“This is sort of [a] when-geeks-go-bad cautionary tale,” says Steve Lillebuen of convicted murderer Mark Twitchell, whose morbid, tragic tale is the basis of the Edmonton author and journalist’s book, The Devil’s Cinema.
And despite the gruesomeness of the topic at hand, Lillebuen can’t help but chuckle at some aspects of the case, which features perhaps the geekiest murderer in the annals of crime history.
“He was just really nerdy. I mean a lot of our letters were about his hatred of George Lucas and other things that he’d rant about,” says the former Edmonton Journal reporter of his correspondence with Twitchell.
Nonetheless, Lillebuen acknowledges that while he may have been occasionally amused by the often charming killer, a shudder of recognition usually cut through their interactions.
“He had me laughing the first time I met him, which is sort of chilling in another way, right?” he says of his face-to-face meetings with Twitchell as the latter awaited trial. “The context of who is making you laugh... I thought — because it was so gruesome what he did — that, I don’t know... that it would be like the movies... something more sinister and foreboding.”
Twitchell, as you may recall, made international headlines following his arrest in 2008 when it was revealed that he had posed as a woman on the dating website Plenty of Fish, lured an unwitting stranger, Johnny Altinger, to his “kill room” — a rented garage in Edmonton’s Mill Woods neighbourhood — bludgeoned the man to death and then dismembered the body.
It wasn’t the first time Twitchell made the news, at least locally, but his other occasions in the spotlight were for far less nefarious reasons, such as coming in first place for his meticulously crafted Transformers costume at a large Halloween party held in Edmonton’s convention centre, and for making an extravagantly expensive Star Wars fan film, for which he even hired bit actors from the original films.
Twitchell’s pop-culture obsessions informed his crime as well. As smitten as he was by sci-fi and fantasy, it was a darker, more realistic character that totally rocked his world: Dexter — the serial killer character from the cable series of the same name.
Twitchell was so taken with the show that he modelled his next fan-film closely after the series — right down to re-creating the “kill room” in which Dexter plies his dark trade.
Unfortunately, once he switched the klieg lights off in the small garage, Twitchell’s fantasies remained unsatisfied, and he decided to act them out in a very real manner.
“I think his personality is that he becomes easily obsessed with something new — something enters his life and his life becomes completely taken over and controlled by his new interest,” says Lillebuen. “We saw that with his Star Wars film — it wasn’t just a quickie little fan film. I mean, he had professional props.... He brought in actors from the real Star Wars films! It’s always over-the-top.”
Unfortunately, even more so than any droid or Jedi, says Lillebuen, Dexter Morgan “resonated with him the way no other character had before.”
And perhaps the reason Twitchell’s story resonated with Lillebuen, not to mention all the news agencies that picked up on it, is that so many aspects of it are reflective of 21st century culture — not just its entertainment but its social media as well. Twitchell lured his victim from an Internet dating site, helped plan the crime on Facebook and even ordered weapons used in the murder online. The digital trail he left behind ultimately led to his conviction.
“It’s fascinating to me... a crime like this couldn’t have happened five years earlier because it’s so dependant on the Internet,” says Lillebuen.
“There are a lot of novelistic elements to this story — if novels describe what aspects of current culture are, then this book describes the Internet age.”
Although Lillebuen admits he was frustrated that the creators of Dexter refused to comment on the case, he hit research pay dirt when he was contacted by the most important participant in the drama.
“One day I was at home and my cellphone rang... the voice on the other end of the phone just goes, ‘hey, it’s Mark.’ Big pause, big pause.... He didn’t say Twitchell. I almost wonder if he was doing it for dramatic effect — the killer is contacting the journalist. This was months before his trial,” recalls Lillebuen.
While Twitchell always denied that the crime was a premeditated murder (he dubiously claimed he acted in self-defence, saying Altinger became enraged after discovering the ruse which led him to the garage), he admitted to pretty much everything else.
His co-operation, coupled with Lillebuen’s exhaustive research, helped produce the compelling true-crime tome that is The Devil’s Cinema. Despite knowing how the story pans out, it’s a surprisingly suspenseful read. Lillebuen alternates between Twitchell and Altinger’s points-of-view as their paths inevitably converge.
Lillebuen seems rightfully pleased with the effort, his first book, but says for his next one he’ll likely focus on a less dark subject.
“Maybe I’ll write about puppies,” he quips.
As for his long correspondence with Twitchell — they had been in contact the day before the author sat down for this interview, when Twitchell informed him that he’d be dropping all his appeals — Lillebuen says he’s putting that behind him too.
“To be honest, I think that’s the end of the road for me — his appeal is over, the book is out. I think it would be a bit weird if we kept writing just for writing’s sake,” he says. “He’s not my pen pal.”