Monday, March 5, 2012

The Jeffrey Dahmer Tour: come see a bunch of abandoned buildings for 30 bucks

This past Saturday held the first official Jeffrey Dahmer walking tour in Milwaukee's Walker's Point, and after  much soul- and internet- searching, I ultimately think this to be in poor taste. This wasn't an easy conclusion for me to reach, being a person with focused intent on visiting places like the Museum of Death in Los Angeles and a genuine curiosity for abnormal psychology. Jeffrey Dahmer in particular I am fascinated by, for multiple reasons. Along with being a generally a good specimen of abnormal psych, I have a very personal interest in the man. As a native Milwaukean who was a child of 6 years old at the time of his arrest, I first heard the name Jeffrey Dahmer in the whispered voices of adults attempting not to traumatize small children. This man, his crimes, and their aftermath shaped this city; and this city shaped me. 

My first thought was to look for precedence. Surely this isn't the only example of a tour centralized around the murder sites or hunting grounds of a serial killer/mass murderer. I wanted to learn what Boston's reaction was when tours began featuring the exploits of the Boston Strangler and such, to find that Milwaukee's residents were giving in to sentimentalism. While it's true there are tours all over that feature their city's famous killers, usually they are part of a generalized ghost tour. On my brief search, I was able to find information on 2 killers with their own tours: Charles Manson, and the Night Stalker. These tours are also both in Los Angeles, which, as a person who has more than once defended LA against a reputation of vanity and superficiality which I think in most cases it doesn't deserve, the culture surrounding death is very different there than a small midwestern city. After all they show outdoor movies in the Hollywood Forever cemetery

The other thing I noticed is the time difference. The Night Stalker is the only one who's time frame came close to Jeffrey Dahmer's, who's last killings were in 1985 (Dahmer's were in 1991). As to why the Nightstalker's tour is not offensive, I think this quote from SCPR sums it up nicely:

“This is not a celebration of someone who has committed horrible acts,” [Guerrero] said. “It is a celebration of his capture, and the sense of community that came together to enable his capture and put him in jail.”
 Perhaps if another decade had gone by before this concept was attempted the public's response might have been different. As time passes, atrocity becomes history and the traumatic becomes interesting. Perhaps there's a math equation that can express when a joke passes the threshold from "too soon" to "funny." Maybe Randal Munroe will write it for us, if we ask him nicely enough.

In the midst of searching for information, I also kept trying to find more information on the tour. A phone number, a website, something that was not skewed perception. So, not an Op Ed piece (let's leave the objective journalism debate for another post). I wanted to see how the tour branded itself. And also possibly buy tickets as I was still on the fence. Well, if there's one thing all the news coverage succeeded in doing is give the the tour an abundance of negative press as well as make it impossible to find any detailed or contact information on the tour. Their official website was completely buried by headlines from as far away as the Daily Mail (a British Tabloid). I was about to give up when I noticed the story released by Fox 6's website was unsurprisingly the only news source willing to link to the official site.

If you care to take a look, the website is here (why not, I've linked to everything else in this post), and viewing it firsthand is one of two things that firmly set me against this venture. The language used on their site is clearly angled toward sensationalism. The writer also quotes himself on the same page of the original text. I sincerely hope whoever wrote the info page on their website isn't the same guy who wrote the cue cards the tour guide uses, as I can only imagine how "sensitive" the language is during the tour. Based on their own words as well as detailed accounts of the first tour (which seem to measure up to each other fairly well), without having actually seen it myself, it seems as though those running this tour are under the impression that stating things using Inflammatory Language is being Hard Hitting, but saying it with a Solemn Face is being Respectful.

My last criticism of this tour, again based on accounts and not my own personal experience, is that it doesn't really seem like they're saying anything new. It sounds as though I could print off the wikipedia page as well as a chronological list of the bars he frequented and save myself the 30 bucks. What I would be interested in is a tour that maybe delved a little, psychologically. How did Jeffrey Dahmer's presence affect what it was like to be a gay male in this city in the 80's and 90's? Was there a reaction of sympathy, or hate/fear/disgust? What were his personal relationships like? They call him a monster on their website, but he was a person. To call someone a monster because their behavior is extremely out of the societal norm is to oversimplify things to the point where you lose understanding. Ultimately why people have a fascination with figures like Dahmer is to try to find understanding in the horrifyingly inexplicable. This is a good thing. A tour that takes a psychological/sociological perspective; a tour that delves into his past as well into how that past has affected the culture of our city's present: that is a tour I'd be very interested in seeing.

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