It should come as no surprise that news media have certain formulas, employ certain templates when covering recurring stories. If a heavy snow is predicted, you can be sure there will be reports about people stocking up on milk, bread and toilet paper in local grocery stores.
Similarly, after an active shooter situation, you can be sure there will be reports about the movies the shooter watched, the music he (almost always a he) listened to and/or the video games he played.
After the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, the media quickly compiled a list of the media Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold consumed. And in their rush, they got parts wrong. The two were not fans of Marilyn Manson. They were actually into German industrial bands KMFDM and Rammstein, both of whom denounced the school shooters.
Many assumed The Matrix was the inspiration for the black trenchcoats worn by the alleged “Trenchcoat Mafia.”
However, the movie came out on March 31, 1999. The massacre was less than three weeks later, on April 20, 1999, delayed from April 19 (chosen as the anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing, which they hoped to outdo; they set up bombs throughout the school, only entered the building after the bombs failed to go off) because they wanted to buy more ammunition. They had already been wearing the trenchcoats for some time at that point, wore them in many of the films they made of themselves over the previous year while planning their assault, long before The Matrix was released.
A far better, but still circumstantial, case could be made that an inspiration might have been the school shooting in a dream sequence in the movie The Basketball Diaries, which came out in 1995:
However, the coats were actually introduced to Columbine High School by the actual “Trenchcoat Mafia,” a Goth clique in the school of which, contrary to reporting at the time, Harris and Klebold were not members (though Klebold was friends with one of them). It started with one guy’s Halloween costume. It looked cool so his friends adopted the style. Eventually Harris and Klebold also bought similar coats. It was also practical for the shooters, as it made it easy for them to hide their weapons until they were in position.
The Basketball Diaries was also blamed for (even sued for) the earlier Paducah, Kentucky, school shooting on December 1, 1997. The shooter, Michael Carneal, did claim to have seen the film. But is having seen a film the same as being inspired by it, much less impelled by it?
Seung-Hui Cho, responsible for the massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, was such a loner that no one knew him well enough to know what movies or video games he consumed. However, that did not stop the news media from speculating about what movies he might have consumed that might have played a role in the tragedy.
It does seem to be a pretty solid conclusion that Cho was familiar with the South Korean film Oldboy.
Why else pose himself with a hammer, emulating the film’s poster, in the photos he sent to NBC?
And the vengeance theme of the movie certainly matched his stated motive. Still, there is no direct proof he had seen the film.
Although widely reported at the time (it still shows up high in online searches), James Holmes, the man who killed 12 people at a July 20, 2012, screening of the Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, never referred to himself as “the Joker.” But corrections never get as much attention as the initial stories.
In 2010, a 17 year old Indiana boy killed his 10 year old brother in a particularly gruesome manner. He claimed he identified with Dexter Morgan, the serial killer in the Showtime TV series named after him.
The teenager said, “I just feel like him.” However, at least one newspaper took the next step to say he “modeled” himself after the fictional serial killer. Is identifying with a character really the same as following him as a role model? But the paper took it even further in the headline: “‘Dexter made me do it’: Teenager who murdered brother, 10, claims he was inspired by hit TV show.” The quote does not appear anywhere in the story. In this one newspaper story we can see the process by which the story of a messed up kid who recognizes himself in a psychopathic fictional character is transformed into the claim that the TV character caused him to kill.
As always, the media rushed to find an explanation, which it presented in the most sensational way possible. And the public embraced any explanation in an attempt to make sense of a senseless act. Is that why so many of us are so quick to accept stories like this that at least imply and often explicitly argue that a movie or a TV show made someone commit a crime? Do we find it oddly comforting that there is some reason, no matter how suspect, behind an act that is so hard to understand? And if there is a reason, if there is a simple answer to the question of why something so terrible happened, do we think there might also be a simple solution so it never happens again? But is it ever really that simple?
Everyone looks for someone to blame after a tragic event, especially one involving gun violence. Hollywood and the NRA point at each other, and both call for better mental health screening. This may seem a bit strange coming from me since I have elsewhere expressed my skepticism about violent media leading directly to imitation, but is it possible to blame all of these factors in concert? The vast majority of people who are fans of violent movies and video games never kill in real life. The vast majority of people with mental illness are non-violent. The vast majority of people who own guns never kill other people. So could these rare incidences of extreme violence (and as terrible as they are, one being too many, alleged copycat killings are still extremely rare) be the result of a “perfect storm” of all of these factors coming together, a steady diet of violent video games and movies, a lack of parental involvement to place any of these things in context, access to guns, plus mental illness?