes were heavily interrelated with sexual gratification. (DeLisi, 2013)

The serial murderer typology is heavily associated with psychopathy. (Kocsis, 2008) As discussed above, Dahmer fits many of the primary criteria for psychopathy. These psychological factors played a large role in determining whether or not to grant Dahmer the insanity defense. (Kocsis, 2008) Despite Dahmer’s clear typological fit, the court determined the insanity defense was not applicable, as stated above.

People with certain mental disorders are afforded certain protections in the criminal justice system. The insanity defense and the laws surrounding this defense are constantly evolving as new cases and new circumstances are interpreted by the criminal justice system. (Kocsis, 2008) One of the largest reforms in the insanity defense occurred with the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which shifted the burden of proof of insanity from the prosecution to the defense. (Tithecott, 1997)

As stated above, Dahmer had borderline personality disorder, which likely directly contributed to his behavior. Dahmer has highly instable personal relationships with friends and family. Furthermore, Dahmer had issues with his self-image and his behavior throughout his life was characterized by impulsivity and a disregard for societal norms and the wellbeing of others. (Kocsis, 2008)

Jeffrey Dahmer is easily classified as a serial murderer based on his patterns of criminal behavior in addition with his ability to still maintain a normal public appearance and participate (albeit at minimal levels) in normal society. That being said, many of Dahmer’s behaviors were highly indicative of sexual predation. (Kocsis, 2008) In fact, Dahmer’s primary motivation and fantasies about his crimes were concerned with performing sexual acts on a completely subservient, emotionless, and unresponsive, albeit alive, victim. (Tithecott, 1997)

Throughout this case examination, the insanity defense has been touched on several times. Jeffrey Dahmer was not found to be insane for the purposes of a criminal trial. (Kocsis, 2008) Thus, his guilty plea was accepted and Dahmer was convicted just as any other criminal would have been. In order to fully explore how important and complex this issue is to the criminal justice system, both sides of the ethical argument must be explored.

The first perspective which will be explored concerns why the insanity defense exists in the first place. The reasons for the insanity defense go back to the Code of Hammurabi. (Fontaine, 2012) It concerns the idea that one who is incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions, or unable to control their own actions, should not be subject to the same punishments as a logical, mentally present individual. (Fontaine, 2012) This is the same reason that the criminal justice system usually doesn’t prosecute juvenile offenders, as they are viewed as lacking the mental capacity to commit such a heinous crime with full knowledge of the consequences of the situation. (Fontaine, 2012)

In this same way, those who are insane are viewed as sick, and needing of some sort of rehabilitation. This is why those who successfully plead the insanity defense are assigned to treatment facilities. To punish these individuals for their crimes is seen as akin to punishing a dog for having four legs. The logic of this defense dictates that it is immoral and unfair of society to incarcerate insane offenders because of the nature of the causes of their behavior.

On the other hand, the insanity defense has transformed the way that murder trials are conducted, in ways that are often not for the better. (Fontaine, 2012) The same logic that dictates that insane individuals should not be held completely accountable for their harmful actions implies that a sane individual who does something wrong should not escape punishment by feigning mental illness. Since the institution of the insanity defense, numerous people have tried to unsuccessfully plead insanity. (Fontaine, 2012) One has to assume that there have been some defendants who have taken advantage of this defense when in reality, they should not have been afforded this protection.

These arguments shed light on the ethical conflict that exists in the criminal justice system. Even besides the actuality that the insanity defense would be misapplied, or wrongly not applied, there exists great ambiguity in when the insanity defense should be permitted. Obviously, in any case of serial killing, there most likely exists some sort of mental defect in the mind of the offender that spurs them to commit such behavior. (Fontaine, 2012) However, one must question where the line should be drawn in terms of what’s insane and what is not insane.

Unfortunately for the criminal justice system, mental and personality disorders are not simply there or not there. Rather, they exist on a spectrum where certain elements may present themselves that make diagnosis extremely difficult. As such, numerous ethical concerns arise over the application, or failure to apply, the insanity defense.

Dahmer himself was very accepting of his fate in the criminal justice system. Even upon arrest, Dahmer expressed resolve that he deserved punishment. (Kocsis, 2008) After spending his first incarcerated year in solitary confinement, Dahmer was moved in with the regular prison population, where he began studying the Bible and became a born again Christian. According to Dahmer’s family, Dahmer himself accepted whatever fate was to come in prison, as many expected Dahmer would be put in danger by the other prison inmates. Dahmer was attacked unsuccessfully by an inmate wielding a razor blade who tried to slash Dahmer’s throat. In 1994, Dahmer was bludgeoned to death by a fellow inmate. (Kocsis, 2008)

Based on all of this information, one must wonder if Dahmer’s outcome at the hands of the criminal justice system was ideal. Given the circumstances, resources, and tools available to the criminal justice system, it seems that Dahmer was handled as well as possible. Dahmer’s behavior and diagnoses before, during, and after the murders did not indicate that the insanity defense should have been applied. Despite the fact that Dahmer was ultimately brutally murdered in prison, one would be hard pressed to come up with a realistic alternative of how Dahmer should have been treated in the criminal justice system.

Regardless of the numerous and often conflicting opinions of those regarding Dahmer’s case, it is indisputable that Dahmer’s treatment was not completely ideal. That being said, one wonders if an ideal outcome was even possible given the circumstances of the case. Regardless, the ethical issues surrounding not only this case, but all cases relating to the insanity defense, must be navigated with extreme care to ensure that future cases are handled with the utmost justice and effectiveness.

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The Jeffrey Dahmer Case: A Look into the Psychology and Criminal Typology of a Serial Killer. (2023, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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