Killing of Shraddha Walker: When movie monsters inspire real-life ones

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A particularly chilling line in the TV show Dexter is: “I am a very neat monster.”

As new details tumble out about the macabre murder of 26-year-old Shraddha Walker by Aftab Ameen Poonawala, who chopped her up into 35 pieces, it seems he picked up the dismemberment technique from the TV show Dexter.

Dexter, is an American crime drama television series in which a forensic blood spatter analyst called Dexter Morgan leads a secret parallel life as a vigilante serial killer, hunting down murderers who have not been adequately punished by the justice system due to corruption or legal technicalities.

The show was a big hit in India. He is shown meticulously neutralising his targets. Chopping their body into pieces. Wrapping them up in plastic sheets and disposing of them.

Canadian independent filmmaker Mark Andrew Twitchell was so inspired by Dexter that he created his own plot line, which he shot as a short film about a vigilante murder. Fortunately, he was caught after his first killing and, in 2011, sentenced to life in prison.

A copycat crime is one that is modelled after or inspired by a previous crime that has been reported in the media or published in fiction. Few copycat crimes are fully replicated. Instead, the imitator lifts and copies certain elements — the modus operandi, the setting, the technique — of the original crime.

Intense media coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1912 spawned a multitude of similar crimes, and the term “copycat effect” came into being.

Several films have been implicated in copycat murders over the years. The Russian roulette scene in the movie The Deer Hunter has been linked to several accidental suicides. The ultraviolent A Clockwork Orange has been accused of spurring real-life violence. Even The Fisher King, a dramatic comedy directed by Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam, partially inspired a mass killing.

The crime genre has become very popular with streaming platforms showing everything from gore to graphic violence. True crime has proved over the past five years that it can be a tent-pole for the biggest streamers globally. From Tiger King to The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel to The Vow, true-crime documentaries are more popular than ever.

Netflix is currently showing a series on Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy had been dead for 30 years when Netflix released two projects about the infamous murderer within a relatively short period in 2019. First came the four-part documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes shortly followed by a dramatization called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The Ted Bundy Tapes was the platform’s most-watched documentary that year.

Take the case of Jeffrey Dahmer. He started killing in 1978, just 18 years old, and wasn’t arrested for murder until 1991, after a would-be victim escaped and led police back to Dahmer’s Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home.

Photos of mutilated bodies and body parts strewn across the apartment were seen. He even had a vat of acid he used to dispose of victims. In all, Dahmer killed 17 people, mostly young men of color. He served time in prison twice — the first time for molestation and the second time for murder — and was killed by a fellow inmate in 1994.

A construction worker, John Wayne Gacy, was involved in politics and even acted as a clown for birthday parties. Gacy came under suspicion in 1978 when a 15-year-old boy, last seen with him, went missing. Soon after, a search warrant granted police access to the Gacy home. They found 30 bodies buried in a four-foot crawl space under his home. He was convicted of 33 counts of murder, with additional counts of rape and torture. He was executed by lethal injection in 1994.

Ted Bundy was known as the “Handsome Devil”. A good-looking man, he loved the attention his murders garnered him. He targeted mostly college-age women — from Washington and Oregon all the way to Utah and Colorado. Bundy was once arrested in Colorado and convicted of kidnapping, but he escaped custody, moving to Florida where he killed many more. Bundy’s final arrest captured America’s attention, as he acted as his own lawyer. A disbelieving Bundy was executed in an electric chair in 1989.

Take the Sharon Tate (actor and model) murder. That happened 50 years ago by Charles Manson and his cult gang. Multiple movies have been made on the incident. Each trashed by the Tate family as being exploitative. The latest one is called Tate.

In The Anatomy of Violence, criminologist Adrian Raine says, “Genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behaviour.” There are various factors like genetics, environment, trauma, and personality traits that contribute to the making of a serial killer.

Some psychologists claim Aftab Poonawala is a psychopath. He suffers from a special type of mental disorder. Maybe he has more murder precedents before Shraddha. According to some experts, it is not possible to do such an act under normal mental conditions.

In the investigation, the police found out after Shraddha’s murder, Aftab searched on Google — ‘how to clean the blood?’. He also researched anatomy and physiology on the Internet. He has a Google search on dismembering human bodies.

According to Delhi Police, Aftab used to invite women to his house and reportedly engage in sex. When some of the women came over the severed head of Shraddha was still lying-in the fridge.

Over the years, there have been several murders that shocked the country. And now there are a rash of crime shows inspired by true crime on Indian television and streaming platforms. From Indian Predator to The Butcher of Delhi to Delhi Crime based on the Nirbhaya gang-rape case, there have been several Indian crime shows topping the charts.

Every episode of the thriller show Abhay is based on real serial killers, murders and true crimes that have appeared on the front page of newspapers over the years in India.

Mohan Kumar, also known as Cyanide Mohan, was held responsible for killing 20 women. After having sex with women, he would trick them into taking contraceptives which were cyanide pills. Between 2005 to 2009, he had killed about 20 women. He was given a lifer.

Devendra Sharma was a doctor of Ayurvedic medicines. He started stealing cars to make extra bucks and killing drivers around Uttar Pradesh, Gurgaon and Rajasthan between 2002 and 2004. He confessed to killing about 30-40 drivers. He too was given a lifer.

The Nithari (Noida) killers were found guilty of rape, murder and abduction of over 16 children. Mohinder Singh Pandher, along with his domestic help, Surindher Koli were held in connection to the discovery of skulls of 16 missing children in Nithari village between 2005 and 2006. Both these men were accused of rape, cannibalism, pedophilia, and organ trafficking. They are currently in prison.

KD Kempamma, also known as “Cyanide Mallika”, was India’s first convicted female serial killer who murdered six women. She was accused of killing six women between 1999 and 2007. She killed women who were facing domestic issues through cyanide poisoning and then robbed them. She was given a lifer.

Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit were sisters who killed over six toddlers. The killer sisters were trained to be petty thieves by their own mother. Soon, they started kidnapping young children to use them as a shield. They were charged with 13 kidnappings and 9 murders. They are sitting on lifers.

Raman Raghav killed Mumbai’s slum dwellers in the 1960s. He used to use a baton to kill his victims. When he was arrested, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but he confessed to killing 23 people. He died from kidney failure in 1995.

M Jaishankar was an Indian criminal who was accused of a series of rapes and murders during 2008 and 2011. He was involved in 30 rapes, 15 murders and robbery cases across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. He was later arrested and diagnosed as mentally ill. He committed suicide in 2018.

Anything ghoulish never deterred Aftab. Is that rational human behaviour? He was planning to kill Shraddha for some time, he told the cops. He strangled and dismembered her body. He maintained psychotic calm.

Late-19th-century writings of French criminologist Gabriel Tarde spoke of imitation playing a role in the genesis of crime. However, data tells us that most people convicted of copycat murders already had a violent streak or were mentally unstable before they began killing. As such, crime-related media coverage is more like a rudder than a trigger, providing a troubled individual with direction along a path they’ve already begun travelling down.

The author is CEO of nnis. Views expressed are personal.

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Killing of Shraddha Walker: When movie monsters inspire real-life ones
Killing of Shraddha Walker: When movie monsters inspire real-life ones
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