Meet Mark Twitchell. Film maker, Star Wars geek… and a Dexter-obsessed killer. Steve Lillebuen’s The Devil’s Cinema is an absolute page-turner. We begin the book already with an idea of how the story ends. Or, if, like me, you didn’t know about Mark Twitchell, it should be easy enough to google his story. Yet reading The Devil’s Cinema was like reading a really action-packed thriller. I got sucked into Twitchell’s story, the horror of his kill room, the details of his film making dreams, and, above all, the excitement of police officers are they methodically find evidence to build their case.
I recently told someone about all the evidence against Twitchell, most notably the diary where he wrote S.K. Confessions (S.K. stands for serial killer, and is also a nice nod to writer Stephen King) and pretty much recorded all the details of his crime, making only minor changes to the names. When I later mentioned that this was a true story, the person I was talking to looked startled. She admitted that, the whole time she thought it was fiction, she kept thinking the writer was being lazy — how convenient would it be for the murderer to have written everything down? Yet it happened, and in another particularly interesting piece of evidence, Twitchell even left behind a sticky note with a Things to Do list, which included “kill room clean sweep.” One of the detectives on the case even admitted he was 50/50 on Twitchell as a viable suspect — the methodical mind who plotted the murder in S.K. Confessions could not be the same person who left behind so much evidence. That poor detective is teased for his 50/50 remark to this day. Seriously — you can’t make this up.
Part of the reason Twitchell’s story was so enthralling is that it hits so close to home. By all accounts, Twitchell seemed like a nice, harmless, geeky fanboy. He got giddy over winning costume competitions, and he dreamed about completing a 3D Star Wars fan film on a small budget. He does have his non-murderous dark side — he cheats on his wife and lies about having a full-time job. In fact, he has a chronic tendency to lie, even when there’s no need to. Lillebuen is fantastic at forming a complex, multi-faceted portrait, and you can almost feel like you know Twitchell.
I was creeped out that Twitchell used plentyoffish.com to lure his targets. He posed as a young woman and targeted single men. Have you ever tried online dating? Perhaps even at Plenty of Fish? It’s a free online dating site, perfect for people who want to try online dating out without having to pay eHarmony fees. Here’s the lesson: if someone you meet online wants to meet you at their garage — they won’t give you the street address, they tell you to take a circuitous route and park in the nearby woods and enter through the back door — don’t. Seriously creepy.
Lillebuen is a great storyteller, and I love that the book read more like a novel than a journalistic report. Lillebuen includes dialogue that sounds real, and in fact, he claims that they’re all as close to the original dialogue as actual witnesses remember. I also love how much of the material came from the Internet, with Twitchell’s Facebook updates and messages. His email exchanges with an American woman, Twitchell using a fake Dexter Morgan account, are chilling. The woman sounds like she really understands Twitchell and his fantasies, which is creepy on one hand, yet on the other hand, also sad when she distances herself from him later on.
Despite Lillebuen’s insistence that he wants to give a lot of attention to the victim’s life, it’s really Twitchell’s character who shines here — Lillebuen presents a very human side to a murderer. Lillebuen is far from sympathetic towards Twitchell, but his relating of all the facts does humanize him, and make him real. In a weird way, Twitchell’s humanity makes his crime even more chilling. When Twitchell admits to his wife that he can’t feel empathy, when Twitchell himself realizes he meets all the checkbox characteristics of psychopathy, you almost feel sympathy, until you realize that despite his realization, he feels no strong compulsion to seek help.
When we think of serial killers, we imagine truly horrific, larger than life, monstrous figures whose minds we can’t even begin to understand. However, the Twitchell revealed in Devil’s Cinema appears a sad, almost pathetic, figure. He may dream of being the super efficient, Dexter Morgan-level serial killer in S.K. Confessions, but he just couldn’t pull it off as he’d planned. And his career, however horrific his crime, was cut off pretty quickly. His crime is monstrous, yet, given the level of his ambition, he failed as a monster. Devil’s Cinema humanizes Twitchell even as it deflates him — he is, ultimately, just a man.