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Copycat Killings

Making sense of the senseless

The Aurora Colorado rampage killing allegedly involved some acting out of the Joker role from the Batman premiere at which it occurred. Now there has been a spate of copycat incidents around the country.

The most serious involved a resident of Biddeford, Maine who was found to have an arsenal of weapons when stopped by police for speeding (1). Timothy Courtois was reportedly on his way to shoot a former employer. He said he had seen the Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” and had news clippings about the Aurora killings in his possession. Other threatening incidents occurred in movie theaters in California and Arizona (1).

This disturbing pattern raises many questions about the motives underlying copycat killings and what, if anything, might be done to prevent them

To some extent, the phenomena appear to lie outside rational analysis and more in the realm of psychological disorders. After all, why would a sane person use the persona of a comic book character to murder innocent people that he does not even know? I write “he” because most of the rampage killers are young single men (2). And why might other copycats follow the example of the Aurora killer?


There is a natural human inhibition against killing that can be reduced by adopting a persona. The idea is that the character provides a vehicle through which the atrocity is committed. Psychologists sometimes refer to this state as “depersonalization.” It helps account for uncharacteristically violent actions whether the context is a riot, warfare, or rampage killing.

When warriors in subsistence societies painted their faces before going to war, for instance, they not only appeared frightening to their enemies but also assumed a new identity—a new persona—that facilitated homicidal violence.

Just as the specific markings on a warrior’s face are unimportant in determining his level of aggression, the particular episode being imitated in a copycat killing matters little. In each case, depersonalization, or loss of own identity, is achieved.

Most copycats have their private agenda in a rampage killing but seek to tie it in to other events that received a lot of publicity. In this way, they bask in the reflected publicity, so to speak. In many cases, the rampage killer wants to commit suicide but opts to take others with him.

The copycat effect

This copycat effect is well known since the spate of suicides following the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther", in which the romantic protagonist kills himself. Since then, the copycat effect emerged in the clustering of many different kinds of destructive acts including suicides, murder-suicides, familicides, and rampage killings (3).

The rampage killings became very familiar to Americans in the late 1990s when there were literally hundreds of violent episodes in schools involving threatened or actual use of guns (3). These events proliferated by feeding on each other until improved security kept most of the weapons out of schools.

When crimes that receive a lot of attention form clusters of this sort, it suggests that the desire for media attention, and notoriety is a strong motivating factor (4). Generally speaking, journalists and social media writers are unwilling to accept that sensational coverage of mass shootings makes these crimes more common (3).

Yet, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that copycat killings are partly inspired by the publicity surrounding the original. We cannot blame Goethe for all those hopeless romantics who killed themselves with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther lying nearby. Many would have committed suicide anyway. Linking their lives to the novel made their deaths seem more literary—more interesting—than they actually were. The real culprit here was not Goethe but those who made a point of linking the suicides with this particular book thereby glorifying suicide.

By analogy, the publicity generated by spectacular acts of unmotivated aggression prompts imitators. If suicide adopted a Goethe theme, then mass killing in Aurora took on a Batman theme. In each case, the intention was to dress up an act of violence making it seem something more than it was. Unfortunately, that process of glamorizing violence can be, and is, imitated.

1. “Maine man accused of copycat ‘Dark Knight’ threats.” (2012, July 24). Bay News.

2. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

3. Coleman, L. (2004). The copycat effect: How the media and popular culture trigger the mayhem in tomorrow’s headlines. New York: Simon and Schuster.

4. Leo. J. (1999, 3 May). When life imitates video. U.S. News and World Report, p 14.

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