Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

'Movies Made Me Murder'

Self Murder

Movie Poster: The Deer Hunter
Movie Poster: The Deer Hunter

The movie most often documented for its apparent inspiration for suicide is the award-winning The Deer Hunter, released in 1978 and starring Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, and John Voight.  About three friends from Pennsylvania, Michael, Nick, and Steven, who enlist to fight in the war in Vietnam, the tale follows them as the Viet Cong torture them with a game of Russian roulette.  Nick ends up so traumatized by his experience that he remains in Vietnam, making money by playing this same suicide game voluntarily.  Ultimately, he kills himself.

Researcher Loren Coleman documents a number of suicides reportedly inspired by this film, evidenced by the way they copied the famous scene with Nick re-enacting his torture.  In addition, Coleman cites other research about how the movie's screenings in specific theaters, video rentals, or showings on television correlate with a rash of suicides.

Children who imitated the Russian roulette scene were likely just curious, but the older teens tended to be depressed or attempting some form of bravado.  One man who re-enacted the scene in 1979 was a police officer.  Many of the victims shot themselves in front of other people, usually friends or relatives.  They often stated their influence from the film.

For example, a 1980 article in the New Orleans-based newspaper, the Times-Picayune, described how twenty-three-year-old Mickey Culpepper said to a friend, "Look.  I'm going to play Deer Hunter" before shooting himself in the head with a .38.

Even worse, on October 8, 1980, a man was kidnapped near the World Trade Center and tortured by men intending to rob him; they re-enacted the Viet Cong torture scene.

The movie-related suicides occurred in other countries as well, documented in the Philippines, Finland, Lebanon, and other places, and even a Secret Service Agent apparently shot himself while viewing an HBO showing of the film.  He survived.

Often, these incidents occurred while drinking or in a show of macho, but some were accidents result from someone just attempting to demonstrate something about the scene.  But one incident was clear a murder: a prison guard in Rhode Island shot a prisoner while they discussed the scene and he reportedly tried to get other guards to play the game with him as well.  So whether it's violence against oneself or toward others, this movie clearly has had an influence.

It stands to reason that violent imagery will affect certain people in a way that inspires them to act out.  From the story that affects them, they acquire a frame and guidelines, and sometimes even interpret the film as a license to kill.  Not everyone will be thus affected, but among those who are, it's safe to say there is such a thing as a "Copycat Effect" when the portrayal of violence grips a person so firmly that he or she decides follow the details of that specific template.  Has the movie made him kill?  No, but has it given him ideas and methods — even victims?  We can see that such things have occurred and are likely to continue to occur.


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