Trigger warning: This story deals with instances of violence.
By now it is no secret that Shraddha Walkar's killer Aftab Amin Poonawalla was an ardent fan of the Showtime crime series Dexter and was even inspired by it while disposing of his live-in partner's remains.
This is, of course, not the first case of gruesome violence that is inspired by a piece of pop culture. It’s a common cliche to associate American school shooters with violent video games. Glamorising Joaquin Phoenix’s tragic clown in Joker or Christian Bale’s serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (both of whom have found a resurgence among teens on the Internet who see them as “sigma males”) are also seen as major red flags these days.
Officially addicted to Dexter. Michael C. Hall makes serial killing look good.— v. (@vickyzuberi) December 24, 2010
Even in India, the likes of stalker heroes or uber-cool gangsters can be misinterpreted among viewers. For instance, in 2016, Snapdeal employee Deepti Sarna was stalked by a man who claimed that he was inspired by Shah Rukh Khan’s villain in Darr.
The intentions behind Dexter’s murders are quite different from Poonawalla’s case: Coming back to Dexter, there are chances that Poonawalla perhaps looked up to the central character as an ideal protagonist. The only difference is that unlike Poonawalla’s shocking single murder, Dexter Morgan is a serial killer with over 140 kills to his name.
Instead of slaying any close partners or friends, the forensic technician adopts a vigilante person by night, targeting criminals who are on the loose. In his head, Dexter can morally justify his killings, looking at his reign of terror as a moral service to society. Poonawalla, on the other hand, killed and butchered his girlfriend after an argument over the issue of marriage.
Hence, it is not that simple to portray Poonawalla as an “Indian Dexter” as mainstream media outlets are trying to. The psychological state of Poonawalla while emulating Dexter can obviously be ascertained from a professional behavioural therapist and these views too can be concluded once more details from the case come out.
Dexter’s body disposal methods are different but creative enough to inspire real-life killers: Still, what can be concluded is that Dexter probably inspired him the most when it comes to disposing off the bodies. Showcased in stylish montages, Dexter is often shown as slicing his victim’s cheek with a scalpel, followed by the gory butchering of other body parts. In the initial episodes of the debut season, he is often seen wrapping the body parts in layers of plastic and encasing them in tightly-wrapped plastic bags. He also throws rocks in the bags to ensure that they sink to the bottom of the Bay Harbour.
However, in the future episodes, when this move alerts the authorities, Dexter resorts to just washing away the bags towards the Gulf of Mexico, hoping that the entrails get scattered across the Atlantic Ocean.
Duct-taping the plastic bags ensures no blood spills out of Dexter’s handiwork. Even though Poonawalla resorted to store Walkar’s remains in a refrigerator and to later throw them away in Delhi’s Mehrauli forest, there are high chances that the self-professed Dexter fan was inspired by the suave and sophisticated ways of body disposal that play out in the show.
After all, with his devilish grin and the stylish hyperviolence, Michael C Hall might definitely come off as charming portraying Dexter, no matter if he is morally wrong or not.
Dexter does make for a “lovable serial killer’’: With the character’s grey areas and vigilante tendencies, Dexter is easily one of those antiheroes that viewers can root for and Gen-Z psychology students can write their dissertations on.
Social psychologist Bella DePaulo refers to Dexter as a “lovable serial killer” in a guest piece for HuffPost. To quote her directly,
DePaulo along with other psychology experts ended up contributing to a non-fiction book aptly titled The Psychology of Dexter. The chapters deal with Dexter’s troubled childhood, relationships, his own (possible disorders) that eventually contribute to his endless cycle of violence.
It is apt quoting a chapter on his love life given that Poonawalla also murdered his partner. As bio-psychologist Nigel Barber writes in the book, “Dexter meets all of the clinical criteria for an abusive boyfriend and his cold calculating schemes are psychologically abusive.”
Not the first murderer inspired by Dexter: What is concerning is that the show has actually inspired other criminals too. Canadian director Mark Twitchell was convicted for first-degree murder back in 2011. His killing patterns were way more similar to that of Dexter than Poonawalla’s methods.
Not only did Twitchell butcher his victim and throw the bags of body parts in a sewer, he had also recreated a killer room, a simulation to prepare for the killing, just like what Dexter used to do in his eponymous series. Naturally, the media dubbed Twitchell as the “Dexter Killer”.
The very same year, Norway’s Shamrez Khan, a 28-year-old man hired a killer to target a Norwegian-Pakistani woman claiming that the woman was evil and she must be stopped, just like how Dexter served moral justice. Three years later, an American teen was sentenced for 25 years after he murdered and dismembered his 17-year-old girlfriend.
Such cases do show how morally grey or hyper-violent criminals in pop culture can end up inspiring actual crimes even if that would obviously not be the intention of the show or movie’s makers.
Christopher Ryan sums up the dual nature of the character in the aforementioned book on Dexter,