Ed, an imaginary friend, allegedly urged 16-year-old Steven Miles to kill and dismember a girlfriend last January. Yet Miles also had a fictional hero from a TV series, Dexter, and his violent acts were committed in like manner. Miles stabbed his friend in the back before using his father’s tools to remove her legs and an arm. He then wrapped her parts in cling-wrap and placed them in trash bags.
This past October, after psychiatrists found no evidence of psychosis, Miles was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Some reporters suggested that his autistic disorder left him vulnerable to being influenced by a TV character, but psychiatrists seemed to dismiss Miles’ claims about “Ed” making him do “something bad.”
The court viewed Miles’ assault as a copycat crime. He had emulated the fictional serial killer, apparently viewing him as a role model. Miles was found to have no diminished capacity in his judgment.
Yet people who harm others like they see being done in fiction are likely to have some diminished ability to recognize the line between fiction and reality.
Psychiatrist Emanuel Tanay stated in a 2012 article in Psychiatric Timesthat some mentally ill individuals are vulnerable to dramatized violence. “They are naturally more vulnerable,” he said, “because they are in the community, they are sick, and they may misinterpret something.”
Although some fiction gives violent characters a semi-moral framework and thus greater positive appeal, this does not place the character into the real world. Most viewers don’t pick up knives and go after people they think deserve to die. And there was nothing about Miles’ victim that placed her into Dexter’s worldview. Miles apparently just wanted to kill. This should be the focus, not his copycatting. The TV show merely gave him a visual framework.
The “Murder mentor” influence is difficult to pinpoint, but it seems to come from images that pervade popular culture, and certain people are vulnerable to their force. If those people are lonely, isolated, and – especially this! – angry, they will see the satisfaction these violent characters derive from exercising power or exacting revenge or punishment. It’s more attractive to these people to be the power center than to be themselves in all their confusion, anxiety, and weakness.
It’s safe to say that in cultures that tolerate violent images and even encourage them, there will likely be a greater propensity among highly impressionable people with mental vulnerabilities to act out what they see. If their options for dealing with conflict then focus on violence as a resolution, they are more prone to use violence themselves.
But those of us who are close to a vulnerable individual often can see that influence forming. Intervention, at least in the form of guidance, is possible.
Besides Dexter, other fictional portrayals that have triggered violent acts include Natural Born Killers, American Psycho, Scream, and The Matrix. Again, we see the hero or anti-hero figure becoming a center of power. They might even be highly energetic, charismatic, skilled, successful, or smart. When these positive characteristics are coupled with violence, especially “justified” violence, certain types of people will see these characters as role models. They focus on the positive, which feels good to them, and might accept the violence as an inextricable aspect.
Donald Gonzales, 25, was convicted of killing four people on a three-day stabbing rampage in southern England in 2004. He compared his murders to the gory horror film, Halloween, and said he aspired to be Freddy Krueger, the fictional killer with knife-like fingers in the Nightmare series. Gonzales appreciated the sense of power in this figure.
Although some researchers dispute a proven link between violent images and violent real-life acts, if someone with a mental instability cites his or her murder mentor as a character from fiction, we should take this claim seriously. It does not mean that the fictional figure caused the violence, but it might have influenced the form the violence took. The character is part of the equation.
We could cite countless examples, from Slenderman to Neo to Hannibal Lecter, whose persona inspired an unstable fan to commit a violent act. Our response should focus on the individual, not the character. Instead of denouncing our culture’s violence-filled media (which will have little impact), or singling out fictional depictions for blame, we should more closely supervise vulnerable individuals who express an obsession with such fiction.
Pre-incident intervention rather than post-incident finger-pointing is a better option, even if we’re not fully convinced that fictional murder mentors play a significant role.
Author: Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books