The issue of copycat crime is a fascinating one that raises deep questions in the fields of psychology, philosophy, criminology and jurisprudence. Are filmmakers – if not legally, at least morally – responsible for their creations that motivate people to commit crime? Would these people act in such a manner but for the movie? Should restrictions be placed on certain people from being exposed to these sort of films, given that the vast majority of people are unaffected? But the most pertinent question it raises is: is this the only known example of fanboyism more disturbing than a cheddar-smelling, Doritos-munching, hairy-backed, sweat-stained, neck-bearded, pannus-dripping 40 year-old man in a Princess Leia costume? Let us consider some of the more gruesome crimes influenced by movies and find out.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
The natural place to start any discussion of this topic is Natural Born Killers, the film that has inspired the greatest determinable wave of copycat killings: not only has it been associated with the highest number of separate killing sprees but it is also the one film where the killers definitively admit that the film was the source of their actions. Unsurprisingly, Tarantino was involved in the writing of a film which involves a couple who embark on a spate of glorified murders that ultimately catapult the killers into stardom. That this film spawned a series of real-life killings constitutes a matryoshka doll of twists that M. Night Shyamalan could only dream of: the film’s homicidal lovers Mickey and Mallory Knox were themselves based on the serial exploits of the real-life couple Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
The most famous killings allegedly caused by Natural Born Killers were committed by the couple Sarah Edmonson and Benjamin Darrus: famous neither for the number of victims (2) nor any specific modus operandi (the killers dropped LSD and watched the film several times before shooting two victims soon after), but for the unsuccessful legal action brought by the victims’ family and friends (most notably, legal fiction author John Grisham) against the creators of the film that challenged the First Amendment of the Constitution itself. Natural Born Killers was also an influence for the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre, with the phrase “going NBK” in the journal entries of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold signaling the start of their rampage. Jeremy Steinke claimed on an audio tape that the slaughter of his girlfriend’s parents and brother was his love legacya la Natural Born Killers.
In addition to these, some other crimes have been significantly influenced by Natural Born Killers:
* The decapitation of a 13 year old Texan girl by a 14 year old boy who wanted “to be famous like the Natural Born Killers”.
* Nathan Martinez murdering his mother and sister after becoming obsessed with the film.
* Angus Wallan and Kara Winn murdering their roommate.
* Eric Tavulares murdering Lauren Aljubouri halfway through watching the film.
Although the creators of Natural Born Killers escaped legal ramifications, Doug Richardson discovered that escaping social reprisal was not so easy. The screenwriter of Money Train found that his membership at the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was given a big blue downvote as a result of a particularly horrific scene in the movie. This scene involved an attendant in a New York subway tollbooth being set on fire and, soon after the movie was released, a copycat filled a booth with lighter fluid and ignited it. Unlike the movie however, the tollbooth attendant could not escape death.
Child’s Play Series
Anyone who read Goosebumps as a kid would certainly have nostalgic memories of bedwetting due to R.L.Stine’s Night of the Living Doll stories. Slightly less supervised kids may have memories of being scared witless from watching the murdering, sadistic living doll Chucky in the Child’s Play series – or their first wet dream over Jennifer Tilly. But some took their fascination with the films beyond this, converting the rather tacky executions of the movies into some of the most vicious and debased killings ever witnessed.
The most notorious person influenced was Martin Bryant, Australia’s worst serial killer. Bryant killed 35 people in a massacre in Port Arthur in 1996, shaking the psyche of the entire nation. A schizophrenic, he became obsessed with the childlike characteristics of the doll and its ability to wreak vengeful destruction. It was submitted to a psychiatrist that his obsession with the movie was one of the contributing factors in the fateful massacre. In 1993 Liverpool, the abhorrent killing of 2-year-old Jamie Bulger by stoning at the hands of two 10 year-old Chucky fans stirred the country into a seething rage. Manchester was also rocked by the by the tragic death of Suzanne Capper, a 16-year-old who was tortured then torched. During this entire ordeal the perpetrators chanted, “’I’m Chucky. Chucky wants to play” and played a tape that mimics Chucky’s lines of “Hi, I’m Chucky, want to play?” The moral of all this is patently clear: thou shalt not worship false-eyed dolls.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
As everyone knows, winding and watching clockwork has been a national British horological pastime since the time of dawn of the 3rd of March 1832. Unfortunately, many idle louts, unable to grasp the subtlety of such a fascination, instead chose to rewind and rewatch Kubrick’s ultra-violent A Clockwork Orange, and indulge in a pastime horribly pathological. After its 1971 release, Britain was subject to a series of crimes that exhibited similarities with the film, so much so that Kubrick himself withdrew it from British circulation.
Of the many of copycat crimes, there are several that are, like the British, peculiarly noteworthy. In 1973 there were two separate instances of 16-year-old boys imitating aspects of the film: the first beat a tramp to death (similar to the gang’s group assault of a drunk); the second, dressed in the distinctive uniform of the gang, stabbed a younger boy. A Dutch girl was gang-raped in Lancashire by a group singing, “Singin’ in the Rain”, the song sung by Alex in one of the most notorious scenes in the film. However, the coveted “Most Bizarre Crime Associated with A Clockwork Orange Since Its 1971 Release And Consequent Controversy and 2000 Re-release” award is easily claimed by John Ricketts, who, dressed as a droog, assaulted a woman dressed as Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard because she was taking up too much room on a dancefloor. Good work, John Ricketts, your voucher for 15 complimentary anger management sessions is in the mail.
The Collector (1965)
Another piece of British cinema, The Collector tells the story of a young, socially-awkward butterfly collector, who yearns after the stunning Miranda. When he wins enough money to buy his own house, the ardent lepidopterist decides to abduct Miranda and add her to his collection. He attempts to make her fall in love with him, but he never succeeds, and she eventually dies from exposure locked in his basement. Twenty years after its release, The Collector formed the basis for several abduction/murders that were part of the serial killings of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng. Lake wrote in his diary of Operation Miranda which described the capture and torture of Kathy Allen and Brenda O’Connor. The pair built a bunker to keep the two women, planning on using them for sex and housekeeping, documenting some of their interactions on tapes labeled “M Ladies”. When that didn’t work they murdered them. The two were forestalled after Ng was caught shoplifting; Lake committed suicide to avoid incarceration. They left a trail of 25 dead in their wake and were discovered to own a DIY torture-chamber in a secluded area of woods which contained a number of horrifically elaborate machines on the walls and above a type of dentist’s chair used for restraining victims.
The Basketball Diaries(1995)
The Basketball Diaries features Leonardo DiCaprio as a talented basketball player who spirals into heroin addiction. Like Inception, the major controversy stems from a dream consequence: in The Basketball Diaries DiCaprio has a daydream where, clad in a black trenchcoat, he enters his class with a shotgun and proceeds to massacre his classmates like Xaero with quad-damage. And, just like Inception, when someone follows Leo’s example, people die. Case in point: Barry Loukaitis’ 1996 classroom shooting that left 3 people dead. Loukaitis wore a black trenchcoat in which he concealed pistols, ammunition and a rifle; he entered the classroom and began shooting. After he had finished, he allegedly smiled and said, “That sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?” The expressions of his classmates were unknown, although we can assume they were equivalent to a negative.
The Matrix (1999)
All this talk of trenchcoats and algebra and Inception gives rise to a segue smoother than the one that Gob Bluth rides. Yes, The Matrix, the film that has inspired 9 in every 10 people to attempt ad-lib “reenactments” (which in actuality more closely resemble a flailing, bat-raping tortoise), has also played a pivotal role in several murder cases. Aside from the coats worn by Loukaitis, Harris, Klebold (which resemble the stylized coats worn by the protagonists in The Matrix), its philosophical premise that our reality is not real but rather a virtual program was internalized by several killers as a truth. By their logic, any people who were killed were not real people. After dismembering his landlady, Swedish exchange student Vadim Mieseges told police that “he’d been sucked into the Matrix”. Tonda Lynn Ansley also killed her landlady, but believing herself to be in the Matrix, likened the killing to a dream. Both of these killers were found to be insane. Perhaps the most notorious murderer to attempt to mount a plea based on The Matrix’s influence was Lee Boyd Malvo, the teenager who assisted John Allen Muhammad in the 2002 Washington sniper attacks. Malvo told psychiatrist Dewey Cornell that he had watched The Matrix “more than 100 times” and this in conjunction with Muhammad’s indoctrination was raised by the defense as grounds for insanity. The defense was unsuccessful: Malvo was sentenced to life without parole.
Taxi Driver (1976)
An older but similarly bizarre insanity case is that of John Hinkley Jr. who also blurred the boundaries between reality and fantasy. In this instance, Hinkley assumed that Robert DeNiro was talking to him when he played the role of a taxi driver who tries to assassinate a presidential candidate to impress a young woman. Hinkley was already living in a fantasy world where he had an imagined girlfriend, and so struck was he by DeNiro’s character that he began to live out the fantasy that he was indeed Travis Bickle. Growing ever more obsessed with the movie, he decided that he would also assassinate a president in order to impress Jodie Foster (who, coincidentally, plays the part of a prostitute in Taxi Driver. On the 30th of March 1981, Hinkley attacked President Ronald Reagan as he was leaving the Washington D.C. Hotel, managing to wound him with a ricochet bullet but failing to kill him. He was charged with a variety of offenses, but was found insane.
The Scream face is one the most instantly recognizable devices of modern horror cinema. A simple black robe and white mask, it has inspired hordes of Halloween costumes. And, although the film deliberately undercuts much of the horror genre, it has unfortunately inspired several bloody murders. Perhaps the most notable of these is the Belgian case of Thierry Jaradin, a truck driver who murdered his neighbor Alisson Cambier. When she stopped by to drop off some videos, he tried to pull a Young MC and bust a move. When he got rejected for being overzealous, he decided to dance to a different groove. He strode into the next room, donned his Scream costume and returned with two kitchen knives, stabbing Alisson 30 times. Meanwhile, in England, two teens stabbed their friend after watching the movie, thinking that the occult was talking through the film and telling them to kill him. Daniel Gill and Robert Fuller enticed their friend Ashley Murray to a secluded spot before attacking him and leaving him to die. He was found the next day and managed to survive, but the attempted murder was so abhorrent that the judge decided to release the perpetrators’ names despite their young age.
Wedding Crashers (2005)
Apart from disappointed audiences stabbing themselves in the eye with shivs made from popcorn containers, it is hard to imagine how Wedding Crashers, an irreverent comedy, could possibly influence criminal behavior. Olga Louniakova, a student at the Oxford School of Hair Design in Connecticut, found out the hard way that spiking a drink with Visine (as demonstrated by Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers) not only causes diarrhea but can cause severe poisoning. In a mistake capable of being in a movie, Olga poisoned the wrong bottle, which turned out to be her supervisor’s. She was found guilty of second degree reckless endangerment and sentenced to 2 years probation. Similar incidents have occurred at several high schools by student pranksters. Such pranks really give us the shits.
The Saw Franchise
The Saw franchise, which will conclude with a seventh film set to hit theaters later this month, involves films where the sadomasochistic killer Jigsaw sets victims torturous tests that require them to self-harm in order to escape death. Jigsaw introduces the nature of the test via a broadcasted distorted voice, normally including the phrase, “I want to play a game.” In another case involving shitty tweenage brats pranking people, two 13-year-old girls decided to leave the following prank voicemail message on one Beverly Dickson’s phone: “Hello, Beverly. I want to play a game. You need to decide if life is worth living for. We have one of your friends hidden in your house. You must find them within 10 minutes and get the key out of their heart. Get out of your house because there are vents and there is toxic gas that will be fogged out in 10 minutes. It will kill you in half a minute, so you decide, it’s your game. Do you want to live or die?”
When checking the message, Beverly happened to be at a funeral procession, and the shock of it caused her to suffer a minor stroke. The police managed to trace the call and the girls were charged with phone harassment (Beverly survived, but has recurring sleeping problems) and penalized with a $2000 bond. Ah, girls, you know what they say: such calls are all fun and games til somebody suffers a minor acute cerebrovascular accident.
RoboCop 2 (1990)
RoboCop 2 is, completely unexpectedly, the sequel to the 1987 movie RoboCop. Based on the eponymous comic book series by Frank Miller, RoboCop 2 is a typically violent narrative involving a cyborg police officer in the future dystopian Detroit. Nathaniel White is a serial killer who went on a spree of assaults and killings whilst on parole in the early 1990’s. Although already a violent personality, White particularly savored the violence portrayed in the movie. He butchered his first victim, the pregnant Juliana Frank, in a manner identical to RoboCop: “The first girl I killed was from a ‘RoboCop’ movie… I seen him cut somebody’s throat then take the knife and slit down the chest to the stomach and left the body in a certain position. With the first person I killed I did exactly what I saw in the movie.” With such a casual description of murder, White is apparently more cyb than org.
Magnum Force (1973)
In the wrong hands, a good idea can lead to disastrous consequences. Drano – a drain cleaning agent – is good when poured down a drain, saving many hard hours of back-breaking scrubbing and fishing around with pipe cleaners. However, when following Clint Eastwood’s lead in Magnum Force by pouring it down a victim’s throat, the consequences are disastrous. William Andrews forced victims to drink Drano, which has the active ingredient of extremely caustic lye, at a high-fi store in 1974. When that was not sufficient to kill them, Andrews then executed them in a grisly massacre that became known as “The Ogden Hi-Fi Shop Massacre”. He was put to death by lethal injection in 1992, after spending the longest period of any convict on Death Row.
The Deer Hunter(1978)
The Deer Hunter is a film that is also accused of influencing copycat deaths, but instead of murder it is said to inspire suicide. The plot is non-complex: American soldiers captured by the Viet Cong army are forced to play a game of Russian roulette. One of the soldiers, Nick, becomes so affected by his time in captivity that he elects to remain in Vietnam where he repeatedly plays the game for money. Eventually, probability catches up with him and he ends up dying. There seems to be something almost hypnotizing about Russian roulette – who knows whether this stems from a morbid curiosity, sadomasochistic gratification, fatalism brought about by the bleakness of nihilism, the adrenalin rush from flirting with death, or from a simply brutish machismo – for there are many examples of people willingly playing the game like Nick. Mickey Culpupper shot himself in the head after a round of “playing Deer Hunter” in 1980; similar reports have come from the Philippines, Finland and Lebanon. Also in 1980, a man was captured and tortured in a similar way to the Viet Cong torture scene. Despite being critically acclaimed, The Deer Hunter has inspired many to becoming critically maimed.
The Program (1993)
Another movie that lead to emulation suicides in an attempt to be macho was the 1993 football movie The Program. In this movie, the protagonist lies down in the middle of a busy highway to demonstrate his manliness and supreme badassery. Michael A. Shingledecker Jr. decided he’d go one better and demonstrate his madness and supreme jackassery when he convinced a friend to lie with him in dark clothes, at night, on a Philadelphia highway. They were struck by a truck which did not see them; Michael died instantly and his friend was critically injured. Several other similar events occurred in Long Island and New Jersey, with fatalities resulting from each, which lead police chief George Moyer to make this rather graphic cautionary statement: “In the movies you jump out a window and walk away, but in real life we pick up the pieces, as we did with Birkhimer [the New Jersey victim].”