‘Natural Born Killers’ Was Banned for Inspiring Real-Life Crimes

The Big Picture

  • Natural Born Killers is a controversial film that sparked debates about the ethics of showing violence on screen.
  • The film was allegedly linked to several copycat crimes, including school shootings, leading to lawsuits against the filmmakers.
  • While there is no concrete evidence that violent movies directly cause real-life violence, the cultural consensus remains divided on the issue.

Oliver Stone‘s take on a Quentin Tarantino story was reasonably expected to contain heavy doses of violence, but no one expected its (alleged) influence to blow over into the real world. Natural Born Killers is one of the most infamous movies of all time. Banned in several countries around the world, it is a piece that has contributed heavily to the debates on the ethics of presenting violence on film. It reignited a long-standing question on media and its effects: do violent movies directly influence real-life violence? To say yes is extremely reductionist, but the copycat criminals that tipped their hats to the movie were not helping fan the flames of an ever-raging debate.

What Is Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural Born Killers’ About?

Image via Warner Bros. 

Natural Born Killers tells the story of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) Knox, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque duo who wreaks havoc across the countryside, killing and looting whatever comes before them. They are as merciless as they come, and do not care about the consequences they can face. After the two pillage a nearby diner, they camp in the desert and take a woman hostage in a cheap motel room. When Mickey shows interest in having a threesome with them, an incensed Mallory goes out for a drive. Mickey subsequently kills the hostage, and reunites with Mallory, who happens to have killed a mechanic after seducing him. They take a drive through the desert while taking psychedelic mushrooms, but run out of gas. They chance upon a Navajo man’s home, where they are fed and given a place to stay. Disturbed by the dreams that the Navajo man conjured through an exorcism, Mickey kills their host to Mallory’s dismay. They flee but are bitten by rattlesnakes, and go straight to the nearest pharmacy for rattlesnake anti-venom.

As it turns out, the pharmacy clerk knows who the pair is after seeing them as a subject on a television documentary, and he rings the alarm. Mickey kills the clerk, but the pair is subdued by the police who arrive at the scene in droves. Mickey and Mallory are sent to prison, and after a year, ordered to be transferred to a mental institution for a lobotomy. A day before the transfer, warden Dwight McCluskey (Tommy Lee Jones) does two things to destroy the growing legend of Mickey and Mallory. He tasks Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) to head the transfer, and implies that he should kill them somewhere down the road. He also grants Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), a smug TV host of a program showcasing the lives of serial killers. Unfortunately, a riot breaks out during the interview, and the events that transpire are all broadcast on live television. The two escape and eventually bear two children, leaving an indelible path of blood and carnage.

‘Natural Born Killers’ Inspired a Wave of Copycat Crimes

Image via Warner Bros. 

Due to its subject matter, Natural Born Killers was pointed to as one of the main reasons for a range of copycat crimes. While there are plenty of cases whose perpetrators allege were due to their viewing of the film, four major incidents made the headlines. Three of them were high school shootings, and the Frontier Middle School Shooting was the first. 14-year old Barry Loukaitis came into his classroom armed with a .30-30 hunting rifle along with two handguns and opened fire on his algebra classroom, killing two students and the algebra teacher. Imitating the ending sequence of the film, Loukaitis then took teacher Jon Lane hostage while attempting to escape. Lane eventually wrestled the gun out of Loukaitis’ hands, and subdued him until authorities arrived. Natural Born Killers was Loukaitis’ favorite movie, and quoted it often to his friends, even wearing the same outfit during the day of the killings.

The most infamous out of all of them is the Columbine High School shooting, where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ended the lives of 12 students and a teacher. The two were huge fans of Natural Born Killers, and even referred to their shared reality as « NBK ». The philosophy of Mickey, where he mentions that murder is a natural thing for all species, was a code that the two lived by, and even referenced in Harris’ journal entry. Harris also notoriously dubbed April 20, the day of the shootings, as « the holy April morning of NBK. » The controversies that the film (and Oliver Stone) were facing reached a fever pitch. However, one other school shooting and a deadly road trip by two teenagers pushed the film’s notoriety into the courtroom.

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On March 1995, 18-year-olds Benjamin Darras and Sarah Edmonson just finished watching the film in their family’s cabin. They then went on a shooting spree across the country, killing William Savage in Mississippi, and heavily injuring Patsy Byers in Louisiana. By July of the same year, Byers was bringing her two tormentors to court. However, there was something different about her lawsuit. She also included Oliver Stone and Time Warner in the lawsuit, claiming they knew (or should have known) that the picture would cause people to be violent in their acts, though the case was dismissed in 2001. The victims of the Heath High School Shooting in 1997, also took the same route. 14-year-old Michael Carneal came to school carrying six rifles and two handguns, opening fire at a prayer meeting. Three of his classmates were killed, and five others were wounded. In April 1999, the parents of the murdered children filed a lawsuit against Time Warner, and a host of other film and video game companies for encouraging Carneal’s behavior. The case was also dismissed in 2001.

Image via Warner Bros. 

The lawsuits filed by the victims of these tragic events are a testament to the cultural consensus on violence in the media, particularly in the movies. Despite the plethora of evidence existing against the argument of film violence directly causing real-life tragedies, why does the notion still exist? Perhaps it could be chalked up to the cinematic experience, particularly on immersion. When viewers see films, they tend to live through them vicariously but do not act on them because of the sense of right and wrong. Children are more susceptible to this since they do not have the wisdom and intelligence of an adult to differentiate what’s real and what is not, but this is only one out of several factors that can trigger their violent side.

These are movies after all, and real life should never be equated to what can and cannot transpire in the narrative events of cinema. They may reflect certain realities in the human experience, but this is a world of fiction. While in some cases, desensitization to violence may occur, it cannot concretely be said that films cause real-life violence. This is one of the main reasons why the cases were thrown out, aside from the fact that the limiting of film content is a direct violation of the freedom of speech. A film cannot be held liable for the intentions of an individual who chooses to do wrong. It is also ironic to blame a movie to have caused killings when its entire point is to criticize the media’s affinity with violence. People aren’t supposed to identify with Mickey and Mallory, but rather see them for what they truly are: repugnant human beings who should suffer the consequences. Stone himself mentions that it is ridiculous to see the film that way, as the violence in Natural Born Killers is sensationalized and too outrageous to be seen as a serious call to act violently.

Despite this, Natural Born Killers continues to be a source of controversy, but it is an insult to the film to consider it mainly as a movie that has « caused » a lot of crimes. It is a visually mesmerizing piece of American cinema that deals with one of the many issues it still faces today: the media’s obsession with placing just about anything on the screen in order to make a quick buck. Oliver Stone had a vision behind this film, and that is what should remain paramount in the minds of those who will see this classic.

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