When we watch movies, many of us find characters or aspects of the plot appealing and even inspirational. Movies have led people to discover careers they love, find causes they want to advocate for, or just in general have characters they aspire to be like, but sometimes movies have inspired much darker impulses. In recent history, there have been a few cases of copycat crimes inspired by movies.
What is a copycat crime?
A copycat crime is an illegal act that has been inspired by something else—usually a previous crime. For example, other criminals later copied infamous murders like those of the Zodiac Killer, Jack the Ripper, or even the Columbine massacre. But with many crime-themed TV shows and movies out there, some criminals have taken inspiration from the media they consume.
Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan
On March 30, 1981, 25-year-old John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Ronald Reagan, hitting him in the chest and wounding three attendants. The President was leaving a meeting at the Washington Hilton Hotel. The bullet hit Reagan’s left lung, just barely missing his heart, but he survived. He was taken to George Washington University Hospital where he famously quipped to his wife Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
The other three victims survived as well. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and Washington D.C. policeman Thomas Delahanty eventually recovered from their respective wounds. Press Secretary James Brady, who had been shot in the eye, suffered severe and permanent brain damage. He went on to become a vocal gun control advocate and the 1993 “Brady Bill”, which established a five-day waiting period and background checks for people who wanted to buy guns, bears his name.
Hinckley, who had been standing in a group of reporters, was immediately apprehended and arrested on federal charges of attempting to assassinate the president. Unlike most presidential assassins - successful or not - Hinckley’s motives were not political. Instead, it all had to do with the 1976 movie Taxi Driver.
Taxi Driver follows Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a violent loner who eventually tries to assassinate a presidential candidate to gain a woman’s attention. Hinckley saw a lot of himself in Travis and eventually became obsessed with the movie, styling himself like the protagonist and even drinking the same kind of peach brandy. But what really held Hinckley’s attention was actress Jodie Foster, who played a child prostitute in the film. When Foster enrolled at Yale in 1980, Hinckley followed her there and stalked her, sending her love letters and calling her on the phone.
When Foster continued to ignore Hinckley’s advances, he once again found inspiration from Taxi Driver. If Travis Bickle could attempt to assassinate a politician to impress a girl, then so could he. Hinckley originally had his eye on President Jimmy Carter, but switched targets after Reagan won the 1980 election. As he wrote in an unsent letter on the day of his assassination attempt, “Jodie, I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance with this historical deed to gain your respect and love.”
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21, 1982, which caused much public outcry. His lawyers’ main evidence for their insanity claim was his obsession with Taxi Driver. In 2016, Hinckley was released from the psychiatric facility he’d been sent to after the trial. A federal judge granted him unconditional release in September 2021.
Murder of Gina Castillo
In January 1998, 16-year-old Mario Padilla and his 14-year-old cousin Samuel Ramirez killed Padilla’s mother Gina Castillo. Using four knives and a screwdriver, Padilla stabbed his mother 45 times while Ramirez held her down. Before she died, Castillo managed to call 911 and identified her son as her attacker. Padilla initially confessed that he murdered his mother because she made him empty the trash and grounded him, but that was clearly not the only reason.
The two boys planned the murder after watching Scream and Scream 2. In the franchise, the killer wears a Ghostface mask and costume and uses a voice-changer to distort his speaking voice. Although Padilla and Ramirez were not wearing costumes during the murder, they pulled their shirts over their heads and had planned to purchase the outfits for a further killing spree with money they stole from Castillo.
In 1999, Padilla was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Ramirez was sentenced to 25 years to life, as he was too young at the time of the murder to be eligible for the same sentence as his cousin.
Stabbing of Lisa Stellwagen
On November 17, 1994, 23-year-old Lisa Stellwagen and her boyfriend Daniel Sterling went to see the movie Interview With the Vampire. The next morning, Stellwagen woke up to find Sterling staring at her. When she asked him what was wrong, he answered, “I’m going to kill you and drink your blood.” The next evening, he stabbed her seven times in the chest and back, and began to drink her blood.
Stellwagen, who survived the attack, told police that Sterling attempted to drink her blood for several minutes before she got him to stop by telling him he would go to jail if she died. He was arrested on charges of attempted murder, and talked to police about Interview With the Vampire. “I was influenced by the movie. I enjoyed the movie. But I cannot sit here and blame the movie.”
Sterling was found guilty by a San Francisco jury in 1997, although the presiding judge dismissed the claims that Interview With the Vampire had that much influence. “It might have given him more impetus to suck her blood, but it didn’t have anything to do with the crime.”
New York City Starbucks Bombing
At 3:30 A.M. on Memorial Day 2009, a homemade bomb went off outside a Starbucks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Since the bomb went off in the middle of the night, no one was injured, but it was powerful enough to have caused serious injuries. It shattered the windows of the Starbucks and damaged a nearby bench. The bomb was made out of a plastic bottle, firework powder, a metal cap, and electrical tape.
In July of that year, police arrested 17-year-old Kyle Shaw after they discovered that he had boasted to his friends about the bomb, telling them to watch the news on Memorial Day. It turned out that Shaw had been attempting to launch his own “Project Mayhem”, a plan to destroy various corporate properties described in the 1999 film Fight Club. The film also includes a scene where several characters destroy a Starbucks.
It was clear to authorities that Shaw was trying to emulate Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), one of the main characters in the film. He even started his own fight club where he and other boys would violently fight each other in various places around New York City. When investigators searched his home, they found homemade bomb materials, a newspaper clipping about the bombing, and a copy of Fight Club.
There had been a few other small bombings around New York prior to the Starbucks explosion, and “Project Mayhem” in the movie is supposed to culminate in a mass bombing campaign, but no evidence was ever found to connect Shaw to them. He pleaded guilty to attempted arson and attempted criminal possession of a weapon in 2010. He was released from prison in 2013, but as of 2018 still claims he did not place the bomb and only took the plea deal to reduce his prison time.
New York City Robbery Spree
In 2010 and 2011, a group of men successfully committed 62 robberies in Brooklyn and Queens using techniques they saw in the 2010 crime thriller The Town. In the movie, an FBI agent hunts down a gang of thieves in Boston that use various clever techniques to avoid capture. The real-life robbers would do things like throw bleach on ATMs and cash drawers to destroy DNA evidence as well as cut the power to their robbery locations and use miner’s headlamps to see what they were doing.
The burglars began their spree in August 2010 and raided a candy store in Queens only days before their arrest in October 2011. They managed to steal a total of $217,000. However, they did not follow the methods laid out in The Town precisely. In the movie, the thieves use disguises like masks and costumes while the real-life culprits wore their regular clothes.