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Thursday, November 6, 2008

It Finally Happened--A Dexter Copycat

One of the first things I thought of when I first got acquainted with the excellent Showtime original series Dexter was, "I wonder if anyone's going to copy this guy in real life?" And lo and behold, someone has.

Canadian news service Canwest is reporting today that one Mark Andrew Twitchell, a 29-year-old filmmaker from Edmonton, Alberta, has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of 38-year-old John Brian Altinger. Apparently inspired by vigiliante serial killer Dexter Morgan, Twitchell allegedly targeted Altinger because he suspected him of cheating on his wife. Luring him to the very garage where he had made some of his short movies--under the false pretense of hooking up with a woman he had met online--Twitchell is accused of killing Altinger, a la his favorite TV character.

How can we be sure he was emulating Dexter specifically? Well, it looks like his Facebook status as of last August was "Mark has way too much in common with Dexter Morgan." Police have also obtained Twitchell's latest unflimed movie script "House of Cards", in which a serial killer kills an unfaithful husband after luring him to an abandoned garage under the false pretense of hooking up with a woman he met online. Way to cover your tracks there, Mark. Geez, if Dexter had been this dumb, it would've been a very short TV series.

The eternal question obviously arises of whether or not a TV show can be accused of inspiring a crime. Now, those of you who have read my posts on this kind of stuff before know that I take a kind of moderate, Devil's-advocate approach to these issues. I'm open to both sides of the argument, and I'm not arrogant enough to claim that I have the definitive answer. I am curious to know what others think, however.

It's far from the first time something like this has happened. Children of the '80s will remember the infamous John Hinckley, a man obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver who shot President Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. Then there was Natural Born Killers, which led to a whole bunch of copycatting yahoos. And most recently, The Dark Knight inspired a couple of Virginia teenagers to make Joker-esque terroristic threats using playing cards. And for anyone who makes the argument that a piece of media can never inspire a person with free will to do crazy things, I direct your attention to a little book known as the Bible.

I tend to lean toward the opinion espoused by many, that works like Dexter don't directly inspire criminal acts, but rather define the manner in which they're carried out. Meaning, people like John Hinckley clearly already have a screw loose and are likely to do something nuts; watching Taxi Driver just helped him formulate a game plan, it didn't put the idea in his head.

But does that absolve the book/movie/show from all blame? After all, one could argue that Twitchell may never have gotten the idea in his head to premeditatedly murder someone for being immoral if he hadn't observed that very specific behavior on Dexter. And let's not forget, this has been one of the very fears behind a lot of anti-Dexter sentiment. Again, I'm not advocating for censorship--hell, I love the show--I'm just keeping an open mind to all possibilities here. What do you think?


Glass Devaney said...

I think the show is completely absolved from any and all responsibility for that man's actions. People are responsible for their own actions, and you're right; that man was already a nut to begin with. If it weren't Dexter it might have been an episode of Clarissa Explains It All or something equally banal.

There's going to be violence and madness in art, because it's a part of who we are as humans. Are we supposed to sensor art to that extreme? Let's not get all Equilibrium here. ;}

So that's my two cents, which I have a strong feeling correlate with your own ;}

CRwM said...

Personally, I believe there is a link between human behavior and the media we consume, the problem is that the relationship is rarely simple enough to reduce to an A-will-cause-B chain of causation.

Still, if repeated exposure to modeled behavior didn't have some effect on the mind, then centuries of educational theory is wrong. Media representations and RL data follow the same pathways in our brain. When we're scared, for instance, two pulses instantly start racing through our brain. One takes what researchers call the "low road," a path that shoots to the panic center in our head faster than memory or logic can move. The second pulse - on the "high road" - is slower and immediately starts accessing our high functions and reason to assess the situation.

If you're watching a horror, the first pulse kicks in a pure and real response to a threat. The second then tells you to calm the heck down, it's all fake. (A common response to sustained fake horror is to send an tribal "all clear" signal: You laugh.)

But here's the rub. The second impulse is just damage control. You can't help but trip the panic switch each time you're exposed to a fake scare. The "low road" it automatic and to fast to subdue (there are strong evolutionary reasons for it being so). The second impulse is simply damage control. Furthermore, researchers have found data that suggests repeated signals from the low road will eventually establish a general sense of paranoid dread.

Does watching a show about a serial killer cause you to become a serial killer? No more than having fast food now and then will ensure that you have a heart attack. But the media you consume is ultimately data your streaming directly into your brain. Once it is in there, it is ignorant to assume that all the processes it will trip off are under your control. It's impact isn't completely up to you.

Given that, shouldn't we consider our media diet at least as carefully as we consider our physical diet?

thebonebreaker said...

I couldn't have said it any better than you, or the above two commenters - I agree with each point made. :-)

B-Sol said...

Good points all. It is a bit simplistic to believe that the show literally caused the guy to do what he did. But, for as good as the show is, it is also naive to think that it played no part at all. It's a very tough issue.

It also ties into the nature/nurture thing. The guy may have had problems, but maybe if he hadn't been taking in stuff that played to his darker nature, he might've been slower to do what he did.

Any sane person watching Dexter can have the escapist reaction of "This guy is awesome! Those scumbags get what they deserve!" without making the leap in logic of then thinking "This would be a great solution in the real world. I think I'm going to do it." But the fact is, there is a tiny minority of wacks out there who see a character like Dexter and identify him as a hero to be emulated, quite literally. They are psychopaths to be sure, but this type of show is a veritable lightning rod for that type of personality.

Should the show be pulled? Absolutely not. That sets a grim and dangerous precedent that we don't need to have set. Killers will always find reasons to kill, the solution is not in censorship. But I don't think I can say that there is no connection at all between violence in fiction and violence in real life. There is. The nature of that connection, however, is exceedingly complicated.

Pierre Fournier said...

I forget, which film inspired Jack the Ripper? What TV series incited triggered Attila The Hun? In which comic book did Vlad Tepes pick up his impalement tricks?

Son of Sam got his orders from the neighbor’s dog. I suppose we should do something about those telepathic Labradors.

Yes, there is a connection between fictional and real violence. Outside stimuli ignites or, at least, inform acts of violence. Someone who is profoundly troubled can be provoked by fiction as much as any sight, sound or smell he has ever experienced.

CRwM said...

I agree with all those above who are against censoring the show.

Given that the relationship is not stable enough to say what will or will not make an already unstable person worse, censorship won't get you what you want.

There's also the issue that we must make rules and live life on an assumption of stability. We wouldn't want to live in a society that basically treated everybody as if they had a serious mental illness.

B-Sol said...

You're exactly right, and I think it's that "we know what's best for you" mentality that motivates the whole PC-censorship movement in our culture at the moment.

Karl Hungus said...

I don't believe for a second that a work of fiction carries any responsibility for the actions of a person. I'd agree with Pierre fournier wholeheartedly, people have been inspired to commit crimes without the stimuli of TV since the beginning of human kind.

To play devil's advocate for a minute, lets assume that media can cause people to commit murder. If so, then Twitchell taking his queue from Dexter is false. Dexter Morgan never killed someone for cheating on their wife, never mind only suspecting him of it.

Anonymous said...

All points made have been well thought out and conclusive. However, one thing I haven't heard mentioned yet is an opinion specific to the censorship issue. And to that I say, yes, I am entirely willing to believe that someone out there (who already has mental issues) can be inspired by fictional media, but I DO NOT think that media should be censored whatsoever because that possibility exists. The minds of fictional media evolving and creating better and more satisfying content every year. Sure, often times they are playing with ideas that could potentially happen, but I would much rather enjoy watching entertaining explorations of those ideas than see all of the media become censored.

B-Sol said...

I completely agree, and I think that was the point of view I was putting out there.

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