Jeffrey Dahmer and Reverse Storytelling

Posted: March 26, 2013 by afletcherharper in Andy's Words
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Like many a horror junkie, I went through a serial killer obsession stage.  Okay, not just like many horror junkies, but like many people period.  We, as a culture, have become fascinated by the monsters among us.  For most people, I expect the attraction is related to the same sensationalism that feeds the “what bleeds, leads” mentality of the mainstream news.  For others, I’m guessing there is a subconscious anti-hero worship where people identify with the taking of a desired object, even in the face of resistance.  Maybe because of resistance.  And finally, there are those who are intrigued by the different demons that possess these human beings and turn them into living nightmares.  What exactly drives someone to serial strangulation, necrophilia, cannibalism, or deadly sadism?  What is such a person’s motivation?

What’s fascinating is that serial killer motivations are our motivations.  Many of us feel the need to be in control in all situations.  Most of us accept that it isn’t possible, particularly in relationships.  A very few of us, Ted Bundy for example, decide to exert control in their romantic relationships by making corpses to have sex with.  We all know or have heard of the person with the domineering mother that makes a hell of low self-esteem for her children.  Most of us deal with this sort of thing through therapy or a bottle of Jim Beam (and sometimes both).  Edmund Kemper dealt with it by dismembering women as mommy proxies.  He’s especially interesting in that when he finally killed his real mother and stuffed her esophagus in the garbage disposal, he turned himself in.  Serial killers never turn themselves in.  John Wayne Gacy?  He hated that he was attracted to men. Once again, most of us would go the counselor or drug abuse route.  Not Gacy.  He killed what he desired and what he hated to try and reconcile his self.

You’re probably wondering by now what any of this has to do with writing stories, or if I’m just getting off on exposing you to the world’s ick.  It’s pretty simple really.  Characters in stories, including nasty little horror stories, need motivations believably enacted to be part of a good tale. Even stories about extreme events need simple motivations for readers to buy into them.  Serial killers may be the single best example of base motivations leading to extreme stories, and those stories are inherently believable because they happened.

Jeffery Dahmer is my personal favorite when it comes to thinking about basic motivations and extreme outcomes.  The primary motivation for his crimes is so familiar and so human that he becomes, for me, a monster that I can almost feel sorry for.  How, I can hear your outraged question, can you feel sympathy for a man that drilled holes in people’s skulls and poured acid on their brain in an attempt to create living zombies?  How can you be anything but repulsed by a person that ate pieces of other people?  The answer is easy.  I understand what was behind it.  You, on some level, understand it too.  Dahmer was buried at the bottom of a pit of loneliness he couldn’t escape and his attempt at solution was unspeakable.  Why did he try to make zombie love slaves?  So that his lovers wouldn’t leave.  Why did he eat people?  Because if he did, those people would be with him forever.  Now I’m not gonna make lobotozombies or eat people, but I do understand what it’s like to be desperately lonely.  Because of that I can connect to the horrific tragedy of Jeffrey Dahmer.  Believable motivation.  Extreme adaptation.  Real life horror story.

So how does understanding real horror apply to fiction writing?  In simple terms, reverse storytelling.  Dahmer has been very productive for me in this regard.  Especially because he allowed me to link loneliness and cannibalism.

Oh, yeah. Side note. Do not tell the sexy grad student who studies abnormal psychology that you have a thing for cannibalism and loneliness.  Definitely don’t tell her that on a first date.  There won’t be a second if you do.  Jussayin’.

Back to reverse storytelling.  Dahmer’s story led me to connect a basic motivation, loneliness, to an extreme response, cannibalism.  From there I simply disregarded the source material.  After all, Dahmer’s story is (quite unfortunately for everyone involved) already told.  Instead, I began to ask questions.  What would it look like if a mega-rich person came up with the same solution for his loneliness?  Would this sort of cannibal be different as a female?  What if the population of a small town decided to keep their favorite visitors around forever?  Could someone be so lonely they’d want to be eaten in order to be with someone forever?  All of these questions can lead to stories.  For me, a couple of them already have.

So pay attention to the world around you.  Motivation and its outcomes are everywhere.  They don’t even have to be horrific.  And all you need to do is take them and spin them back on themselves.  Happy writing!

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Comments
  1. Matthew Ridenour says:

    Great post, Andy. After the writer understands the true motivation of characters, it is much easier to show the gradual progression of the illness over time, and create empathy, or at least, a base understanding as to why. I would say very few people want to be serial killers, but a well-written piece allows readers to experience this, thus expanding the basic understanding of human motivations – and allowing said readers to experience an illness they normally would never endure. This provokes thought and emotions, and forces readers to look inside themselves and deal with those new experiences.

  2. I can honestly say that I have never had a serial killer obsession stage…surprising, no doubt.

  3. sryeager says:

    Great post! Thought provoking.

    I find it interesting you didn’t mention any fictional characters in this post. All these monsters you point to are real life monsters. I think that goes to show the difficulty of writing truly evil fictional characters, because real life can be far more horrifying.

    Also, not everyone who is lonely will become a crazed serial killer, nor someone who is abused or mistreated. And I know you are not saying that. Even so, there are obviously other factors at play, which I think is where the statement, “the devil made him do it” becomes a way to attempt to explain away inexplicable behavior. The search for that true motivation, that cranial short-circuit, is something many of us are subconsciously looking for when we read horror.

  4. […] Jeffrey Dahmer and Reverse Storytelling. […]

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