Are Shows Like Dexter to Blame for Inspiring Murder and Other VIolent Crime?
It didn't take long for veteran homicide detectives to make the connection. Their suspect, a Canadian filmmaker, had left a complete trail of evidence pointing directly to his muse: Dexter Morgan, vigilante serial killer, of Showtime's popular television series.
But the debate over Mark Twitchell's horrific crimes, which became known as the "Dexter Killer" case when it drew international intrigue, thankfully didn't focus on blaming the ultra-violent show for what happened. Some of Dexter's creative team, however, began disputing that a link even existed at all. It was "pretty stupid," according to Dexter's creator Jeff Lindsay, to accuse his fiction of inspiring a murderer. As if it was impossible to consider such a proposition for a show having entered its eighth and final season.
The reality is that serious crime has always been tied to pop culture. A landmark 1954 US Senate inquiry into juvenile delinquency and reading comic books was a major starting point for probing this connection. And these same links returned in the late 1960s when "Helter Skelter" was taken on by the Manson Family, and in the 1980s when the novel The Collector inspired Leonard Lake and Charles Ng to abduct, torture and kill women. The attempted assassination of US President Ronald Regan was even linked to watching Taxi Driver. In more recent years, school shootings around the world have prompted conversations about killers playing extremely violent video games.
But the scientific evidence backing up such a link has never been very clear, leading many to quite rightly discount the level of influence. After all, we've been killing each other long before violent books and movies existed. Maybe it's a case of these killers simply seeking out dark content because they are deranged, rather than becoming deranged by consuming such fiction?
The problem, though, is how Twitchell's crimes challenge this new way of thinking that totally exonerates pop culture from contributing to real-life violence. The 32-year-old discovered Dexter after he moved from the American midwest back to his birthplace of Edmonton, Alberta. In 2008, he had been completing a Dexter-inspired film production when police charged him with a missing man's murder and an attack on another. An unimaginable court case then revealed all: the filmmaker had re-enacted his horror script in real-life. He began luring strangers off the Internet, using the plot of his Dexter movie like a cover and a blueprint.
In just some of the similarities with Dexter, Twitchell built and used a "kill room" modeled on the show, assumed Dexter's identity online, and wrote extensively about his fascination with him. He looked at the troubled protagonist and saw a man who was hiding who he really was from everyone he knew. "It sometimes scares me how much I relate," he once wrote.
It was a keen interest that Twitchell didn't shy away from when I first visited him in jail as part of my research into this case. During our interviews, I was shown celebrity portraits he had drawn, including one of Dexter's lead actor, Michael C Hall, which hung on his cell wall. He was still watching Dexter episodes from behind bars.
This didn't seem like a case of insanity, mental illness or a drug-induced psychosis. Twitchell was a married father with no history of violence or criminal convictions before he transformed seemingly overnight into a would-be serial killer.
But Jeff Lindsay is no more to blame here than the inventor of cable television. We just need to distinguish what it really means to be inspired rather than who is responsible. It would be ridiculous to argue that Dexter's creative team had any level of culpability. Like other tragedies before it, this finger-pointing stems from an intense need to find tangible explanations for horrific violence when the answers can be far more layered, far more complex. It's never a simple cause-effect scenario.
Even Twitchell realizes this blame game is at work after seeing how his own motives prompted a few knee-jerk reactions – and the "Dexter Killer" moniker. "I hold nothing but contempt for the ignorant, delusional blowhards who want so badly to simplify my situation into a small, digestible sound bite", he once told me.
But we also can't discount the strong links with Dexter, either. The final season began on 30 June. Millions around the world are now watching. The uncomfortable truth remains that so is Mark Twitchell and many others who are like him. Through my own research, I've learned to no longer think of him as being brainwashed by Dexter, but like a dark scholar. He created his own toxic brew after reading the master recipe. The connection is clear; who we blame is too.