Murder feed: Luka Magnotta and Mark Twitchell

MELBOURNE — The police case against fugitive Luka Magnotta has been drawing comparisons to Mark Twitchell, a Dexter-inspired wannabe serial killer whose crimes are explored in my narrative non-fiction book The Devil’s Cinema.

Both were heavy Internet users — especially social media — and were eager self-promoters who ended up documenting their (alleged) crimes.

An element of reality and fantasy had also merged in their lives in very twisted ways. Hollywood fiction likely provided some degree of inspiration for real-life tragedies in both cases. And clearly filmmaking played a central role, too.

Twitchell was far more covert in his killing, however, so this case ventures into different territory on that front. The killer here is seeking out global publicity while Twitchell had global publicity thrust upon him. The motives and techniques used in selecting a victim are completely different as well.

But in any event, both of these strange cases show how a new breed of criminal is thriving in a digital age: the social-media killer.

With rapidly expanding technology that links all of us together instantly, killers are now able to be just as social-media savvy as the rest of us, as I explained in an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail (“Murderers have become online broadcasters. And their audience is us.”).

For those who haven’t followed the story: Magnotta, a 29-year-old struggling model and escort, had crossed paths in Montreal with Lin Jun, a 33-year-old university student who had moved from China to Canada. Police say they were in a relationship.

A terrifying 10-minute home videotape then emerged online last week that showed Lin’s body being tied to a bed, stabbed with an ice pick and dismembered by his killer. A torso was found in a locked suitcase in a Montreal alley while a foot and hand were later mailed to two Canadian political party headquarters.

Magnotta is suspected of uploading the gruesome video to a gore-specialty website, and the horrific clip has gone viral and been watched more than 300,000 times.

He has since vanished and is likely hiding in Europe, but there is some suggestion that he remains active online. If the report is true, Magnotta is so brazen that he’s publicly commenting under an alias on the very case against him. It’s all very, “Catch me if you can.”

Police expect to charge him with first-degree murder and other serious offences in connection with Lin’s death whenever officers finally track him down.

Thanks to social-media, Lin’s suspected killer is able to promote his alleged crimes directly to an online audience, and communicate directly with all of us via Twitter, Facebook, or any other digital platform. He can also monitor reaction in a live-feed from anywhere in the world.

None of this would have been possible just a few short years ago.

Just like Twitchell, Magnotta’s various social-media profiles contain elements of both fact and fiction and it is difficult to separate the reality from their altered version of it. In Magnotta’s case, his profiles link him to interests in everything from the KGB to necrophilia, from white supremacy to high-end fashion.

It’s worth noting that his profiles also contain images from Basic Instinct, a Hollywood movie about a killer using an ice pick against a victim tied to a bed (where have we seen that before?). The video of Lin’s dismemberment is also set to the tune of a song from the film adaptation of American Psycho.

Everyone is searching for a motive here, but what is interesting is that Magnotta is able read all of this commentary — even this very blog post — while the international manhunt continues. Bizarre.

The most disturbing part about this new case is the creation and distribution of a snuff film. During my research into the Mark Twitchell case, I was surprised to be told that there is actually a market for snuff films — and the large interest in watching Lin’s dismemberment this week certainly proves it.

Edmonton detectives had suspected one of Twitchell’s motives in randomly selecting and killing a victim in a scenario ripped from his own horror script could be to generate a profit  (See: The Devil’s Cinema). He had a background in sales jobs, after all, and could have been a killer motivated by money.

And it didn’t take police very long to discover that an offer of $1 million had been floating around online for someone to make and distribute a snuff film.

Apparently, the offer still stands.

I personally don’t understand it. While I am certainly fascinated by true crime stories, and fictional ones, there is a gigantic difference in my mind between watching a fictional horror film designed to make you scream and watching real horror, with a real victim — who has a family in mourning.

In The Devil’s Cinema, I sought to understand the how and the why of an unheard-of crime that began with a scenario we could all relate to: a suburban father with no criminal record. Then, somehow, he becomes a suspected serial killer because he’s been hiding a dark side in plain sight. I wanted to explore the psychology of the killer, not focus on the raw blood-and-guts of his crimes and see it splashed all over the page solely for our entertainment.

Why would anyone want to willingly watch a video of a man being dismembered? That is just a big step too far for me. Perhaps it is because the Internet has blurred our sense of what is real and what is fake. I’ll note that many people who did watch the kill video had also commented on how they had questioned if it was actually real.

Shockingly, it is.

As a journalist, I am very careful about how I write about crime and make sure victims get a large voice in my narratives, too. I aim to ensure my reporting is fair, balanced, not sensational, and tells the whole story — a proper but exciting account of our dark history.

But in the digital age, my goals and those of any other responsible crime reporter, don’t really factor anymore.

A killer can bypass the media entirely and get his crazy message sent directly to the public — a public that appears so willing to play a role in his game.

And now with Magnotta seemingly participating in an online discussion about himself, we are entering a strange new world, one that none of us really understands or are really prepared for.

The next few weeks will prove to be very interesting.

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