Every murder is a tragedy, but spree, serial and mass murders are considered particularly reprehensible. For one thing, these murders lack a clear motive; with most murders, the rationale is a desire for retribution or financial gain. This generally isn't the case when a person kills someone they don’t even know, but it’s only human to attempt to understand or label violent acts and the people who commit them.
So are murderers mentally ill? Not necessarily. In fact, many killers don't meet the criteria for insanity. What's more, the field of psychology has struggled to create a psychological model that explains all of these acts.
Copycat killings add another knot to the tangle -- these are murders committed in a way that was already established by a previous murder committed by another person. Some credit the year 1912 with the birth of this class of killer. Intense media coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders spawned a multitude of similar crimes, and the term "copycat effect" came into being.
Modern criminologists have long been aware of the potential for media exposure to lead to copycat killings. As the media has grown, other forms of entertainment -- especially movies and video games -- have come under fire for allegedly leading to copycats basing crimes on what they see on the screen.
What follows are 10 criminals, real and fictional, who inspired others to follow in their brutal footsteps.
In 1982, the public's trust in packaged over-the-counter medicines was fundamentally shaken. How? Seven people died in the Chicago area after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. The deaths caused enough panic among Americans that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to require that all over-the-counter drugs be sold in tamper-resistant packaging.
Although one man was arrested and sentenced to prison for sending an extortion note to Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, no one was ever arrested for the actual murders, and the case remains open. The widespread publicity given the case has led to some copycats, however.
The most notable of these came four years later, when a woman in New York died minutes after taking two Tylenol capsules that turned out to have been laced with cyanide. That same year, Excedrin joined its competitor as a vehicle for poison delivery. Two people in Washington State died after taking cyanide-laced Excedrin. In this case, however, the killer was uncovered. Stella Nickell -- the wife of the man who died from the poisoned Excedrin -- was found guilty of product tampering and sentenced to 80 years in prison [source: Bell]. Another copycat killer surfaced in 1993, when Joseph Meling attempted to kill his wife and actually killed two strangers by filling Sudafed capsules with cyanide. He was sentenced to life in prison [source: Snopes].
The Food and Drug Administration's current requirement that over-the counter medications be sold in tamper-resistant packaging is the direct result of the Tylenol-laced-with-cyanide killings -- and their copycats.
Several films have been implicated in copycat murders over the years. The Russian roulette scene in the movie "The Deer Hunter" has been linked to a number of accidental suicides. The ultraviolent "A Clockwork Orange" has been accused of spurring real-life violence. Even "The Fisher King," a dramatic comedy directed by Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam, partially inspired a mass killing.
But perhaps no other movie has been held more responsible for inspiring a generation of copycat killers than the 1994 Oliver Stone film "Natural Born Killers," which, ironically, discusses the glorification of violence in the American media. The film also has the bizarre status of inadvertently creating copycats of copycats. The movie is loosely based on the killings carried out in 1957 and 1958 by teenage spree killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
The criminals most often cited as having been inspired by the movie are teenage couple Benjamin Darras and Sarah Edmondson. The pair watched the movie repeatedly under the influence of LSD and decided to go on their own crime spree the next day. They traveled from Oklahoma to Mississippi, where Darras and Edmondson shot two people, killing one and paralyzing the other.
As many as 12 other murders have been linked to the movie [source: Ramsland].
During a five-year period in the late 1960s in the San Francisco area, the self-described Zodiac Killer used a knife and a pistol to take the lives of at least seven strangers. He was perhaps the most famous serial killer to employ the media for attention, sending local newspaper offices cryptic and taunting letters aimed toward the police. The Zodiac Killer was never identified.
Twenty years later, a Zodiac copycat began his own attacks in New York City, taking a more literal interpretation of his predecessor by murdering victims based on their Zodiac sign. This copycat killer, however, was eventually named.
Heriberto "Eddie" Seda began his copycat spree in November 1989 by sending cryptic letters to the police and the media. In the months following the missives, he began stalking his victims, shooting each with a homemade gun. At the scene of each crime, Seda left similar notes.
Over the course of the next three years, Seda murdered three New Yorkers and attempted to kill five more. Seda was discovered through witnesses and because he left fingerprints on his notes. After he engaged police in an unrelated shootout in 1996, Seda was arrested and convicted of the Zodiac copycat crimes. He was sentenced to 238 years in prison [source: Haynes].
Most copycat killers select victims they don't know, but one slasher film fan targeted the girl next door. When a 15-year-old schoolgirl refused the romantic advances of her family's neighbor, 24-year-old Thierry Jaradin, the Belgian man decided to exact a revenge based on "Scream." The 1996 American horror film tells the story of a high school student and her friends who are stalked, stabbed and murdered by a killer who wears a black robe and a mask patterned after Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream."
The thwarted Jaradin, a cab driver, left the room to don a Scream costume and grab two large knives. When he returned, he stabbed the girl 30 times, leaving one particular wound that closely mirrored a wound shown in the movie. He then called his father and a coworker to tell them of his crime. After he was arrested, he told police his actions were inspired by the film and its sequels [source: Osborn].
"Scream" was based, in part, on the real-life murders of five Gainesville, Fla., students in August 1990, who were found stabbed and murdered in their apartments. The culprit, Danny Rolling, was eventually arrested and sentenced for the killings, and an investigation into his background revealed that he'd endured a childhood filled with physical and emotional abuse from his father -- and that four months before his killing spree began, Rolling had attempted to murder him, too [source: Steel].
Derek Brown, a 47-year-old-father of seven, followed in the grisly footsteps of Jack the Ripper 120 years after the original, infamous murders occurred. In 2008, Brown was convicted of murdering two women despite neither of the bodies being found.
Brown picked his victims from the Whitechapel area of East London, where Jack the Ripper had carried out his five murders. In August, Brown murdered Xiao Mei Guo, a 29-year-old street vendor, who was videotaped entering a London subway with Brown the day she disappeared. The following month, Brown picked up 26-year-old prostitute Bonnie Barrett and murdered her.
While the bodies were never recovered, police found ample blood evidence from both women in Derek Brown's apartment. Blood evidence was found throughout his home, with the highest concentration of blood stains found in the bathroom. Investigators believe Brown dismembered the women in his bathtub and disposed of their bodies.
He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murders. Police believe he was on his way to becoming a serial killer, and after he was caught, they linked him to six unsolved sexual assaults [source: Sky News].
The 1999 movie "The Matrix" was a box office hit that inspired some fans to wear long, black trench coats and slick sunglasses -- just like Neo, the movie's main character. Played by Keanu Reeves, Neo toggles between a computer-simulated world called the Matrix, where he works as a computer programmer, and the real world, where he becomes a hero bent on violently and forcibly freeing humans who have been subverted by technology. Unfortunately, the movie and its sequels also may have inspired some copycat killings, too.
In September 2002, Vadim Mieseges murdered his landlord in California and claimed he'd been in the Matrix during the act. That same fall, Lee Boyd, who had been arrested for 10 deadly sniper shootings near Washington, D.C., gave homage to "The Matrix" in sketches he made while in jail. In February 2003, Virginian Joshua Cooke said he lived in the Matrix when he murdered his parents. In July 2002, Tonda Lynn Ansley shot and killed her landlord. The Ohio resident then told police her landlord had been involved in a conspiracy to brainwash and murder her, just as Neo is persecuted in "The Matrix" [source: Bean].
Police believe that Canadian independent filmmaker Mark Andrew Twitchell was on his way to becoming a full-fledged serial killer. Fortunately, he was caught before he was able to commit the requisite three murders. Instead, he was discovered -- and stopped -- after his first killing and, in 2011, sentenced to life in prison.
Twitchell is said to have been inspired by the television show "Dexter," which portrays a forensic scientist who stalks and murders serial murderers. Twitchell created his own plot line, however, which he shot as a short film about a vigilante murder with the same sequence of events that he would follow shortly afterward.
Twitchell is believed to have placed an ad on an online dating service posing as a woman to lure John Brian Altinger to a rented garage under the pretense of meeting a date there. Altinger was never seen again. His disappearance and suspected murder may not have been linked to Twitchell had Altinger not e-mailed his friends directions to the garage before going. Police searched the leasing history of the garage and found that Mark Twitchell had rented it.
Police began to suspect that Twitchell was on the path to serial killer status after another man came forward. This near-victim escaped from the same garage following being beaten by a man in a mask after he'd been lured there by the same online dating ruse. His escape took place a week before Altinger's disappearance [source: Blais].
On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr. joined members of the press awaiting then-President Ronald Reagan's exit from a Washington, D.C. hotel. As the President left the building and walked toward his car, Hinckley pulled out a revolver and fired six shots. One of the bullets lodged near the President's heart and was removed during surgery. Presidential Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head and paralyzed, and a police officer and a Secret Service agent were wounded as well.
It was the third presidential assassination attempt in six years, but was the only one credited as a copycat shooting based on a film; Hinckley pointed to a 1976 film, "Taxi Driver," as his inspiration. The movie's plot centers around a Vietnam veteran who seeks to assassinate a presidential candidate, and stars Robert Di Nero and Jodi Foster. During his trial, Hinckley, who had been stalking Foster, said the assassination attempt was a bid for Foster's attention. In 1982, Hinckley's trial ended; he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to stay in a mental institution.
Hinckley's crime was a catalyst that led to widespread changes in the way the Secret Service vetted public stops for sitting Presidents. Currently, the public can't be present when the President arrives at or leaves an event. The use of metal detectors was increased markedly, as was the number of Secret Service agents assigned to duty. At the time of President Reagan's assassination attempt by Hinckley, there were about 1,500 Secret Service members; as of 2011, the number had doubled [source: Welch].
Starting in the 1990s, a spate of copycat school shootings cropped up across the United States. Most were given widespread media exposure, including a 1996 incident of classroom violence that killed three people. Shooter Barry Loukaitis, 14, burst into a Moses Lake, Wash., classroom wearing a black trench coat and volleyed shots from pistols and a rifle at his classmates. The scene was eerily similar to one in "The Basketball Diaries," a film in which a basketball player (Leonardo DiCaprio) develops a heroin addiction and dreams of shooting classmates in a classroom while wearing a black trench coat.
Another school shooting occurred on the same day, this time in Atlanta, when a 16-year-old student shot and killed a teacher. It was one of at least 50 school shootings that occurred from 1983 to 2008, including the killing spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 13 people and wounded 23 others before killing themselves on their high school campus on April 20, 1999 [source: Allender]. News reporters rushed to the scene and much of the violent incident played out on live TV, leaving some to wonder whether the media attention that the shooting garnered would contribute to school-centered copycat crimes.
From March 2009 to April 2009, 43 people in the United States died during murder-suicides, stirring speculation that copycats were becoming inspired by real-life crimes. One of the most publicized incidents was the shooting of 13 people at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y., before the gunman turned his weapon on himself. In addition, from 2008 to 2010, there were a series of parent-child murder-suicides in states from California to Maryland [source: Sandberg].
While researchers point to a possible combination of factors that may be responsible for the increase in murder-suicides -- economics, unemployment and passionate motives like jealousy -- they also revealed that suicides alone are a largely seasonal event, as evidenced by an uptick in self-inflicted deaths each spring. There's also often an increase in the suicide rate in the areas surrounding a highly publicized suicide. However, there's no conclusive evidence that murder-suicides follow the same patterns -- even if there have been an unusual number of murder-suicides within specific time periods [source: Szalavitz].
For more about the crimes and topics discussed in this article, check out the links on the next page.
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- Osborn, Andrew. "'Scream' Movies are Blamed by Teenage Girl's Copycat Killer." The Guardian. Nov. 18, 2001. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/nov/18/filmnews.film
- Ramsland, Katherine. "Movies Made Me Murder." (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/criminal_mind/psychology/movies_made_me_kill/5.html
- Sky News. "Just Tell us Where the Bodies Are." Oct. 6, 2008. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://news.sky.com/home/uk-news/article/15113820
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- Welch, William. "Effects of Assassination Attempt on Reagan Echo Today." USA Today. Jan. 24, 2011. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2011-01-23-ronald-reagan-assassination-attempt-effect_N.htm