The human experience is rife with darkness and horror. When most people encounter gross violence or monstrosities depicted in art, they may be shaken, sickened, intrigued and/or become desensitized to it, but a homicidal person may connect in a more sinister way not only to disturbing art, but to seemingly unrelated things. Art affects people, but it doesn’t cause people to kill people, or to commit crimes, and the artist isn’t to blame for actions people take after they encounter theart. That’s what I think, at least, but writer John Grisham once very publicly stated that he believed this wasn’t the case. He thought Oliver Stone, and practically everyone involved with the making and distribution of Natural Born Killers, should be held responsible for the deaths of people killed by “copycat” murderers. He argued that people can be “under the influence” of art to a degree where the artist should be held accountable. When art imitates life, and life imitates art right back, who’s really to blame?
The wrongful death case against Oliver Stone and Time Warner brought by survivor Patsey Ann Byers, dragged out for years, but was finally resolved in 2001 when a judge ruled that the director and people involved in the film could not be held accountable for the senseless death and violence committed by two teenagers. In 1996, best-selling author John Grisham publicly sided with the plaintiff, arguing that a work of art could be considered a “product,” like a breast implant, and when that product harms someone (like when a breast implant ruptures,) the maker should take the blame. To his credit, it was difficult for the writer to have an objective opinion about the subject because his friend was one of the people killed by teenagers Sarah Edmondson and Benjamin James Darras in 1995. Three days before their chilling spree, the couple had dropped acid and watched Natural Born Killers on a loop. It’s obvious that the film “influenced” them in some way, but is it responsible for their later actions?
When I was a teenager, watching Natural Born Killers had a much different effect on me that it probably did on Sarah Edmondson and Benjamin James Darras, because we brought different mindsets to the film. When I was coming of age in the mid-nineties, some of the most intriguing and experimental popular films were bloodbaths. I still remember how shaky and buzzed Pulp Fiction made 13-year-old me feel, not just because of the violence and language, but because I knew I had encountered something wonderful. I was infected with an excitement for storytelling that still hasn’t abated. With Natural Born Killers, I was introduced to novel and stunning visual tricks, and even discovered some of my favorite music (Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground.) I was also again confronted the truth that we humans are capable of evil actions. It’s hard to come to terms with brutality and cruelty, and seeing this colorful, rock-in-roll wild nightmare played out on screen doesn’t change things, but it scratches some internal itch. A bit of satire and hyperbole connects up with the rage and confusion of why these things happen, at least it did so for me, and funnels them through the release of a creative outlet. It doesn’t explain things, it doesn’t make them better, but it allows for a bit of expression.
Strung-out movies like this aren’t for every teen, but I was already used to be disturbed. I grew up hearing startling stories that kept me from sleeping; warnings about kidnapping, torture, murder, and rape that made me tremble at the idea of the outside world. No one was to be trusted, the world was full of evil people ready to destroy me. I also wasn’t shielded from the full, brunt force of stories from the Bible, many of which dealt with extremely troubling adult circumstances, and a sometimes shaky sense of justice. It turned out that even God didn’t have a steady answer for the senselessness of the world.
My worldview as a child made me weep for the wounds and pain of Jesus, and for the millions in the world who weren’t Christian, and were therefore destined for eternal suffering. The threat of hell was both globally and personally terrifying for me. I was afraid for years that I would die in my sleep and go to hell because there was some secret sin buried inside me I had forgotten to repent about. There was even a kick in my childhood where I fully expected to be adducted by those silver, bug-eyed aliens that were profiled on UFO shows at the time. As a teen, Natural Born Killers, in a way, helped put me on the road to start resolving my crippling fears and anxieties. The message I got from it, apart from being titillated by the imagery, music, sex, and violence, was that yes, there was a good deal of evil in the world, but some of it came from fear-mongering, which was the source of many of my panics and terrors.
While we often abuse the power of fear, interest and curiosity in murder and mayhem isn’t wrong in itself. We are fascinated by what other humans are capable of, maybe we evolved that way as a form of protection. To put it simply, curiosity about danger keeps us safe, in a way, because it can teach us how to protect ourselves to some degree. We are rapt by Serial, sucked into Dateline, The Sopranos, Inglorious Basterds, and Breaking Bad, and scan crime headlines with a mix of horror and wonder. A bevy of unanswerable questions, “Who are we? Why are we doing these things? Why can’t we stop?” drive and steer our thrills and interests. There’s something primal about it, our capacity to do horrifying things, AND our capacity of interest in these things. Last year’s Nightcrawler poked and prodded at our appetite for gore and violence asking us, in a more realistic way than Natural Born Killers does, why we hunger for these stories, and if there should be a line to what we accept from the media catering to our complicated desires.
It’s easy to demonize The Media, for chasing blood, and blaring punchy and startling headlines on our screens, but while there should be ethical standards, our interest in crime isn’t something that would go away just by ignoring it. And crime itself won’t go away by ignoring it: when societies opt for secrecy over information, things can truly get out of hand. Crime is a reality we’ll never be able to come to terms with, but if we want to learn anything from it, we have to keep exploring it with journalism, science, and art.
Artists often come back to the same true crime stories again and again for inspiration. Popular culture has been utterly infiltrated with details of serial killer Ed Gein‘s house of horrors, which was an inspiration for Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and True Detective, to name just a few. The ripples of Gein’s influence in popular culture goes far beyond these cultural icons. His evil is a part of the cultural consciousness, with snippets from his story filtering into almost every fictional account of serial killers, (or, just weird killers,) and, sometimes, reenacted by sick people who commit similar crimes.
Similarly Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, a 1950s Bonnie and Clyde couple, inspired not only Natural Born Killers, but Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and Kalifornia, another film starring Juliette Lewis as the Fugate character. Stephen King was so affected by the Starkweather-Fugate story that he kept a scrapbook about them growing up, and wove parts of their story into a lot of his work. Bruce Springsteen’s title song from Nebraska is a fictional peak into Starkweather’s mind, with help from the whispers of Flannery O’Connor, another great artist who wrestled with the darker shades of the human heart.
No one can say if Edmonson and Darras would have gone on their spree, murdering Mississippi cotton gin operator Bill Savage, and non-fatally shooting convenience store clerk Patsy Ann Byers the next day, it they had not watched Natural Born Killers while tripping on acid, but it definitely seems probable that they could have. To put it a different way, most people who watch NBK, even on acid, don’t become murderers.
Although Grisham has since backed-tracked a bit on his fervent support of Byers’ lawsuit against Stone, he still believes that a successful legal case could be made for saying that someone could be “under the influence” of a piece of art. Art shapes our lives, our thoughts, and we are absolutely under its influence, but it seems ludicrous to indict this personal, and subjective, experience of art intoxication. Kids who get into hard drugs and dangerous drinking cling to and cite junky heroes like William S. Burroughs, Kerouac, Lou Reed, Kurt Cobain, Earnest Hemingway, etc. which is troubling and disturbing to me. Some never really grow out of an unhealthy focus on the self destructive behaviors of brilliant artists, but that doesn’t mean the art itself should be dismissed and or censored, or that living artists should be prosecuted for writing or living in a damaging way. Just as these behaviors are romanticized and misunderstood by some, they are seen as a caution for others. We are going to be messy, crazy, disgusting people either way, and we need these difficult people and their difficult art.
Art can change a person, but chemical intoxication is a much different thing. It’s a swift personality changer that not only influences our encounters with art, but influences our emotions and decision-making skills. Alcohol is a factor in 40% of violent crimes, but the CEOs of alcohol companies aren’t serving time in jail, or paying judgments to crime victims.
It seems that whenever someone commits an atrocious act, we search through their interests looking for some key, some explanation for their behavior. We point fingers at violent video games, at Natural Born Killers, at Marilyn Manson, but it’s forgotten in that heated moment of blame and outrage that there are so many people who consume this same media, but don’t commit crimes or harm people. There is even research that suggests that it’s not necessarily violent and dark media that causes troubling behavior, but that children (and adults) who are already “at risk” will seek out and consume more that of that type of media than people who are more “stable.” In 2001, when the case against NBK was thrown out, Time Warner’s attorney said he hoped this ruling would set a precedent against blaming art for the consumer’s actions. “I think this will . . . set a major example that will discourage looking for some news program or documentary or film every time there is a tragic shooting and try to find someone responsible other than the perpetrator of the violent act,” said attorney Walter Dellinger.
“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” Springsteen sings in Nebraska, echoing a line from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In a way, it’s just a simple and mystifying as that, and we won’t stop wrestling with with this in our art. Thankfully, we can continue to enjoy that freedom.