The tenuous divide between art and reality is never more apparent than when someone believes they're living in a film, or uses a film as inspiration to carry out a crime. When someone commits murder after watching a movie, it’s normal to wonder if you missed a secret code laced into the film only meant for a specific person, or if films really do incite violence. Movies blamed for killing sprees tend to fall into the horror genre, but there are exceptions to the rule, and everything from Leonardo DiCaprio films about young poets to teen sex romps have been blamed for being the catalysts of movie copycat crimes. There’s no concrete evidence cinema and crime are related, but these stories certainly make a strong case for the possibility.
It’s a terrible fact of life that, every few years, the trend of mass shootings connected to movies makes a strong come back. In the '90s, there was a rash of school shootings connected to everything from gonzo revenge films like Natural Born Killers to Hong Kong-inspired action films like The Matrix. Some killers have explicitly stated they were driven to kill by a piece of art, but does that make the filmmakers complicit? Obviously not, but it hopefully gives pause to artists putting out something brutal and grotesque out into the world.
Was anyone surprised when a film about copycat killers who made murder seem fun inspired copycat killers? No, right?
In 2001, 24-year-old Belgian man Thierry Jaradin killed his 15-year-old neighbor, Alisson Cambier, when she rejected his sexual advances. Cambier stopped by his house to return some video tapes and talk movies and he happened to have a Ghostface outfit ready to go in the other room.
Jaradin excused himself, slipped into his costume, re-appeared, dragged Cambier into his house, and stabbed her 30 times with a kitchen knife. He then lowered her blood-soaked corpse on to his bed, slipped a rose into one of her hands, and called his father to confess. He later told police his crime had been premeditated and was motivated by the Scream trilogy.
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Taxi Driver is an amazing movie that could only have been made in the '70s. It captures a nightmarish vision of impotent American rage, teenage prostitution, and cold blooded sex and violence that either no longer exists or scares people too much to confront in popular media and art. Possibly because it might inspire people like John Hinckley Jr to try to assassinate a president.
After seeing Taxi Driver, Hinckley became obsessed with Jodie Foster (who plays a young prostitute, and was 14 when the film came out) similar to the way Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle becomes obsessed with her character in the film. When he saw the film, Hinckley was taking medication for mental illness and building a large gun collection. He decided the only way he could impress Foster was by killing the president.
In 1981, Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan and three other men outside the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. He almost succeeded in killing Reagan; one of his bullets pierced the president's lung, narrowly missing his heart. Hinckley told police his crime was an "unprecedented demonstration of love."
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The Aurora Massacre was one of the most frightening acts of domestic terror in recent memory, and it was all inspired by Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker. James Holmes, the man who shot up a theater full of people waiting to see The Dark Knight Rises, not only dyed his hair so he would resemble the Joker, but also told Colorado authorities he "was the Joker." No more superhero movies for you.
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Of all the movies on this list, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers seems to revel in the fact that it openly invites people to commit copycat crimes. Or course this, to some degree, is the nature of deadpan cultural commentary. Even if Stone is admonishing the crimes of his characters (or Quentin Tarantino's characters?), he's still making them look cool af, and there in lies the rub. Film is a bitch of a medium.
There's no movie about mass murderers that makes murder look as cool and fun as this mid-'90s murder-a-thon. Natural Born Killers inspired at least five different collections of murders, ranging from two school shootings to the murder of the Richardson family, perpetrated by 23-year-old Jeremy Allan Steinke and his 12-year-old girlfriend, who killed her parents after they forbade her from dating someone 11 years older. The night before the murders, Steinke allegedly told his friends he was "going Natural Born Killer on her family."
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