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.

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 Hunterprecipitated a rash of fatal Russian roulette duels, a fierce love of First Bloodsent a deranged Englishman named Michael Ryan tearing through his village commando-style, killing randomly. Taxi Driverspoke to John Hinckley; RoboCopgave 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 Playand 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-headhas 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.

Legally, it may be impossible to prove intent on behalf of a filmmaker or a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt cause-and-effect affiliation between specific movies and specific violence. How do you account for the millions of unaffected consumers? What's equally at issue is the common cultural presupposition that the entertainment media bear no culpability for those who wreak havoc in imitation of it. Movies are movies, homicidal nuts are homicidal nuts, the crimes would occur with or without a movie's sensationalized prodding. So the wisdom goes. But is our relationship with movies so simple, or is there in fact something deeper, darker, going on? Could it be that visual media aren't merely a harmless, ephemeral diversion from reality, but a powerful factor in that reality bearing consequences we haven't foreseen?

Since most of the incidents we're aware of have children at their centers, this may prove to be true. According to University of Michigan professor L. Rowell Huesmann, an expert researcher on the relationship between violent media and violent behavior, "It's been well established that media violence makes kids behave more aggressively. Of course, there's no scientific way to evaluate how media violence may have or may have not caused real violence, but there's definitely a relationship, a 'priming' or 'cuing' of behavior for certain individuals. The reasons are well understood in psychology: even as toddlers, if we see other kids push and hit to get what they want, we imitate it, we begin to learn scripts for that behavior. In addition, there have been studies: you show images of gore to young children, they have a universally negative reaction: their heartbeat goes up, their palms sweat, and so on. You show it to them again and again, and those indications go away. They adapt, they become desensitized."

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills­ based "media psychiatrist," blames parental patterns of consumerism. "There's no question that parents see it happen. The Ninja Turtleswere a significant sign: everyone could see how specific violent behaviors were derived directly from that show. But they still buy the kids the computer, the violent CD games. It's cognitive dissonance— they know, but they don't want their kids to be left out, to be unarmed."

It seems the entertainment complex knows, too: Last week, MGM announced they'd like to recall every copy of The Basketball Diariesfrom store shelves but can't thanks to a prohibitive rights agreement that lasts until June 30. Even within the Hollywood chambers, the cattle can get spooked: Money Trainscriptwriter Doug Richardson was voted down for membership in the Academy thanks to the subway-booth torching. "Nobody would say it was because of that incident," Richardson says, "but no one would deny it. So, as a writer, am I supposed to wonder if what I'm doing is drama or pornography? Science is going to have to get in up to its elbows in this, I think. It's a very complicated issue, and doesn't deserve sound-bite answers. Especially since there's so much suffering."

And the suffering, not of Hollywood filmmakers told they shouldn't make ultraviolent movies but of families with murdered children, may be what the debate should be about. "We could make a great step forward by simply restricting the amount of violence to which children are exposed," Huesmann says. "That's no great constitutional dilemma. I wouldn't be surprised if at this point Oliver Stone came forth and said, 'Yes, the film obviously affects some people in a certain way,' and if he did, that would be a significant first step." (Oliver Stone declined to comment.)

"Every study indicates a relationship," Huesmann concludes. "Here's a not greatly known fact: that the statistical correlation between childhood exposure to violence in media and aggressive behavior is about the same as that between smoking and lung cancer."

Research assistance: Yael Schacher

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