5 Times Killers Mimicked Horror Legends And Films
Remember that kid you knew in high school who loved to follow up any horror movie viewing session with a claim about how they "totally knew someone that that actually happened to"? The odds are high that your old classmate was just making stuff up for attention (I mean, he had to, what with the way you guys were always refusing to listen to his demo tape and all!). But he actually wasn't that far off the mark about the sometimes twisty, reality-bending relationship between horror myth and horrific reality. Because not only are many popular horror tales based off of true stories — some of them end up inspiring new true stories, too.
Of course, the fact that some people claim that horror stories inspired them to engage in real violence doesn't mean that horror fiction is dangerous. It's important to remember that there is no film, TV show, story or other piece of art that actually "makes" anyone kill or injure people. (If you want proof, recall that Charles Manson claimed that he was inspired to plan multiple brutal murders after listening to the Beatles ) For most of us, horror movies and legends provide a safe cultural space to confront our anxieties and fears, and also a good excuse to grab our crush's arm and then be all "Oh, I didn't even notice that I did that!" And the fact that millions of people have heard these stories and managed to not kill anyone makes a strong argument that scary stories don't drive people to commit crimes, no matter what some cultural commentators would have you believe.
But, with all that noted, it can still be fascinating to untangle the web where creepy fantasy meets nightmare-ish reality. With that in mind, check out these five stories of real crimes supposedly inspired by scary movies or urban myth.
1. Poisoned Halloween Candy
The Story: In this urban myth, evil folks see Halloween as the perfect opportunity to kill some kids without getting caught — by poisoning or inserting sharp objects into candy that is later given out to trick-or-treaters. That's why you had to give all your candy to your parents on Halloween, who always seem to mysterious "misplace" half of it before they gave it back to you.
The Reality: This myth has been recorded by sociologists since at least the 1960s, but there's only one actual recorded incident of someone inserting pins and needles into candy given out to trick-or-treaters. In 2000, a man named James Joseph Smith was charged with one count of adulterating a substance with intent to cause death, harm or illness after handing out Snickers bars on Halloween that had needles stuck inside them. One child was injured, but no one was killed.
And while there have been no documented instances of people handing out poison candy to random trick-or-treaters, at least one murderer tried to use the myth as a cover for his crime. In 1974, a man named Ronald Clark O’Bryan took out large insurance policies on his son, Timothy, and decided to do away with him by giving him poisoned candy that was filled with cyanide. To try to make it look less suspicious (i.e. like the O'Bryan son was a victim of a random candy-poisoning maniac, instead of the father who had just taken out a huge life insurance policy on him), Ronald O'Bryan also handed out poisoned candy to his daughter, Elizabeth, and two other children. They all opted to leave Ronald's candy for later, but Timothy consumed the poisoned treat and died. Given that poisoned Halloween candy is actually far from the common crime that O'Bryan apparently assumed that it was, he was swiftly caught and convicted of murder. He was executed in 1984.
2. Natural Born Killers
The Story: In this extremely controversial 1994 film, a young couple go on a road trip that becomes a cross-country murder spree.
The Reality: This one gets a little confusing, so buckle up. This film was actually loosely based on true events — it was inspired by the real-life murder spree that young lovers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate went on in 1958 (those crimes also inspired the classy Terence Malick film Badlands and the excellent Bruce Springsteen song "Nebraska").
However, that didn't stop people from blaming the film for a number of crimes in the decade that followed its release. But the farthest anyone went in blaming the film for real-life crime came in 1995, when teen criminals Sarah Edmonson and James Barras killed one person and injured another while on a multi-city road trip. Edmonson and Barras claimed, like many others, to have been inspired by the film, which they watched several days before committing their crimes. Patsy Byers, who was shot by Edmonson but survived, filed a lawsuit against Natural Born Killers director Oliver Stone and Time Warner, claiming that the film was an incitement to violence.
Byers found support from author John Grisham, who has been a friend of William Savage, the man murdered by Barras. The case bounced in and out of court for nearly a decade, before it was found that Stone's rights as an artist were protected by the First Amendment. The case was formally closed in 2002.
3. Interview With The Vampire
The Story: In this 1994 film (based on the 1976 Anne Rice novel of the same name), two men and a little lady are immortal vampires, drink people's blood and wear white pancake makeup (not necessarily in that order).
The Reality: Daniel Stirling saw this film in the theater with his girlfriend, Lisa Stellwagen, on November 17th, 1994. The next morning, when Stellwagen asked Stirling why he was distracted, he replied that he was going to "kill [her] and drink [her] blood." Stellwagen blew off the comment, but that evening, Stirling stabbed Stellwagen seven times and drank her blood; Stellwagen was able to end the attack by convincing Stirling that he'd go to jail if she died.
Stirling went to jail anyway, telling the Los Angeles Times soon after his arrest that "I was influenced by the movie. I enjoyed the movie...[b]ut I cannot sit here and blame the movie." Luckily, the jury on his trial agreed; though his lawyers did attempt to say that the film incited Stirling to violence, the jury found him guilty of attempted first degree murder. "It was an obvious case of domestic violence," juror Dina Dimopoulous told the SF Gate of the case.
The Story: According to this internet-based myth, created by Eric Knudsen in 2009, Slenderman is a faceless, tentacle-armed villain who stalks and spies on his victims, and can eventually drive them to madness.
The Reality: In May 2014, two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin, lured a third 12-year-old girl out to some woods in town. The two girls then turned against the third, stabbing her 19 times. The victim survived, and was able to crawl to safety after her attackers left. Once apprehended, the girls told police that they had been trying to murder their classmate so that they could become closer to Slenderman, who they believed would accept them and allow them to live with him if they killed on his behalf. Both girls are still awaiting trial.
The Story: In this groundbreaking 1996 horror film, a small California town is menaced by a murderer who seems hyper-aware of the genre rules that govern horror films, and...you know what? Just watch the movie. It's great, I promise. Courtney Cox and '90s hairdos galore!
The Reality: Though Belgian murderer Thierry Jaradin claimed to have been inspired by the Scream films to murder 15-year-old Alisson Cambier in 2001, Jaradin's assault was not exactly a copycat crime; Jaradin just put on the mask and robe worn by the killers in the films before he stabbed Cambier to death. He then immediately calling his family to confess.
So while many psychologists do argue that violent media may cause real world aggression, no one has argued that scary stories are a threat to public safety. No film or story made these people kill others. So while it can be fun to learn about this kind of stuff, remember: scary stories don't kill people; people kill people.
Images: Dimension Films; Giphy (5)