Natural Born Copycat Killers

In the 1994 film Natural Born Killers, a dark comedy/drama film about two people with traumatic childhoods who became lovers and psychopathic serial murderers, Mickey, the main character played by Woody Harrelson, has a memorable exchange with his protagonist, schlock journalist Wayne Gale.

Gale, played by Robert Downey, Jr., is interviewing Mickey in prison about the couple’s murderous history for a sensationalized documentary. Gale is trying to understand how they rationalize the brutality and inhuman carnage of their acts.

Mickey tells him, “You’ll never understand, Wayne. You and me, we’re not even the same species. I used to be you, and then I evolved. From where you’re standing, you’re a man. From where I’m standing, you’re an ape. You’re not even an ape. You’re a media person. Media’s like the weather, only its man-made weather. Murder? It’s pure. You’re the one made it impure. You’re buying and selling fear. You say ‘why?’ I say ‘why bother?’”

Just as we were first attempting to make some sense of the Aurora, Colo., killing of 12 and the wounding of 58 others last month at the midnight premiere of the new Batman flick, the copycats began to appear.

One day after Aurora, a potential Batman copycat in Maryland was apprehended by police after he contacted his office calling himself “the Joker” and threatening to “blow everybody up.” Police found an arsenal of more than 25 weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition in the 28-year-old’s home, who at the time was wearing a t-shirt that read, “Guns don’t kill people, I do.”

Later that week, Maine police arrested a heavily armed man driving 112 mph on the state turnpike while carrying clippings about the Colorado massacre to go with an AK-47 assault weapon, four handguns and several boxes of ammunition. The suspect claimed he attended the film with a loaded gun in his backpack. He was allegedly headed to shoot his former employer when police pulled him over.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., a noted evolutionary psychologist, says in the current issue of Psychology Today that “there is a natural human inhibition against killing that can be reduced by adopting a persona. The idea is that the character provides a vehicle through which the atrocity is committed. Psychologists sometimes refer to this state as ‘depersonalization.’”

He goes on to say that “most copycats have their private agenda in a rampage killing but seek to tie it in to other events that received a lot of publicity. In this way, they bask in the reflected publicity, so to speak. In many cases, the rampage killer wants to commit suicide but opts to take others with him.”

There were at least a dozen verified copycat mass killings inspired by the movie Natural Born Killers during the decade following its release. In a 1997 high school shooting in Paducah, Ky., the killer actually admitted to his fascination with the movie.

Perhaps the most notorious copycat event spurred by the movie was the 1999 slaughter at Columbine High School. Both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wrote in their respective journals about their obsession with Natural Born Killers. They also referred to April 20 — the day they massacred 12 fellow students — as “the holy April morning of NBK.” The entries also mention whether or not Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino (who conceived the story for Natural Born Killers) would be appropriate choices to direct the film of their life story.

Loren Coleman’s book, The Copycat Effect, provides a convincing argument that sensational media coverage of murders and suicides leads to additional murders and suicides. Coleman’s weblog, http://copycateffect.blogspot.com, suggests that the Colorado attacks may have been triggered by media coverage of a similar attack on an Omaha, Neb., shopping mall a few days earlier.

While modern criminologists have long been aware of the potential for media exposure playing a role in copycat killings, it seems like America is once again at the crossroads of safety and freedom. Should media coverage be regulated — our movies and video games censored — in the faint hope that it will somehow negate a copycat? Perhaps trampling on the Constitution in the name of public safety is going too far, but it’s clear that something needs to be done to mitigate the risk.

Perhaps that mitigation can be found in the security policies themselves. Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies, for example, have outlawed the use of masks/face coverings inside its ballpark, Coors Field. Yep, that means Rockies fans, suffering through one of the worst seasons in franchise history, are absolutely not permitted to wear a paper bag over their head in the stadium — no matter how bad the team is.

It’s time to enact and enforce these type of policies — they may be the key to combating the copycat.

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