The Devil’s Cinema

By Steve Lillebuen

Several years ago Hanna Rosin wrote an essay that appeared in The Atlantic called “Murder by Craigslist.” It was about a serial killer in Ohio who posted advertisements on the Internet for a job opening as a ranch manager. The position was pitched as being especially well suited to a particular sort of fellow: unemployed, working-class men (no female applicants were considered) with no personal attachments. Bachelors were preferred. A new job working alone out in the middle of nowhere was a fantasy that would appeal to only a few. Of course there was no job, and when the men showed up they were murdered.

Rosin’s piece, which is excellent, deals with the peculiar lifeways of these lost, lonely souls. But before she gets there she asks a pregnant question, one she does not pursue:

I was initially drawn to the story of the Beasley murders because I thought it would illuminate the isolation and vulnerability of so many working-class men, who have been pushed by the faltering economy from one way of life — a nine-to-five job, a wife, children — into another, far more precarious one: unemployed or underemployed, single or divorced, crashing on relatives’ spare beds or in the backseats of cars. At what other moment in history would it have been plausible for a serial killer to identify middle-aged white men as his most vulnerable targets?

Today we all know the victim profile pursued by the typical serial killer: a prostitute, living on the street. In Canada, Native women are particularly at risk. A serial killer is nothing if not opportunistic, and these women provide the most vulnerable targets. But Rosin’s question niggles. And as one reads Steve Lillebuen’s The Devil’s Cinema it comes to the fore.

Mark Twitchell never became a serial killer, but not for lack of trying. He was a complex psychological case, though one we are perhaps growing more familiar with. The core of his personality was that of the cosplaying fanboy (a pair of portmanteau neologisms that my current software doesn’t even recognize as words yet). He designed elaborate costumes around different pop-culture themes, with a special predilection for Star Wars. He was also an aspiring filmmaker and producer, and had even made his own derivative indie shorts.

Then someone introduced him to Dexter, the fictional character and cable television series about a do-gooder serial killer who punishes the guilty. Twitchell was quickly hooked by the pernicious media myth of the criminal genius (Dexter’s forerunner had been Hannibal Lector), perhaps in part because his imagination was already tending in this direction. At some level he must have been conscious that he was never going to become a Jedi knight, or sprout adamantium claws like Wolverine. But a serial killer . . . anyone could go there.

All he needed was a victim. Like the Craigslist killer, he knew he could find one easily on the Internet. Indeed, they would come to him. There’s a moral there, something about how the Internet makes victims of us all, but I won’t follow up on it here. In any event, at first Twitchell thought he might play by Dexter’s rules, only punishing the guilty. The plan was to post bogus profiles of attractive women on a dating site and lure wannabe players into a deadly version of the game. But he had to make a change of plan, which he described in his crime diary:

At first I considered married men looking to cheat on their wives. In one way I’d be taking out the trash, doling out justice to those who on some level, deserved what they got. But the logic of the situation denies this possibility. After all, people who are expected home at a certain hour tend to get reported as missing and there’s other factors that would lead to an investigation I didn’t want. No, I had to choose people whose entire lives I could infiltrate and eliminate evidence of my existence from all levels.

Enter Rosin’s lonely bachelor, looking for love in all the most desperate places. As with women living on the street, a single man, even one with a condo and a job (as Twitchell’s victim had), is relatively easy to disappear. Prostitutes and Native women are not the only demographic that the authorities, and really society in general, don’t care much about. When one of the friends of Johnny Altinger (the man Twitchell killed) tried to drum up some interest in the police in looking into his sudden disappearance he faced a predictable response:

when he tried to file a missing persons report, an officer told him to go away. A middle-aged single man running off on a wild romantic getaway with some woman? The officer didn’t think it sounded like a crime had been committed at all – some would call the guy damn lucky, actually – and it would be a waste of police resources to launch an investigation.

Go away. A waste of time. Later the same friend would be told the police were investigating, only to realize that they “had brushed him off again. If was as if Johnny’s disappearance couldn’t have mattered less.”

We are returned to Rosin’s question: At what other moment in history would it have been plausible for a serial killer to identify middle-aged white men as his most vulnerable targets? I’m not sure, but the enabling effect of the Internet, so good at exploiting weaknesses and using information as a weapon, must be part of what has made the difference, as it surely did in both the Craigslist killings and Twitchell’s case.

If the murder of Johnny Altinger is representative of a “moment in history” we have reason to be worried. As we should be by the character of Mark Twitchell. To borrow a phrase from the title of Timothy Appleby’s account of the criminal career of Russell Williams, Twitchell was a new kind of monster.

Like Williams he escalated quickly: “seemingly come out of nowhere” and with no warning. In some ways he was an identifiable type – the outsider/geek who withdrew into a world of fantasy and stewed on his revenge – but he was also something different. For one thing, he was an intellectual killer, which doesn’t mean that he was bright (far from it), but rather that he was self-analytical. He diagnosed his own psychopathy and, fittingly, felt unmoved by it. He didn’t want to blame the media, but for such a meta-figure it’s hard not to detect some influence. No doubt he would have broken bad anyway (to borrow another reference), but the form his violence took was profoundly mediated. It’s unlikely he filmed himself killing Altinger, but the act was performed in a studio meant to replicate the kill room from Dexter. At trial, Twitchell would concoct a ludicrous, incoherent story about how the whole thing was an experiment gone wrong, a script undone by too much improvisation. The authorities couldn’t see that they too were all part of the joke.

It’s often asked why we read true crime. One reason is surely prophylactic, as object lessons in diagnosis. Such stories are both warnings of what sorts of dangers are out there and where we might be headed.

Review first published online December 21, 2015.

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