The "copycat effect" is the tendency of sensational publicity about violent murders or suicides to result in more of the same through imitation.
The term was first coined around 1916 due to the crimes that were inspired by Jack the Ripper. Due to the increase of replicated crimes, criminologists soon began to realize that media coverage played a role in inspiring other criminals to commit crimes in a similar fashion.
There is also a book written by Loren Coleman called The Copycat Effect that describes the effect that the media has on crimes and suicides, which are inspired by crimes that have been widely covered across the media. Coleman's view on the media is that the constant coverage of these events, rather than the events with a positive message, gives these criminals a type of fame. The five minutes of fame, book or movie that is dedicated to these criminals provokes individuals with a tendency to behave in a similar way. Due to this type of fame, the "copycat effect" takes place.
Various criminal acts have been inspired by many television shows, movies, books as well as other criminals. A list of the few crimes that have been a result of the copycat effect are:
The television show Breaking Bad has been suspected of inspiring a number of crimes. A few crimes include the following:
A 27-year-old man, Jason Hart, was found guilty of strangling his girlfriend to death, and then used sulfuric acid in a plastic tub to dispose of the body. The incident had many similarities to various scenes in Breaking Bad, where White and Jesse Pinkman dispose of bodies in a similar way. It was later found out that he had been a fan of Breaking Bad.
Alabama: A 55-year-old drug dealer was going by the name "Walter White".
2013: Stephen Doran, a teacher, was arrested when police found $10000 in cash, as well as equipment. He appeared in court with a clean-shaven head, and it was later found that he had been battling with cancer. He had been inspired by the television show to take things into his own hands and earn cash so he could receive the surgery/therapy he needed.
Scream: A 24-year-old young man, Thierry Jaradin, stabbed a young girl, Alisson Cambier, 30 times; similar to the way the victim was stabbed in the movie. He had been wearing the Ghostface costume, and later confessed that he had planned the murder in a similar way to the movie.
Fight Club: There have been many incidents inspired by the movie. One of the incidents occurred in 2009 during the Memorial Day weekend in New York City. Bombs were set off in various locations, representing a symbol of their oppression. Kyle Shaw was found guilty, who himself was also a member of the local fight club.
The Dark Knight has inspired many copycat crimes. A few of them include a shooting in a movie theatre filled with Batman fans, after yelling, "I am the Joker!". In 2010, a Wisconsin man assaulted his cousin and girlfriend, dressed as the Joker, when he found them sleeping together. And In 2009, a young girl attacked her teacher with a razor blade. Her face had been painted in a similar way as the Joker.
Saw: In Salt Lake City two teenage boys were turned in after they had been overheard that they were planning on kidnapping, torturing and murdering people. The boys had been planning on teaching a few people, who had been harming others, a lesson. They had also set up cameras around so they could record their killings. In Tennessee, two girls were charged with phone harassment, after they had left a 52-year-old woman a voicemail (similar to the ones in the movie) stating that they had her friend and were about to release a toxic gas. The voicemail stated that the woman could either risk her life to save her friend, or let her friend die.
Zodiac Killer: After twenty years of the original killer, Eddie Seda attacked victims in a similar manner in New York City, killing his victims with a homemade gun. He left similar notes at the scene of the crime, as well as sent cryptic letters to the police. Unlike The Zodiac Killer he was eventually caught because of the fingerprints that he had left behind on the notes.
Jack the Ripper: Derek Brown, 48, was found guilty of killing two young women in a similar way as the ripper. He had targeted the two women, one a prostitute and the other a street vendor; because he had believed that the two would not have been noticed missing. The two bodies were never found, but it is said that he may have dismembered the women in his bathtub and later disposed of the bodies.
Murder-suicide: Murder suicides have inspired many notable mass shootings, in which the killer goes on a shooting rampage before shooting himself. There have been a wide range of similar cases that include many school shootings, work rampages etc. Most of these incidents happen in a particular time and area where incidents like these are common.
Chicago Tylenol murders: In 1982, seven people had died after taking the over-the-counter Tylenol after it had been laced with cyanide. Deaths in a similar fashion occurred a few years later. A woman was found dead after she had taken two Tylenol pills which had also been laced with cyanide. In another case, a woman was found guilty of tempering with Excedrin, which caused the death of two individuals, as well as her husband.
It has been shown that most of the people who mimic crimes seen in the media (especially news and violent movies) have in most cases prior criminal records, prior severe mental health problems or histories of violence suggesting that the effect of the media is indirect (more affecting criminal behaviour) rather than direct (directly affecting the number of criminals). However that indirect influence that the media has on the individual does give them the idea of how to commit the crime. The type of reaction that the media coverage gives crimes can determine the path another criminal might take. This is because most criminals are intent on the shock value of their actions. They want to do something that will cause a high media coverage because of the attention that they will get, as well as the horror of the population. If going on a shooting rampage in a public space causes this attention (because of previous incidents), then an individual with the tendency to commit the crime will more likely take that path.
The norms, heroes, anti-heroes and the spectacles of the time and place also influence how a crime is committed. In today's society, dressing up as ones favorite villain, and going to a public place armed is what some criminals do, or sometimes they even replicate their favorite movie or TV show scene. Whereas in the Middle Ages, the crimes would be associated with the devil, snakes, or witches. But in both scenarios, it is the public interest that sparks what crime might be committed.
An individual's interaction between violent media content and emotional development play a role in copycat behaviors. Individuals who are less emotionally developed will more likely commit the crimes that they see on TV. Characteristics such as demographic (age and sex), criminal factors (mental/personality disorders, failure in human bonding/lack of identity, social isolation and alienation) and relationship to Media (trust in media, Media literacy, identification with the perpetrators seen in media,) mixed with media characteristics and cultural-environment factors influences the copycat behavior in individuals. Media characteristics include the blur between fantasy and reality, positive response to violence and crime and how the crime is being committed. Cultural-environmental factors include the cultural view of fame and crime, reliance to the media for information and moral panics. Most offenders to likely be influenced by these characteristics are usually under the age of 25.
The media must be more aware of the power of their words. Using language like 'successful' sniper attacks, suicides, and bridge jumpers, and 'failed' murder-suicides, for example, clearly suggest to viewers and readers that someone should keep trying again until they succeed.
The media must drop their clichéd stories about the 'nice boy next door' or the 'lone nut.' The copycat violent individual is neither mysterious nor healthy, or usually an overachiever. They are often a fatal combination of despondency, depression, and mental illness.
The media must cease its graphic and sensationalized wall-to-wall commentary and coverage of violent acts and the details of the actual methods and places where they occur. Tapes of people jumping off bridges, and live shots of things like car chases ending in deadly crashes, for example, merely glamorize these deaths, and create models for others.
The media should show more details about the grief of the survivors and victims (without glorifying the death), and highlight the alternatives to the violent acts
The media must avoid stereotypes in portraying the victims or the perpetuators. Why set up situations that like-minded individuals (e.g. neo-Nazis) can use as a roadmap for a future rampages against similar victims?
The media should never publish a report on suicide or murder-suicide without adding the protective factors, such as the contact information for hot lines, help lines.
The media should reflect more on their role in creating our increasingly perceived violent society. Most of our lives are mundane, safe, and uneventful.
Zeynep Tufekci also has four methods to prevent copycat crime from happening:
Law enforcement should not release details of the methods and manner of the killings, and those who learn those details should not share them.
If and when social media accounts of the killers are located, law enforcement should work with the platforms to immediately pull them.
The name of the killer should not be revealed immediately.
The intense push to interview survivors and loved ones in their most vulnerable moments should be stopped