Is it possible that someone who was already intent on committing a crime could learn tips and tricks from a novel to aide them in said crime? If so, do horror and mystery writers have a moral responsibility to their readers, to NOT provide an accurate textbook, if you will, on how to kill and get away with it?
We have all heard the expression, ‘copy cat killers’, but who is more responsible? –A creative writer who creates a painstakingly researched and accurate scenario that may appeal to someone with a lesser conscience, or the “copy cat” them-self, who may or may not have committed the crime had the writer not inspired it. Clearly, it is not the writers fault if their work encourages a depraved mind to act on something that is morally wrong. But, what can be done about it? -If anything…
Here are some examples of crimes inspired by fiction:
The Pale Horse, by Agatha Christie has been said to have inspired a double homicide in 1972. Graham Young, known as the tea-cup killer, was convicted in 1972 for murder by Thallium poisoning. –A method of murder used by the criminal in Christie’s book. She was extremely distressed that someone would use her story as a ‘how to kill’ textbook. Obsessed with poison and murder mysteries, did Christie’s book inspire Young to kill?
The Collector, by John Fowles, has been said to have inspired serial killer Christopher Wilder, a man who murdered 8+ women in the 1980’s. Wilder committed suicide, with this book in his possession.
Wilder may have identified with the protagonist in this story, a man with severe social problems who kidnapped and held a woman as part of his ‘collection’.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger purportedly inspired John Lennon’s murderer, Mark David Chapman. Obsessed with phonies and the music of John Lennon, Chapman killed the singer, sending shock waves through the music industry.
Obviously, not everyone who has read this book, or the ones above, has been urged to assassinate a renowned singer. The Catcher in the Rye is a classic, and read by millions of high school kids every year as required reading.
So what was it about The Catcher in the Rye that triggered Chapman? Perhaps we will never know…
Please do not get me wrong. My argument is not for censorship, but a better understanding of the human mind and what triggers one to act on their violent fantasies. Should people with impulse control problems not read/view horror and or violent content? Might they have a better chance of not doing something destructive if the seed isn’t implanted into their minds via a book, video game, or movie?
We have no answers as of yet, only questions. In the meantime, I hope the horror and crime mystery writers keep doing what they do best, and that any future wanna-be copy-cat killers won’t be reading their work!
It is not only books that have been pointed out as inspiring crimes – Helter Skelter by the Beatles was cited by Charles Manson and One More Cup of Coffee by Bob Dylan was pointed to in the killing by Richard Dickinson of his mother who he trampled to death. Dickinson was schizophrenic and thought his mother was one of the female characters sung about on the album Desire and he trampled her to death while listening to One More Cup of Coffee. Many movies have also spurred real life crimes, Ben Affleck’s The Town, Scream, Project X, and Saw (in the Saw case the people plotting the kidnapping, torture and murder of several others a la Saw were turned in by one of the mothers who overheard the boys talking. So they did not get a chance to act out their fantasy).
Unbalanced people (and others) can find inspiration from all types of sources. I do think it is the nature of books that would give such a person more of a “manual” because you can read over and over a passage and take notes, etc. However, most crime writers (unless they are former police officers, forensic specialists, doctors, etc) get their information from public sources such as internet or books that the wanna be killers would have access to as well.
Really interesting topic and I really think the issue is mental illness and the lack of treatment rather than the art and the artists whatever the media may be.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment! 🙂 And yes, I agree, mental illness, as well as illicit drug use often plays a huge role in copycat/violent crimes.
What an interesting topic. I’ve received a few Amazon reviews of my thriller novel where the reviewer has expressed concerns that my fictional use of nanotech as a weapon might give the bad guys an idea. I hadn’t realized this might have a precedent. As you say, there’s not much a writer can do about it. My grasp of nanotech is tenuous at best, so I’m sure no one will copy my villains–at least I hope not!
Thanks Pete! 🙂