Terrance Heath

Serial Killer Action Figure?

Filed By Terrance Heath | September 04, 2010 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Dennis Rader, Dexter, parental supervision, serial killer, Toys R Us

I’ve written once or twice about my interest in crime stories and earlier research into serial killers for a writing project. I’ve seen the first season of Dexter, but have yet to catch up with the rest on Netflix. And, I’ll admit that I was intrigued and found Dexter more than a little sexy. (Michael C. Hall’s good looks and portrayal of the character go a long way towards towards turning a murderous psychopath into a sympathetic character. It doesn’t hurt that Dexter’s deadly impulses are directed at other killers.)

That said, I actually agree with this guy. A Dexter "action figure" is just a bit much for my tastes.

Toys R Us is one of the best-known toy store chains in the country. However, one toy collector is wondering why the toy store is selling an action figure meant for adults only. Toys R Us is selling a "Dexter" doll. "Dexter" is a very popular television show on Showtime. In the show, the character, Dexter is a serial killer who kills other murderers.

The "Dexter" action figure comes complete with a handsaw and bloody gloves. Toy collector Jim Schultz said he was amazed when he saw the dolls on the shelves of Toys R Us, "So, as I’m weaving through the aisles, I pass this toy and I think, that, that can’t be." Schultz complained to the toy distributor. The response from Toys R Us was that the small number of items were ordered to accommodate the stores’ avid action figure collector customers. While Schultz understand, he still believes they should be sold by a different retailer. "I understand it’s marketed towards adults. But I do condemn Toys ‘R’ Us for putting it on their shelves in the same store where you can go buy Barbie, and Kermit, and Elmo."

At the Ohio store, where Schultz saw the doll, Toys R Us representatives said there had only been Schultz’s complaint. The figures have been on the shelf for a couple of weeks now. They also pointed out that the packaging clearly states that the action figure is for ages 18 and up, not intended for children.

Unlike Mr. Schultz, however, I’m not going to make a big deal out of Toys R Us carrying it. Though I might suggest putting it behind the register for those adults who request it, I think a better idea is that parents don’t send their kids into Toys R Us alone, or let them wander the store alone. And it goes without saying that parents should take responsibility for approving or rejecting which toys come into the home.

Basically, I feel the same way about this that I do about video games.

... I’m reminded of an experience I had while shopping for an expansion pack for The Sims, and overheard a kid trying to convince his mom to buy the same one for him.

It was a few years ago. I was standing in the middle of Electronics Boutique, at a D.C. area mall, perusing the shelves and trying to decide what -- if anything - to buy. At that time, Electronic Arts had just come out with a new expansion pack for The Sims, called Hot Date. The name was a hint at what the the expansion offered. The characters in the game, called Sims, now had the ability to "play in bed" (now a standard feature in the 3D sequel to the original game, Sims 2).

I'd bought the expansion pack and tried it out, but hadn't thought much about it until I overheard a conversation between a mother and son who were standing nearby while I perused the shelves. The kid really wanted the expansion pack, and I figured he must already have the game. He lied somewhat unconvincingly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he tried to convince her that there was nothing unobjectionable in the game. The mother was less than certain she should buy it for him, and was looking at the box trying to make heads or tails of it. The kid, meanwhile was rushing the mom along, hoping she'd buy it and just give up trying to screen the game before he played it.

I was torn. I wasn't a parent at the time, but I felt pretty sure if I was I'd want to take the time to screen what computer games my kid played. At the same time I sympathized with the kid, who probably knew enough about sex that he didn't need protection from a computer simulation of it (particularly one that takes place under the sheets with the non-existent "naughty bits" [pixeled out]. (Sims don't have genitals, a fact revealed by a "nudity hack" that circulated among the online community of Sims enthusiasts.) I must have looked like I was listening to the conversation and knew the game they were talking about. The kid looked at me as if asking for help. I gave a look I intended to say "you're on your own, kid." And left the store.

For the millionth time, it’s called parenting, and it affects your kid’s brain even more than computer games. It means paying attention to what your kid’s reading or watching, and playing. Or at least to the degree possible. Don’t send your kid into the store to buy a game. Go with them. Look at the box. Don’t just hand your kid a credit card to buy a game online. Look at the site. Read the description. Maybe even download the game demo and play it yourself. You won’t get all the content, but you’ll see enough of it to get an idea of what it’s like. And if nothing else, read the ratings on every game that comes into your house. If it’s not downloaded, then the ratings are printed right on the box.

It’s not like your kid isn’t going to hear about it or see it. As with games, movies, etc., if you don’t have it in your home some other parent may have it in theirs, and there’s little you can do about that. But you can lay down the law about what you do and do not approve of and what you do and do not allow in your home. You can explain to your kid why you feel that way about it. (An explanation does not necessarily open the floor to debate.)

Parker knows, for example, that there are some shows that we feel are inappropriate for him to watch. At least one of them is on the Cartoon Network, and sometimes comes on before his bedtime. But we’re not complaining that the Cartoon Network should pull the show, or move its time slot. Instead, we tell Parker we think it’s inappropriate viewing for him, and we change the channel. (If he’s watching television, one of us is always in the room and/or watching with him. Eventually, we’ll probably have to put parental controls in place.)

Parker will even alert us if the show comes on before we remember to change the channel. Maybe it’s because he knows how we feel about the show. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t like it. Maybe it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. The point it, we pay attention to what he’s watching. We set limits, and he knows what they are. Maybe, on some level, he even appreciates that.

Needless to say, the Dexter action figure won’t be coming into our house. Parker’s never seen the show (we don’t have Showtime) and isn’t even aware of it, as far as I know.

And I won’t be buying it for myself either. Thanks to my research into serial killers, it just creeps me out.

Meanwhile, my research expanded to include The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers and The Serial Killer Files. Whenever possible, I found myself searching for more information on the victims, in some cases finding pictures of how their killers left them. It was like an independent immersion study course, and I came up covered slime.

The last one I studied was Dennis Rader, a/k/a BTK. If each profile made these people less interesting, Rader was perhaps the least interesting. There was nothing fascinating, nothing curious, nothing sympathetic or even remotely likable about him. His ordinariness both added to the impact of his crimes and pushed fascination over into disgust. By the time I'd finished with him, I'd finished the process I began with Bundy, and my point of view had flipped to those of his victims.

I'd never look at people or cases like this in the same way again. Perhaps it was the passage of time -- nearly 20 years -- between the nights spent reading about the Manson murders and the nights spent reading about Rader's murders. I'd become a parent since then, and I read the stories about Rader's murders through the eyes of a parent.

I read with the heart of a parent about how he killed Josephine Otero and little Joseph Otero Jr., strangle the nine-year-old boy to death even as his mother regained consciousness enough to realize what was going and scream "You killed my boy," before he strangled her too -- on the bed where Josephine was also tied up, before he took the 11-year-old girl to the basement and hung her.

I read about how he suffocated and strangled Shirley Vian, even as her children were tied up and locked in the bathroom.

I read about how he strangled Vicki Wegerle and left her for dead, with her two-year-old son right there in the house.

I went all the way back to Bundy and listened to the statements and interviews of parents who's daughters he'd killed.

I'd had enough. I had to come up for air. My research ended.

Dexter is a fictional character, but the rest of these guys were all too real. And so were their victims.

Besides, it’s been done. We already have a serial killer calendar, trading cards, and a burgeoning set of serial killer action figures. Granted, you won’t find these in the aisles of any stores near you. But it’s easy enough to have them delivered to your doorstep.

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My problem is less with the toy and more with the people who want to police the aisles with one eye shut.
Why did this particular toy deserve a complaint and not others? It's all about marketing. Toy soldiers, play guns, violent video games are all in Toys R Us stores and do exactly what a Dexter figure would do; kill people. But those are marketed in other ways and are more acceptable. Maybe this is a stretch, but even board games like Clue and Risk have violent elements and come with violent accesories. Dexter kills with a hacksaw, Mrs. Peacock has her knife (or gun or rope)....someone dies....a fun time is had by all!?! The situations are different between the two, but the themes remain the same. Consumers seem to be okay with violent toys as long as they are packaged in kid friendly boxes. When something like Dexter comes along and is straightfoward about what it is, then it becomes a problem.
Keep Dexter on the shelf. If you find it offensive, turn your head and run as fast as you can toward the Barbie (because she doesn't generate controversy at all...), Kermit and Elmo sections.

Terrance, I love your columns, but here I have to disagree. Frankly, I'm getting really tired of everything in modern American society having to pass through the filter of "protecting the children". If we were honestly that serious about protecting little innocents, a comic-book TV show like Dexter never would have gotten the greenlight for production. (Neither would a lot of other stuff, but that's another story for another time.) But the show's been around for, what, three seasons now? And to suddenly be upset about an "action figure" as high-concept as this, when we have others already existing that are just as malicious (if not more so) seems a somewhat disingenuous argument. Just as you have the parental right to change the channel, so do you have the parental right not to buy the gosh-darn thing. In the end, it's just a poorly made, overpriced doll. It'll be remaindered soon enough.

Actually, I think we agree. I don't think the toy should be pulled from stores. I'd just exercise my parental option of not buying it. Putting it behin the counter would be a compromise. That came to mind because I was working in a record store during high school when the whole 2 Live Crew controversy broke out. At the time management put album begins the counter and we had to ask for ID to sell it. I remember a few parents asking thierry kids why they needed an ID to buy it and then refusing to buy it for their kids as a result. Of course we sold it to several adults.

Maybe that would be a bit much in this case. The 18+ sticker should serve to alert this parents who bother to look.

I don't think it should be pulled off the shelves at Toys R Us, because I think the 18+ warning is enough. I don't want to be preachy about parenthood, but the logic is pretty simple: if the kid isn't allowed to watch the show, then the kid can't have the toy version of the character.

Also? Many kids play violently, as pointed out by EJ above. They crash cars, make "good" action figures beat the "bad" ones, play with toy guns, etc. This toy just has blood and a different weapon. The amount of violent play allowed should be up to individual parents/guardians, not retailers.

Which of these sounds more appropriate for a small child to watch?:

Character A is a vigilante shown to track and execute serial killers. He lives by a strict moral code that prevents him from killing innocents. He is also shown to be a caring father to his son and step-children, and highly protective of his wife.

Character B is kills children and adults alike, often dozens at a time, without any sign of remorse. He forces his daughter to watch as a subordinate orders the deaths of millions, perhaps billions, of people, including many of her close friends. He routinely reneges on agreements and threatens, tortures or kills subordinates when it suits his purposes. In time he kills both the men who had been his master - one of whom had also been his closest friend; his actions also lead to the death of his wife and, through others, the deaths of perhaps billions more.

Character A is, of course, Dexter. Character B is Darth Vader. Remind me, which of the two was marketed directly at kids?


He freaking DIES. Bad guy dies, justice is achieved. Dexter doesn't die (or at least hasn't yet).

That's how parents discern, through moralizing outcomes. Bad people get what's coming to them, or they get upset with cases like Dexter.

Of course, that's a crappy notion to give children, that bad guys always lose. Looking at our world, it should be quite obvious that for the most part bad guys live decent to excellent lives as they carry out their morally questionable activities. Look at Fidel Castro-- he's lived quite a life.