The Movies Made Me Do It

How much are 'Natural Born' Killers affected by film violence?

On March 5, 1995, Sarah Edmondson, the 18-year-old scion of one of Oklahoma's most prominent political clans, holed up with her 17-year-old boyfriend Ben Darras in her family's cabin with a video copy of Natural Born Killers, a Smith & Wesson .38, and a reported 17 tabs of acid. It's clear neither how many times they watched the film nor what the timetable had been for dropping all that dope, but, over the next two days, the teenagers road-tripped south, first shooting Hernando,

Louisiana, cotton-gin manager Bill Savage, and then, the following day, convenience-store clerk Patsy Byers. Initially they had intended to go to a Grateful Dead concert in Memphis, but got the date wrong. Edmondson got 35 years; Darras got life.

Savage was DOA, and his hometown friend John Grisham raised a public stink over the Oliver Stone film, threatening to sue for product liability but never filing. Luckless, Byers was left a quadriplegic and later died of cancer, but her family's lawyer has filed a civil suit against Edmondson, Darras, Edmondson's parents, Stone, and Time Warner, maintaining that the film's creators "knew....or should have known" that violence would result from its being shown. In March, after bouncing around Louisiana courts, the case went to the Supreme Court and was seen as good to go.

Mickey and Mallory in NBK— primo copycat-killing source material
Luke Wynne/Photofest
Mickey and Mallory in NBK— primo copycat-killing source material

Here comes the flood. This April, the families of three Kentucky girls left dead after the prayer-group shooting spree of 14-year-old Michael Carneal in 1997 have filed a $130 million lawsuit against no fewer than 25 parties, including five film companies involved with the film The Basketball Diaries; a single scene allegedly incited Carneal to action. The dream sequence, of Leonardo DiCaprio gunning down his classmates, should be immediately familiar to even those who haven't bothered seeing the film, thanks to the news coverage of the Littleton rampage. Littleton itself is destined to become the nation's mother lode of hydra-headed copycat-crime civil suits directed at the manufacturers of pop culture, just as the Klebold-Harris scenario immediately became something to mimic in high schools from coast to coast. Copycat crimes have attained front-burner notoriety, and some day soon Hollywood's liberty will be pitted against the perceived welfare of American children.

It's an old but neglected dynamic, and wherever you stand on the issue, itemizing the carnage attributed to the influence of movies is chilling business. After The Birth of a Nation hit big in 1915, the KKK enjoyed a huge resurgence and lynching stats shot up. James Cagney's psycho gangster in White Heat (1949) was blamed for inspiring Brit Chris Craig's 1952 shooting of a policeman. A Clockwork Orange's 1971 release was followed by several rapes in England accompanied by the rapists' renditions of "Singin' in the Rain," after which Stanley Kubrick permanently removed the film from British circulation. Magnum Force's murder-by-Drano was reenacted in Utah, The Deer Hunter precipitated a rash of fatal Russian roulette duels, a fierce love of First Blood sent a deranged Englishman named Michael Ryan tearing through his village commando-style, killing randomly. Taxi Driver spoke to John Hinckley; RoboCop gave ideas to two separate killers, each of whom admitted that their evisceration methods were adopted from the film. Just days after its premiere, Money Train, itself based in part on real incidents, inspired token-booth thieves to incinerate the clerk inside. High school footballers were maimed and killed lying down on busy highways after viewing The Program. Child's Play and its first two straight-to-tape sequels hold the record for the sheer number of dead: besides two-year-old Jamie Bulger, stoned to death by a pair of 10-year-old Chucky fans in Liverpool, and 16-year-old Suzanne Capper, burned alive in Manchester by Chucky fans who played lines of the movies' dialogue to her as she was being tortured, there is the dizzying slaughter of 35 Tasmanian vacationers by Martin Bryant, a mental patient "obsessed" with Chucky.

But for sheer inspirational force, and the highest number of captured impulse killers who have directly credited the film, Natural Born Killers might be the ne plus ultra of copycat-killing source material. Besides the Edmondson-Darras road trip, there have been killings in Utah, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Texas (where a 14-year-old boy decapitated a 13-year-old girl), all involving children who afterward quoted the film to friends and authorities. In Paris, a pair of young lovers, Florence Rey and Audry Maupin, led the police on a chase that killed five; supposedly, Rey said, "It's fate," à la Woody Harrelson's character Mickey, when caught. Another pair of Parisians, Veronique Herbert and her boyfriend Sebastien Paindavoine, lured a 16-year-old to his stabbing death with promises of sex, a scene right out of Stone's film. Herbert has even named the Stone film in her defense statement.

There are scores of other examples— even Beavis and Butt-head has its ghosts, innocent bystanders killed by child-lit fires or child-tossed bowling balls. Hunt-and-kill computer games, which provide ersatz combat training, have also been cited in the Carneal suit. Of course, in each case, the precise psychological role media played is never clear— nor can it be, until we can map a brain like a computer hard drive. In fact, some of what the press has reported about the similarities between particular murders and particular films is flat-out wrong— scores of scenes that never occurred in Child's Play 2 were said to have been reenacted in the Bulger murder. Still, when a Georgia teen yells out "I'm a natural born killer!" to news cameras after being arrested for killing an elderly man, the tie-in is hard to ignore.

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