Derf Backderf clears his throat as he recalls finding out about “Jeff.”
When news broke in 1991 that his Revere High School classmate and friend, Jeffrey Dahmer, had been arrested for what became 17 grisly murders involving necrophilia and cannibalism, Backderf remembers stumbling around in shock and hopping the back fence of his Shaker Heights apartment building to avoid three news trucks out front.
“It’s a real disorienting thing to have your whole personal history rewritten,” Backderf says.
During high school in the late ’70s, Dahmer had been an oddball befriended by Backderf and his buddies. Dahmer was loosely in their circle — they gave him rides, visited his house and played pranks. But years later when Dahmer’s crimes were revealed, his adolescent quirks — drinking at school and throwing fake epileptic fits — took on a sinister light and cast a dark shadow over Backderf’s life.
Backderf and his friends coped by swapping tales about Dahmer. He learned of disturbing interactions, such as a fishing outing where Dahmer mutilated a fish instead of throwing it back. As a former newspaperman, Backderf felt he had to tell the story no one else had — the human behind one of history’s most depraved serial killers.
He spent 20 years intermittently studying crime reports, news stories and interviewing people who knew Dahmer. He released the story as the graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer, in 2012.
The chilling firsthand account documents Dahmer’s dark behaviors during his school years through his first murder in Bath in 1978. The film adaptation of the same name opens in theaters Nov. 3.
Backderf watched filming at the Bath-area movie set four times last summer. He was there for creepy scenes at Dahmer’s actual house, which reminded the cast and crew that a young man died there — and 16 murders followed.
“People were nervous,” Backderf says. “They didn’t like being there.”
For Backderf, seeing ex-Disney Channel star Ross Lynch dressed as Dahmer with shaggy blond hair, wire-framed glasses and an odd stiff-armed gait at the Dahmer house was a terrifying look into the past.
“In that setting to see someone look the spitting image of Jeff was too much for me,” says Backderf, who asked Lynch to remove his glasses.
More than anything, though, Backderf remains haunted by Dahmer’s first victim, hitchhiker Steven Hicks. Backderf knew kids like Hicks — an affable rock ‘n’ roller figuring out life while living at home. Dahmer killed Hicks at his house June 18, 1978, and spent nearly two weeks taking apart and disposing of the body. During that time, Backderf was hanging out at a friend’s house only 150 yards away.
“He follows me around a lot,” Backderf says. “I think about him a lot whenever I think about this book.”
Underneath the eerie story is a cautionary tale. Backderf points to a lack of intervention for Dahmer’s abnormal behavior. By highlighting those mistakes, he hopes people can understand the importance of confronting worrisome behavior before it’s too late.
“This is a story about failure and across-the-board failure in the adult world,” he says. “The result of that failure was a pile of bodies.”