Some would have you believe that we as a species are highly impressionable, so much so that the media that surrounds us influences us in ways we're totally unaware of. Some even contend that the violence we see in films and television makes us violent ourselves.
What follows are five films that inspired crimes. In the selected instances something about the story is strange – either the film that lead to the crime or something about the crime itself.
Queen of the Damned
Based on one of Anne Rice's many gothic novels, Queen of the Damned tells the story of the vampire Lestat who, after being awoken by the sounds of a rock band, decides to become their lead singer. This pisses off other vampires because it draws too much attention to their existence and soon he is the constant target of violence from his own kind. Fortunately, his own music awakens the original vampire Akasha, who is determined to protect him because of their previous relationship many years ago. For those of you who thought Twilight ruined vampires, please take special note of this particular film.
In 2002, West Lothian resident Allan Menzies thought the movie was speaking to him. Literally. According to him, the Akasha character came to him in the night and promised to make him a vampire if he would only kill his best friend, Thomas McKendrick. Having never been led astray by film adaptions of fictional characters before, he did the deed and then some, drinking his friend's blood and eating part of his brain before burying him in a shallow grave. Akasha never came, however, and non-vampire Menzies was sentenced to life in prison. He would later be found dead in his cell.
The Saw franchise took psychological horror films to a whole new level by making them nearly pornographic in their depictions of violence and suffering. The antagonist, Jigsaw, forces his victims into situations where they must choose to harm another (or themselves) if they wish to survive. However, he only targets people who he deems have harmed others, thus justifying his actions in a sort of “Robin Hood with a murder fetish” sort of way.
There are two news stories of Saw-inspired crimes that are noteworthy because they were (thankfully) never executed and were plotted by teenagers, perhaps explaining why they were never executed in the first place.
Two boys from Salt Lake City, Utah planned to kidnap, torture and kill two fellow students and a school police officer. They would have modeled their violence on the film's torture scenes, going so far as use video and photo equipment to record their actions. They alleged that they were only going to target wrong-doers, proving they didn't completely miss the point of the film, but they were eventually reported to police by one of the boy's mothers, proving that they didn't know well enough to keep their plans of murder people a secret.
The second is actually a prank that lead to criminal charges. Two teenage girls from Tennessee left a prank call on the phone of a fifty-two year old woman. The call, based loosely on a scene from the second film, told the woman a friend of hers was hidden somewhere in her house, which would soon be pumped full of toxic gas. The woman, who was at a funeral at the time, ended up having a stroke as a result. The two girls were charged with phone harassment.
It's not fair to say the Matrix isn't a violent film, but when we think of films that inspire violence The Matrix usually isn't high on that list (if on it at all). The scenes just aren't that gruesome. On top of that, the science-fiction elements of the story make the whole thing seem completely far-fetched in the first place. The idea that such a film could inspire something like murder seems ludicrous, right?
For a period of three weeks in October, 2002, the DC Metropolitan area was plagued with sniper attacks. Originally thought to be the work of one man, it was eventually discovered that two people were responsible for the attacks, which left ten dead and three critically wounded. The spree was planned to be much longer and was to travel across the country.
One of the snipers, Lee Boyd Malvo, was only a teenager at the time of his arrest. During interrogation he was asked what had prompted his actions. His reply was simply “Matrix.” Eventually police were able to deduce that he had an obsession with the film and even believed himself to living in a Matrix-like environment. A social worker on the case claimed that Malvo's relationship with the other attacker, John Allen Muhammad, mirrored that of Neo and his mentor Morpheus, and that Malvo saw himself bringing about change in the same way the Neo did.
Just in case you thought only horror films and science-fiction could inspire crime, enter Money Train, the 1995 comedy thriller starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. After losing his job, Harrelson's character creates a plan to rob the New York City transit's money train, which carries the fare paid at each station. The film proved to be incredibly unpopular with critics and movie goers alike and is now fondly remembered as a box office bomb.
A “copycat” crime was committed shortly after the film's release. Imitating a scene in which a ticket booth attendant is doused with a flammable liquid and threatened to be set on fire, two men doused subway attendant Harry Kaufman with lighter fluid and set him on fire, burning over eighty-percent of his body. The injuries would lead to his death, and while police did not connect the crime to the film, many others did, including former presidential candidate Bob Dole. A boycott followed. In hindsight, such a thing hardly seemed necessary given the film's financial failure, but hey, whatever keeps Dole busy.
Ben Affleck's The Town focuses on bank robberies as a central plot point, so it's no surprise that the film would inspire crime. The film alleges that Charlestown, a small neighborhood in Boston, is a central hub for bank robbers, and that three-hundred bank robberies are committed in Boston every year. Neither of those little tidbits are true (at least not anymore – Charlestown was once highly concentrated with bank robbers, and in 2010 Boston had less robberies than many cities of the same size across the country and far less than three-hundred). What's more, many of the copycat crimes that followed didn't even take place near Boston.
The most prolific crime occurred in Palos Heights, Illinois in May 2011. Two robbers attacked a TCF branch wearing nun masks similar to those in the movie. Surprisingly, no one was hurt nor were shots fired and as of this writing the thieves have not been apprehended. Notably, this was the fifth robbery of that particular bank in five years, implying some pretty terrible security, so there's a pretty solid chance they could have worn no masks and still gotten away with it.