Movies, television shows, video games, all have provided notable examples of complex storytelling and themes that help us make sense of our experiences and the world around us. Some academics have proposed that violence in video games actually serves to relieve aggression– by playing out violent acts in a game, the impulse is (at least somewhat) satisfied and leads to a decreased chance of real life aggression. Likewise, it could be argued that movies and television shows that aestheticize violence and present its graphic nature encourage a natural aversion to the acts portrayed.
The scary thing is realizing that media, particularly today, is accessible to pretty much everyone. This includes psychopaths, who completely lack empathy due to the chemical make-up of their brain, as well as other mentally disturbed people who may have trouble distinguishing reality. The fact is, some people do take violent acts portrayed in the media and make them real. Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? I don’t have the answer, but below you’ll find some of the most terrifying examples of the latter. This article lists media that inspired some of the most shocking and disturbing crimes of all time.
15. The Dark Knight
One of the most iconic performances in the history of cinematic villains, Heath Ledger‘s Joker enthralled audiences from the moment he was onscreen, and stayed with them long after. Almost everyone you knew was engaged in some sort of Joker impersonation or cosplay. Some, though, felt the need to bring the Joker to life in a more menacing way. Many crimes have been associated with the film, including the 2012 Aurora shooting in which the perpetrator shouted “I am the Joker!” before firing into a crowded movie theater.
A crime inspired by the Joker that you might not know about is the attack of a teacher in an Indiana High School. A seventeen year old girl reportedly asked to be excused from class to go to the bathroom, where she applied Joker makeup. When she returned, she ran at her Spanish teacher with a knife. Luckily, the student was subdued and no one was hurt. The most disturbing part of the crime: the girl had used the knife in the bathroom to cut into the sides of her mouth and into her cheeks, in order to emulate Ledger’s Joker more completely.
14. Fight Club
Fight Club, with its themes of alienation and anti-capitalism, struck a chord with many people and cemented itself as a cult classic. For many it remained a cerebral favorite, while others started their own fight clubs, and filmed the events.
Kyle Shaw (17) took it a step further. He created homemade bombs using elements of fireworks, reportedly planning to launch his own “Project Mayhem” in an effort to start dismantling capitalism. On May 25, 2009, his bomb exploded beside a Starbucks in the Upper East Side of New York. This attack is high on the list because (thankfully) no one was injured, but not for lack of trying. The windows of the coffee shop were blown out and objects on the street obliterated. Police confirmed that had anyone been near the explosive, they would have been severely injured and possibly killed. Shaw was charged with arson and criminal possession of a weapon.
13. The Catcher In The Rye
Though the book has stirred numerous criminals, including a man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, the most famous person associated with a Catcher-related crime is Mark David Chapman. Obsessed with the novel, Chapman famously began to peacefully read The Catcher in the Rye after assassinating John Lennon. Targeting Lennon because he was a “phony,” Chapman stalked the musician’s residence and asked for an autograph before gunning him down. Thus, one of the most prolific musicians in history was cut down at the age of 40.
What’s fascinating is that Chapman was so out of touch with reality that he believed he would turn into Holden Caulfield upon successfully killing Lennon. He was reportedly surprised when this transformation did not occur. Even after this fact, Caulfield did not relent. He told his lawyer he was happy he committed the crime because it would cause more people to pay attention to the book.
12. American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis‘ unrelentingly dark novel critiquing extreme consumer excess and desensitization to violence translated to a 2000 film that many found graphic and confusing (had the film portrayed the violence described in the novel, it would surely have needed a rating above even NC-17). Still, others saw a straightforward movie about a serial killer, and thus copycat crimes ensued.
In 2004, one such person, Michael Hernandez (14) stabbed one of his middle school classmates to death. Hernandez admitted that he modelled his behavior on numerous serial killers, including Patrick Bateman of American Psycho. Like Chapman, Hernandez proved to be wildly out of touch with reality. He displayed no remorse and believed that God had wanted him to kill and would grant him superpowers to break out of jail.
You’re probably not surprised to see Dexter on this list. A television series about a serial killer, albeit one who kills other serial killers in some sort of morally grey attempt at justice, the idea of killing for pleasure is central to the show’s premise. It’s not surprising, then, that it helped along some budding killers in the real world.
Seventeen year old Andrew Conley, also from Indiana, brutally strangled his younger brother in December 2009. A devoted fan of the series, Conley identified with the main character to a deadly degree. He stuffed his brother’s head in a plastic bag to contain the blood, a very ‘serial killer’ move. Later, Conley told police that for him, killing was akin to “the urge to eat a hamburger.”
10. Breaking Bad
While neither of the main characters in the acclaimed series are compulsive killers in the manner of Dexter or Patrick Bateman, the drug-fueled nature of the show led to quite a bit of violence. In some cases, the plots of the show proved informative.
One man, Jason Hart, took his love of the show to the next level. After strangling his girlfriend, Hart attempted to dissolve her body in a tub of acid. Fans of the series will remember that this is one of the earliest grisly tasks Jesse Pinkman has to complete. Hart was unsuccessful, and the girlfriend’s body was found in a nearby dumpster. Police reported that there was a DVD cued up to that very episode in Hart’s living room.
A film about multiple killers committing copycat crimes against high school classmates, Scream helped usher in the resurgence of the horror genre by reminding us of why we liked those movies in the first place.
Some fans of the movie took its meta nature and made it a reality. Belgian, Thierry Jaradin (24), invited 15 year-old Alisson Cambier to his house. When she entered, he asked to be excused and came back in the room wearing the famed Scream costume. Muffling Cambier’s screams, Jaradin used two kitchen knives to stab his victim over thirty times, ripping open her body and brutally killing her. Jaradin then turned himself in and told police the Scream films directly inspired the crime and that he had been planning it for some time. He had no criminal record or reported mental health problems.
One of Stephen King‘s earliest novels (he wrote it as a teenager) recounts the story of a troubled teen who brings a gun to school and kills teachers and students. Many crimes (almost all committed by teenagers) have been connected to the book’s blunt narrative.
In 1996, a boy in Washington state named Barry Loukaitis killed his math teacher and two classmates, reportedly carrying out some of the events of a novel he loved. After holding the rest of his class hostage, Loukaitis was eventually subdued by another teacher. Stephen King has been apologetic for the book’s inspiration of school shootings, saying that when he wrote it, the world was a very different place. The novel became so controversial that King let it fall out of print.
7. The Sopranos
For The Sopranos, the acclaimed series that follows depressed mobster Tony Soprano, violence is a huge part of the narrative. It’s necessary to show the daily violence its characters perpetrate and fall victim to. Though the show has been praised for complicating characters of the gangster genre and showing their struggles with heightened realism, some viewers only paid attention to the killing.
In 2003, 15 year old Matthew Montejo teamed up with his half brother and killed his mother. He strangled her and then dismembered her body, a criminal technique shown multiple times in The Sopranos. They tried to dump her body in a river but a guard tipped off the police, who apprehended the boys. They found her head and hands in the family’s apartment.
6. Money Train
You may not have heard of this one. Largely panned by critics and audiences alike, Money Train is a 1995 film that contains a scene where a character douses a subway clerk in flammable liquid and then threatens to light him on fire if he doesn’t comply with his demands. The clerk doesn’t die in the film, but is thought to have directly inspired a real life crime with much graver consequences.
Almost immediately after the movie’s release, two men replicated the scene in a New York subway station. One of the attackers quickly doused the clerk in fluid and the other lit the booth on fire. This created an explosion that the police guess hurt the perpetrators as well. But trapped inside the booth, the clerk sustained third degree burns over up to 80% of his body, causing unspeakable pain and changing his life forever.
5. The Collector
Though we often think of more visual media (and this list reflects that) when discussing copycat crime, The Collector by John Fowles proved to be one of the deadliest inspirations available. The main character of the novel collects butterflies before eventually “collecting” and trapping a young girl and subsequently deciding that he prefers this sort of collection.
A team of killers, Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, were obsessed with and directly inspired by the book. Lake abducted two women, held them captive and killed them, emulating the character of the trapped girl in the novel. The two were eventually caught and it was discovered that the pair had killed up to twenty more victims in a gruesome fashion. They were serial killers in their own right, but their Collector fandom certainly didn’t help.
4. Grand Theft Auto III
You guessed it, a video game had to make the list. Controversy surrounding video games has been going on for as long as they’ve been around and is elevated by the fact that games are not protected by the “respectable art” defense of films and books.
GTA III was a monumental release, marking not only the third entry in the popular series but also the first one with 3D graphics, making the gameplay consisting of stealing cars and killing everyone (cops, prostitutes, anyone in between) more realistic than ever.
An Oakland street gang called The Nut Cases were known to enjoy playing the game all throughout the day, and this habit has been connected to a particularly destructive crime spree the gang carried out in 2002. Perhaps the most telling thing is that their targets were random, just like in the game. They robbed dozens of people and killed at least five. Police reported that the criminals were “more callous than ever,” thus stoking the fire of the video games/desensitization to violence debate.
3. Natural Born Killers
Natural Born Killers has a long list of connections to real life crime, but one in particular shook the nation to its core. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teens responsible for the Columbine massacre of 1999, were fans of the film. Their admiration was so notable that they labeled the day of their attack in several journals and tapes as “the holy April morning of NBK.”
The film is one of many pieces of media thought to be connected to the shooting– another major scapegoat is the first-person shooter game Doom. Although these things may have influenced the boys, the real background is incredibly complicated and is detailed in Dave Cullen’s impressive and haunting Columbine, if you’re interested. Perhaps the biggest element was Harris being a budding young psychopath. As with others on this list, NBK only helped him to implement and validate his desires. Perhaps, in this case, the film’s influential keywords are “natural born.”
2. A Clockwork Orange
Likely the film most famously associated with copycat crimes, A Clockwork Orange inspired so much violence and depravity that director Stanley Kubrick had it banned in England soon after its release, despite defending its artistic merit. It remained almost impossible to see until Kubrick’s death nearly 30 years later.
One of the most graphic movies of all time, committing crimes inspired by the dystopian narrative was a no-brainer. The film so directly inspired crimes that several were committed by people dressed in the iconic costumes of Alex and his ‘droogs’. Perhaps the most shocking crime: a gang of real life boys emulated the almost impossible to watch “Singin’ in the Rain” scene with a Dutch girl, making one of the most evil and depraved fantasies of all time a reality.
1. The Slender Man
Slenderman is a supernatural being created for the internet: Eric Knudson thought up the character in 2009 in a contest where entrants were tasked with altering real life photos into disturbing images. Creativity was encouraged. Knudson created what was to become one of the most recognizable internet sensations of the next few years, even spawning a couple of video games. The lore was expanded upon in the Youtube video series Marble Hornets, a series of horror shorts created by college film students.
The Slenderman was described as a demon who stalked children and took them away, never to be heard from again. Unfortunately, in 2014, this emphasis on children helped bring about a terrible crime. Two twelve year-old girls lured another girl into the woods and stabbed her 19 times, nearly resulting in her death. Upon psychiatric evaluation of the girls, it was found that the Slenderman was a very real figure in their minds, and that one of the girls was suffering with symptoms of schizophrenia.
As young children gain access to all sorts of media via the internet, the moral panic of media-influenced crimes are at an all time high. Though they’re minors (by many years, at that), it was recently decided that the girls would be tried as adults.