Showtime’s Dexter is one of my favorite programs of all time. It is superbly written and acted, entertaining, intelligent, horrifying, comical, and most significantly, plausible. My toes curl in anticipation for the start of every season.
I figured it was only a matter of time before life imitated art. An Indiana teen was accused of strangling his 10-year-old brother to death. Andrew Conley, who was 17 at the time, felt that he “had to do it”. What was the impetus for this gruesome crime? You guessed it: Dexter made him do it. He so identified with the character that he finally acted on his compulsion that he felt since he hit his teens. Perhaps faced with life in prison, he grasped at straws there. Yet, I found out after reading the article about the case that this wasn’t a first. A 29-year-old Canadian filmmaker murdered a man in 2008 based on one of the storylines in the show. A filmmaker. He of all people should appreciate that despite the aforementioned plausibility of the idea, it is still indeed, fiction. What gives?
This is not an isolated incident. Since the concept of cinema was actualized, people have found their inspiration to act on their already existing pathologies. Yes, the desire to do the dastardly deed was latent, awaiting something or someone to stir the beast from its slumber. Even before that, troubled souls found ways to rouse their demons into action. How many Jack the Ripper copycats were there? Who knows, maybe Emperor Nero’s insane act of locking helpless citizens in Rome’s colosseum (or so the story goes) to force them to view his godawful performances led even the gentlest of characters to violent responses.
Call this human behavior what you will, for this writing I will coin it somewhat topically: The Dexter Defense, and it is a flimsy one, at best. While not historically apt, as evidence of this spans centuries, it is a good representation—an almagamation, if you will—of how far some people would go to make excuses for their actions. Plus, I really dig the alliteration.
As an artist with little exposure, my only concern about creating something that could stir a violent response is offending my potential audience. Imagine successful entertainers with far-reaching influence doing the same. They not only have to deal with possible rejection, they also may consider the likelihood that there will be impressionable people who take their art just a wee bit too seriously. Does that mean they should keep it to themselves, or should they expect a modicum of objectivity from their viewership? Should the sins of a few ruin it for everyone else? While the collective intelligence can decrease as the group expands, can the actions of a few leaven the whole loaf?
While Doris Day’s beautiful rendition of Secret Love was somewhat marred by the rumor that Calamity Jane had syphilis (I don’t believe it!), my history need not go back that far. Where the tendency to attribute malevolent influences from music became prevalent is with the recording technique of embedding subliminal messages in music, called backmasking. The Beatles popularized it (really, was it “cranberry sauce” or “I buried Paul”?) and other bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC followed suit. A law was passed forcing record labels to add a warning message that this technique was used. It is akin to adding the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes. We all know they are horrible, but does that stop the addicts?
Who can forget the inspiration Charles Manson got from The Beatles’ Helter Skelter? As far as their songs go, it isn’t one of their best, albeit an interesting cacophonous experiment. I personally wouldn’t even put it in their top 20. Never mind that the song was not violent, per se, nor could any rational person infer evil intent from it. Yet, the song is now inextricably bound to the Manson murders, so much so that the infamous book about this nugget in history shares the title. Lest we pin the blame on Paul McCartney, we must realize that Manson was born with violent inclinations. While it can be argued whether he was a psychopath or a sociopath, the seeds of nature and nurture were planted long before that. What nurturing mother punishes her son by forcing him to go to school wearing a dress? While he was definitely genetically hard-coded towards a pathology, his abuse as a youth set the stage. The song played as a convenient excuse.
Arguably, the most notorious case in recent memory involved the heavymetal band, Judas Priest. In 1985, two Nevada teens made a suicide pact after listening to their music all day while drinking beer and smoking pot. They went to a playground at a local church and aimed shotguns at themselves. The one died instantly, the other survived and was left with a severely disfigured face. He died several years later, even after numerous surgeries. The parents brought the case to trial in 1990. Rob Halford had to experience the ignominy of singing the offending lyrics from the album Stained Glass in court, and was specifically instructed to sing it in the same style as he did on the record. The prosecution claimed that it wasn’t just the words, but also how they were conveyed. The court ruled the band not responsible. The teens’ mental state was compromised with chemicals and existing depression. The album only reiterated an idea they already entertained. Still, the lack of precedent doesn’t keep others from attempting the same scapegoat defense.
How many books have been destroyed in an effigial attempt to banish violence from our society? What, outside of a waste of resources, does it accomplish? Even Reverend Terry Jones’ recent showboating plans to burn the Quran were misguided. Yes, there are many fundamentalists who take a literal and/or incorrect interpretation of the work and wreak horrible havoc on those with dissenting opinions. My own views of religious persuasion aside, burning a book that can easily be reproduced and not abused by the majority, does nothing but incite further violence. It is laying the blame on the printed word instead of the individual. Sticks and stones and all that.
Mark David Chapman claimed that he re-enacted scenes from Catcher in the Rye when he fatally shot John Lennon. While Holden Caulfield was a dark character experimenting with rebellion, I personally focused on the symbolism of watching children on the carousel grab the brass ring that gave me hope that there was salvation in his future. How did Chapman devise such sinister machinations from this classic piece of literature?
Really, unless bookmakers can create a technology that will cause the reader’s hands to blow off if the story is not acted out, there is no one to lay blame on but the criminal. There are a bunch of Humbert Humberts running around deflowering nubile girls because they are compelled to do so, not because they were inspired by Lolita. Who reads about pedophilia and thinks, “Hmm, interesting concept, I think I’ll give it a whirl,” and then later blames Nabokov for corrupting them with his beautiful literature? Ridiculous.
It only takes a modicum of common sense to intuit that thrusting two fingers at someone’s eyeballs will never end well. Yet, impressionable people tried that after watching The Three Stooges. It doesn’t matter that upon closer scrutiny, it is obvious that Moe Howard aimed at his brother Curly’s eyebrows. We are just such curious creatures that sometimes, we can’t help ourselves.
Filmmakers recognize this, and in fear of the consequences that could arise in our litigious society, they make allowances for that via disclaimers. The Mythbusters remind the audience every episode that they are professionals and since the average viewer is not, they are ordered to “not try this at home”. Does that stop everyone from trying to blow up Buster, as an example? Of course not, but it does remove the show’s culpability. My question is this: Should they be held responsible when their efforts to entertain result in criminal acts?
John Fowles The Collector was made into a movie in 1965 about a man who kidnapped and imprisoned a woman he was obsessed with, and held her until a relationship developed. She died, and he blamed her for it and looked for better ways to hold a woman captive and improve the experience for himself. Robert Berdella, a.k.a. The Kansas City Butcher, credited the movie version for planting the seed of fantasies about his subsequent acts. While he admitted that it just laid the foundation for the feelings that were already there, it seems fiction always must play as fodder.
Supposedly, Mark David Chapman’s obsession with killing John Lennon was assuaged temporarily by watching the movie Ordinary People. It was an emotional movie that inspired a lot of people in different ways. There hasn’t been an issue with crediting positive influences to any art form. Should there be a double standard applied?
But of course!
Don’t shoot the messenger
There is a precarious balance that faces artists in providing necessary escapes in entertaining ways and with giving fodder to disturbed viewers. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, humans are fascinated with violence and the ability to inflict it on others, thus determining their fate. It gives us the control that we feel we don’t have over our own destiny. Most of us are content with experiencing it vicariously, and there are plenty of opportunities out there to do so. From slowing down to check out car accidents, restraining ourselves from asking a soldier if he or she has killed people, flirting with road rage, and more to the point of this writing, immersing ourselves safely in pure fantasy. It’s there, and we are drawn to it. Like screaming at the plants, it shouldn’t hurt anyone, and it is a great stress-reliever.
We are born with a survival instinct, and it is manifested in a fight or flight response. When crimes are committed, we want to know why it happened. This provides an opening, and some are inclined to take it to save their own asses. In the movie Primal Fear, Edward Norton’s character faked a stutter and dissociative identity disorder, i.e., multiple personalities, to avoid the death penalty. That is not a stretch by any means, nor is blaming actions on works of fiction. Remorse can result in sincere apologies, attrition, retribution, as well as accusation. Apparently, the first three are more daunting and difficult than sitting back and pointing the finger. It is a convenient and alluring escape hatch. The fight is owning up to one’s actions; the flight in laying blame on outside influences.
The show Dexter is a brilliant tour de force. The actors, writers, and directors succeed where many fail—they make an otherwise reprehensible character not only sympathetic, but also likable. We root for him, even though in reality, it would be the opposite. If faced with that character in our world, we’d be horrified and humiliated that we were so duped. We know this to be true, so we are free to embrace this alternate reality. Leave it to a few bad apples to spoil it for the rest of us.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I must gaze at Piss Christ, then punch a priest for bastardizing religion. That is what Andres Serrano wanted me to do, right?