There are movies that scarred us for life and made us feel uneasy, but can they actually be the cause of death?
I know that the title sounds quite catastrophic and dramatic, but it couldn't be more accurate, as it's exactly what this is going to be about. Some days ago I was wasting my time on YouTube, and I started watching interviews to Quentin Tarantino that I had already seen before, but to be honest, I love when he loses it and starts arguing with the interviewers. Now, the common denominator here is his use of violence in his films and how many people believe this is just an invitation to the audience to behave violently like Tarantino’s heroes. While it's a reasonable question, I can see why after more than 20 years of answering the same questions it can be tedious. He's always said that there's a clear distinction between fiction and reality and that the reason he uses violence is because it's funny. However, there are cases where people cross that line, and that's precisely what we're going to talk about here, those movies that inspired people to copy their characters and those that were so real that ended up provoking a deadly reaction on the audience.
Jaws (1975) Dir. Steven Spielberg
I'm sure thousands couldn't get miles near the ocean out of fear of being eaten by a gigantic killer white shark. However, by that time there were also alleged cases of daredevils who went running to the ocean to see if they could find one of these creatures after watching the film. Not a bright idea, right? As believable as these cases sound, there aren't reliable sources to verify them. But the story I’m going to tell you really happened and it’s been verified in so many sources. It happened some months after the official release of the movie. Forty-five-year-old Elmer C. Sommerfield went to the movies to see what the fuss of the film was about. Around the half part of the movie he suddenly collapsed on his stall. The theatre manager called an ambulance immediately and two people from the audience who happened to be doctors tried CPR for about ten minutes until the ambulance arrived. Sadly, the heart attack was fatal and he died on the way to the hospital.
Twilight (2008) Dir. Catherine Hardwicke
I can't believe the case I'm about to tell you actually happened. To be fair this didn’t really happen because of the movie itself, but I still think it’s weird that, besides having a terrible story and a series of poorly made films, there's a death case in Twilight's history. A young man called Damian Anthony Smythe had nothing to do and decided to sneak into the movies to watch Twilight. So, when the movie ended and the theatre staff went in to clean the room they found him unconscious in his seat. Right on the floor was an empty one-liter bottle of whiskey. When they tried to pick him up, they found out he was actually dead and called 911. The autopsy revealed he had very high levels of alcohol toxicity, which caused his death. His father told the press that his son had a serious problem with alcohol and had refused any type of help.
Scream (1996) Dir. Wes Craven
Now, this is a clear case of what Tarantino interviewers always fear. When the first movie of Scream was released, it was such a hit that it became an instant horror classic. The story of this serial killer who hides behind a mask to murder teenagers generated such an impact that some months after the release there were several cases of murders committed by people wearing that iconic mask. Among the many cases, one became really famous because the attacker didn’t achieve his mission. Daniel Gill and Robert Fuller thought it would be a cool idea to disguise themselves as the murderer of the film and stab thirteen-year-old boy Ashley Murray, not once nor twice, but actually 18 times. They left the poor boy to die thinking that no one could resist so many wounds. However, in an act of pure resilience, Murray crawled to the nearby road and stayed there for forty hours, until he was found by a passing man. He was taken to the hospital where he recovered, and naturally, Gill and Fuller were arrested.
A Fish Called Wanda (1988) Dir. Charles Crichton
During the eighties this comic heist movie about a gang of diamond thieves comes out. The name of this case's protagonist remains unknown, but not his story. This Danish scientist came to the movies, perhaps to chill after an exhausting day doing science stuff, and thought that a comedy was the best choice to do so. Who can blame him? So, the movie starts, and in one of the scenes where one of the characters randomly starts shoveling French fries on another character’s nose, the scientist lost it and started laughing uncontrollably. This lead to a fatal heart attack, so he basically died of laughter. Yes, I might be a terrible person for saying this, but to be honest, that's my dream. Not watching that particular film or dying right now, but imagine being too old and dying of laughter. I'm in.
The Matrix (1999) Dir. Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski
In 2002, years after the movie was released, 10 people died in Washington because an idiot got extremely obsessed with the film. Our idiot called Lee Boyd Malvo believed that like in the movie, he was trapped in a hostile system and he needed to do something to free himself, and that was murder, but I don’t really get how his victims were connected with his hallucination. Sadly, he wasn’t the only case. After the movie was released, there were at least three other cases of people who had murdered or attempted to murder others inspired by the movie. All of them pleaded insanity, and the fact that they strongly believed that the movie was real let them get away with it.
Freaks (1932) Dir. Tod Browning
Freaks will always be one of those creepy classic films we’re going to talk about for the rest of our lives. The movie was already controversial since it was released, basically because Browning, who had worked at a circus in his youth, wanted it to be extremely real. His solution: hire a group of real circus performers. Now, these were the thirties and freak shows were still a thing in the US, so it wasn’t that hard to get his cast. In one of the secret screenings to test the movie, one woman claimed that the movie was so shocking that it had actually provoked her miscarriage. She threatened the studio, and that’s all we know about the story. Many think it was just a scam the woman was trying to pull off to get some money, and others agree that the movie is extremely shocking, and that it’s absolutely possible for that to happen. We’ll never know, but I’m just going to say that if a man died laughing, I believe anything.
The Deer Hunter (1978) Dir. Michael Cimino
In case you haven’t watched this movie, I won’t spoil it, but I’ll just say the necessary to understand the level of stupidity some people reach. The movie is set during the Vietnam War and has a list of very important and talented actors. Two of the characters end up trapped in a Vietcong prison camp and, in order to entertain themselves, they engage in a very dangerous game known as Russian Roulette. I guess I don’t need to say more, but when the movie was released, tons of cases of people dying while playing the game were reported. The survivors claimed that they were inspired by the film and didn’t really think about the consequences of the game.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) Dir. Mel Gibson
This case was basically everywhere when the movie was released, and it only made me want to watch it. Mel Gibson’s controversial biblical movie shows us the last hours of Jesus, and naturally, being Mel Gibson, this isn’t as sugar-coated as other biblical epics we’ve seen. So, watching the savior of humanity being so cruelly tortured and then killed wasn’t something many could stand. That was the case of Peggy Scott, a 56-year-old woman who had a heart attack during the screening. According to witnesses, this happened during one of the most shocking and emotional parts of the film. Just one month later in Brazil, a pastor called Jose Geraldo Soares decided to make a sort of field trip to the movies with his congregation, and during the film he lost consciousness and died.
Patch Adams (1998) Dir. Tom Shadyac
In this case, the message the film leaves wasn’t that well understood by so many people. The movie, based on real events, tries to show us that there should be a more humane ways of practicing medicine for the benefit of the patients. By the end of the movie (sorry if I spoil it a little bit), it’s kind of implied that Patch Adams opens an institute and uses his cheerfulness to cure people and lift their spirits. Now, in real life the institute became a place for alternative medicine and therapies like acupuncture, homeopathy, and things like that. Many people decided just to follow the good heart of this lovely doctor who cured children with laughter and stopped taking medicine. Of course many who were suffering from serious diseases died out of negligence.
Avatar (2009) Dir. James Cameron
This is perhaps kind of similar as the scientist who died of laughter. So, when Cameron’s highly anticipated movie was released, we were all amazed by the 3D work and the CGI graphics, not so much for the plot, to be honest. Well, one 42-year-old man in Taiwan was so impressed and excited about the film that in the middle of the screening he started feeling terribly ill and decided to leave the premises. He went immediately to the emergency room, and once he reached it, he had a terrible stroke. Just some days later he died. According to the press release from the doctors, he died of over-excitement, whatever that means.
The Conjuring 2 (2016) Dir. James Wan
Last but not least, this story happened quite recently during the screening of The Conjuring sequel. You can get the equation: horror movie + highly susceptible person + heart attack= dead. This happened in India, where a man had a heart attack just in the last scene of the movie. According to witnesses, he had been complaining during the film that he had chest pains and by the end, he was taken to the hospital, where unfortunately was pronounced dead on arrival. Now, this gets creepier, since the hospital decided to transfer the body to another hospital for the pertinent autopsy and documentation, but the body never reached the second hospital and no one really knows what happened to it. I guess we’ll find out in the next horror movie, as this is quite disturbing.
Cinema came to change our lives forever. Being able to travel into new realms and witness different stories in a matter of hours is something without precedents. Perhaps, even when this art has been around for a bit more than a century, these stories prove that we haven’t been able to fully dissociate fiction from reality.
Here are some movies you might want to watch, just be precautious: