Although dozens of horror films are based on true stories, a little-known fact is that several films are said to have inspired copycat killings based on either techniques shown in the film or other motifs such as demonic possession.
Although killers make a conscious decision to murder, it seems like a weak excuse to blame a movie for your own actions, but several people on this list were able to escape imprisonment by pleading insanity.
This all brings up the troublesome legal question of whether an artist—whether a writer, musician, painter, or filmmaker—is legally liable when someone bases their crimes on actions they witnessed in the movies. So far, no one has been found legally guilty of inspiring a murder by directing a movie. Here are 20 intriguing cases where murderers blamed their crimes on movies they’d seen.
A silent film starring Lon Chaney, London After Midnight is known as “the Holy Grail of lost films” since the last known surviving copy was destroyed in a 1967 fire that raged through the MGM vaults. In 1928, an epileptic British man named Robert Williams murdered a woman with a straight razor in London’s Hyde Park and claimed that he was driven to the crime by being tormented by visions of Chaney’s demented face in the film. Williams told police that the last thing he remembers before the murder was hearing Mangan whistling:
“Then I felt as if my head were going to burst, and that steam was coming out of both sides. All sorts of things came to my mind. I thought a man had me in a corner and was pulling faces at me. He threatened and shouted at me that had where he wanted me!”
A 1928 trial ended in a hung jury. A 1929 retrial ended with Williams found not guilty by reason of insanity.
The 1963 John Fowles novel The Collector is said to be the book most often found in the possession of killers—except for The Bible. The 1965 film version finds Terence Stamp playing a socially inept butterfly collector who kidnaps a pretty young girl named Miranda and keeps her locked in his basement. Leonard Lake and Charles Ng were a pair of California serial killers who murdered at least 25 people, including two teenaged women they’d kidnapped for sex and housekeeping purposes in what they referred to as “Operation Miranda.” Serial killer Christopher Wilder had a copy of The Collector in his possession when police killed him in 1984. And torture killer Robert Berdella says that the film version of The Collector inspired him to kill when he saw it as a teenager.
Stanley Kubrick’s legendary ode to “ultraviolence” was based on an Anthony Burgess novel and was so remorselessly violent that it originally received an “X” rating, which was usually reserved for hardcore pornography. In 1973, a 16-year-old British teen named Richard Palmer stomped a homeless man to death in an incident reminiscent of a gang attack on a homeless man early in the film. A Dutch girl was gang-raped in the British city of Lancaster while her assailants sang “Singin’ in the Rain,” which was directly inspired by the movie. There were so many violent incidents inspired by A Clockwork Orange that director Stanley Kubrick eventually withdrew it from circulation in the UK.
On February 12, 1980, after watching a televised version of William Friedkin’s classic film about demonic possession, Patricia Frazier of Wichita Falls, TX cut out her own four-year-old daughter’s heart because she felt that her daughter was demon-possessed. At her trial, a psychiatrist testified for the defense that Frazier had suffered “cinematic trauma” and “did not know what she was doing because she was suffering from delusions of being manipulated by supernatural forces.” Frazier was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was placed in the care of her mother—ironic for a woman who killed her own daughter.
There’s a scene in the Clint Eastwood crime thriller where a pimp pours Drano down a girl’s throat. In 1974, a Utah man named William Andrews forced five people he’d kidnapped to drink Drano at a stereo shop in the town of Ogden, UT. When this didn’t kill them, he shot them dead in what became known as “The Ogden Hi-Fi Shop Massacre.”
A week before Halloween in 1988, 18-year-old psychology student Sharon Gregory was stabbed in her home by 19-year-old Mark Branch, whom Gregory was studying due to his fanatical obsession with the mythos of Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series. Branch stabbed her to death while wearing a hockey mask and black boots, just like Jason Voorhees. The lifelong psychiatric patient evaded his would-be captors and was found hanging from a tree three days before Halloween in an apparent suicide.
The slasher series featuring serial killer Michael Myers has been linked to at least two murders:
- Afrer viewing 1981’s Halloween II, a California handyman named Richard Boyer stabbed an elderly couple to death, stabbing them a combined 43 times. Meyers told authorities that he murdered the couple while high on PCP and cocaine, which he says caused him to hallucinate that he was being attacked by Michael Meyrs.
- In 2012, 17-year-old Texas resident Jake Evans shot his mother and sister dead in their home. He said he’d binge-watched Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of the original Halloween three times in the week prior to the slaughter. “While watching it I was amazed at how at ease the boy was during the murders,” Evans would write, “and how little remorse he had afterwards. I was thinking to myself it would be the same for me when I kill someone.”
In 2004, a British man named Daniel Gonzalez went on a three-day murder spree, killing four people and injuring two others. One of his murders, in which he stabbed a 76-year-old woman to death while wearing a hockey mask, was a homage to Friday the 13th. But for his remaining murders, he stole some huge blades from a store and then stabbed three more people to death.
After his arrest, Gonzalez told police: “I just thought about doing it, man – what would it be like just to be maybe Freddy Krueger or something like that, for one day?” He received six life sentences and committed suicide in his cell in 2007.
The sadistic murdering doll Chucky has been linked to several copycat murders.
- The worst was the case of Martin Bryant, a schizophrenic Aussie who killed 35 people in 1996’s Port Arthur Massacre. His favorite movie was Child’s Play 2, and according to an ex-girlfriend of his, he had a habit of saying, “Don’t fuck with Chuck.”
- In the horrific murder of two-year-old James Bulger—who in 1993 was kidnapped from a mall in England by two ten-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, and then taken down to some railroad tracks where they bludgeoned him to death and stuffed batteries into his anus—investigators found that one of the killers’ parents had recently rented Child’s Play 3.
- In 1992, a sixteen-year-old British girl named Suzanne Capper was tortured, raped, injected with amphetamines, and murdered by six captors led by another girl named Bernadette McNeilly, who reportedly screamed “Chucky’s coming to play” before attacking her and played a rave song that included sound bites from Child’s Play during the assault.
- In 2015, a Russian woman named Elena Lobacheva was convicted of the murder of at least twelve men. A huge fan of the Child’s Play series, Lobacheva had tattoos of Chucky and Tiffany on her arms and was called “The Bride of Chucky” by the press. According to a detective, “This movie, released over 15 years ago, became sort of instruction for Elena. Randomly stabbing the body of a dying human brought her pleasure compared to sexual pleasure.”
Supposedly inspired by a scene from the horror movie Warlock, a 14-year-old Canadian named Sandy Charles, aided by an eight-year-old accomplice, kidnapped and killed a seven-year-old boy named Johnathan Thimpsen. He was dragged into some shrubs then stabbed, beaten with rocks, and suffocated to death. Charles then attempted to boil some strips of the dead child’s flesh in a quest to concoct a magical flying potion that in the film had been made from the fat of an unbaptized child. Charles was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
While on parole in the early 1990s, a serial killer named Nathaniel White was a huge fan of the ultraviolence depicted in the RoboCop films. He told investigators that he killed his first victim, a pregnant woman named Julia Frank, in a manner similar to a scene in RoboCop 2: “The first girl I killed was from a ‘RoboCop’ movie….I seen him cut somebody’s throat then take the knife and slit down the chest to the stomach and left the body in a certain position. With the first person I killed I did exactly what I saw in the movie.”
Oliver Stone directed, and Quentin Tarantino wrote, this homage to American media’s tendency to create pop stars out of murderers. The film was blamed for a string of copycat killings:
- In 1995, Sarah Edmonson and Benjamin Darras, two teens from Oklahoma, took LSD and binge-watched Natural Born Killers before shooting two victims, one of whom died. The case gained notoriety when several people, including author John Grisham, attempted to argue that the duo had diminished responsibility as a result of watching the film.
- Natural Born Killers was also said to be an inspiration for 1999’s Columbine High School Massacre, in which shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold reportedly kept diaries where they kept referring to “going NBK” at some point in the future.
- When a 14-year-old Texas boy decapitated a 13-year-old girl in 1994, he told police that he did it because he “wanted to be famous. Like the Natural Born Killers.”
- A month later, a 17-year-old Utah boy named Nathan Martinez murdered his mother and sister after becoming mesmerized by the film.
- There are several other murders linked to the film—so many that Natural Born Killers copycat crimes has its own Wikipedia page.
One particularly grisly scene in this 1995 thriller involves a tollbooth attendant in a NYC subway being set on fire. Soon after the film’s release, a trio of men were convicted of murder for filling a Brooklyn tollbooth with lighter fluid and setting it ablaze. Their convictions were vacated in 2005 based on a legal technicality.
The film, based on a novel by Jim Carroll about his struggles with heroin addiction while a rising teen basketball star in New York City, features a daydream in which the protagonist, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, enters a classroom toting a shotgun and wearing a black trench coat and massacres schoolchildren. In 1996, Barry Loukaitis entered a classroom in Moses Lake, WA wearing a black trench coat and proceeded to shoot three students dead. After the killing, Loukaitis reportedly smiled and said, “That sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?” The parents of victims of 1999’s Columbine Massacre—in which members of the self-described “Trench Coat Mafia” killed 15 people and injured 24 others at a Colorado High School—unsuccessfully tried suing the filmmakers. In a 1999 Senate hearing on youth violence, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions said, “Many have said this murder was very much akin to The Basketball Diaries, in which a student goes in and shoots others in the classroom.”
- In 2001, Belgian trucker Thierry Jaradin stabbed his neighbor Alisson Cambier with two kitchen knives 30 times, killing her. He was wearing a Scream costume during the murder. After the killing, he placed a rose in Cambier’s hand before laying her body in his bed.
- In 1999, a pair of British boys received a six-year sentence for the nonfatal stabbing of a friend they’d committed after watching Scream and thinking that the movie had told them to kill her.
- The first killing linked to Scream occurred in 1998, when a teenage boy in California murdered his mother, Gina Castillo, by stabbing her dozens of times with knives and a screwdriver.
This futuristic and cyberpunk film series, based on the idea that what passes for “reality” is merely a construct foisted upon us by our overlords, has been linked to a string of slayings.
- In 2000, Swedish exchange student Vadim Mieseges dismembered his landlady and told police that he’d “been sucked into the Matrix.”
- In 2003, an Ohio woman named Tonda Lynn Ansley murdered her landlady because she thought the woman was part of a conspiracy to brainwash and murder her.
- In the infamous DC Sniper Attacks of 2002 that left 17 dead, Lee Boyd Malvo told a psychiatrist that he’d seen The Matrix “more than 100 times” and unsuccessfully attempted to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
This film about a psychopathic yuppie serial killer was based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name and has been traced to several murders.
- Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo was rumored to keep a copy of Ellis’s book by his bed and referred to it as his “bible.”
- In 2004, South Florida middle schooler Michael Hernandez killed a classmate and told police that the character of American Psycho protagonist Patrick Bateman was a major inspiration for his crime.
- In 2012, Canadian psychopath Luka Magnotta filmed himself murdering his male lover with an icepick while a song from the American Psycho soundtrack played in the background.
- Finally, in 2014, a Hong Kong-based man named Rurik Jutting filmed himself murdering two Indonesian women in his apartment. Jutting confessed to being a huge fan of both the novel and the movie versions of American Psycho.
This film that stars Aaliyah as vampire queen Akasha inspired an English hipster named Allan Menzies, who murdered his best friend Thomas McKendrick, drank his blood, and ate parts of his head. Menzies told police that he’d been “visited by Akasha in the night” and that she’d promised to make him a vampire in the afterlife if he murdered his friend.
After stabbing 45-year-old friend Richard Hamilton to death after Hamilton refused to give him the PIN to his bank account, a British man named Matthew Tinling was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Judge Timothy Pontius scolded Tinling for reenacting a scene from Saw VI:
“You inflicted 17 wounds during the attack, the most serious of which was delivered specifically with the intention of severing the spinal cord, thus to cause paralysis and death, exactly as you had seen on a DVD….Whether or not that was Saw 6, found by the police in your room, or another in the series doesn’t matter.…Plainly it was something you had seen and tried to imitate.”
The film series is based on a dystopian world in which authorities reduce crime by permitting everyone to run wild and do whatever they want during a yearly “Purge,” and it led to a moral panic in Louisville, KY in 2014 where 80,000 residents locked themselves indoors anticipating widespread riots. In May 2016, a 19-year-old Indiana gang member named Jonathan Cruz killed three people over a four-day murder spree. Police found cell phone clips of Cruz boasting, “better go on Facebook and watch ‘da videos of me shooting people. I Purge every night now.”