Articles tend to emphasize the combination of physical similarity and moral dissimilarity between actor and role. One blogger, for example, wrote that “once you strip away the wholesome Disney accouterments,” Lynch bears an uncanny resemblance to the infamous murderer.
Using the innocence associated with a Disney child star as a counterpoint to the evil associated with Dahmer is, of course, exactly the point of the casting. The same strategy was evident on Broadway in 1957 when Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, based on the Leopold & Loeb case, starred Roddy McDowell and Dean Stockwell as the murderous teenagers.
In the case of Compulsion, the casting supported the play’s attempt to create a degree of sympathy for the convicted murderers, seeing them as “sick” (rather than evil) and blaming the sickness on harmful social forces and values. The source material for Lynch’s film, however, promises more moral ambiguity.
Dahmer would get attention from his classmates by giving “performances” of odd behavior, and in the book’s most telling incident, the high school students pay Dahmer to give a performance at a shopping mall, twitching and shouting at unsuspecting patrons. The teens laugh at Dahmer’s grotesque shenanigans, but once the show is over they don’t invite Dahmer to be part of their evening plans, and he remains outside the circle of friendship.
Teenage Dahmer gives an exaggerated and ironic performance of his own feelings of monstrosity, and this spectacle of alienation stands in sharp contrast to the versions of teen life depicted in Disney fare such as Teen Beach 2. Casting Ross Lynch as Dahmer has the potential to merge these two kinds of performance in the imagination of the audience, reading the Disney teen into Dahmer—and perhaps even reading Dahmer into the Disney teen.
Jeffrey Dahmer is now one of the most widely reimagined serial killers in American culture. Jeremy Renner gave an excellent performance in David Jacobson’s 2002 film Dahmer, which featured flashbacks to his teenage years. The stage has seen even more representation, mostly from queer theatre artists, including experimental works by Reza Abdoh (The Law of Remains) and Paul Outlaw (Berserker).
Can a new film about the teenage years of Jeffrey Dahmer “explain” what made him a serial killer? I don’t think so. But it might illuminate something about our cultural fantasies regarding innocence and evil, showing how a single actor might embody both.