The crime movie Natural Born Killers was released in 1994 and generated a torrent of controversy. Natural Born Killers was directed by American filmmaker Oliver Stone and is considered by far his most disputed film. Starring notable actors like Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, and Robert Downey Jr., the action-packed flick was a box-office success, grossing over $11 million during its opening weekend.
The movie is about a couple, Mickey and Mallory, who suffered highly abusive childhoods and grew up to become mass murderers. The murderous lovers are then glorified by the media and become “America’s favorite killers.” Meant to criticize how the American media celebrates violence and fetishizes murder, the film incited a series of terrifying copycat killings instead.
Quentin Tarantino Wrote the Script
The original script of Natural Born Killers wasn’t written by Oliver Stone but rather by Quentin Tarantino. However, Tarantino reportedly hated the film and was extremely disappointed by how much Stone and writer David Veloz revised the script. Tarantino was given credit for the story in the film’s credits, but he disowned the movie, wanting no part in Stone’s adaptation.
Stone said in a 2019 interview: “[Tarantino] wrote the original script, and we bought it. It was all done legally… he didn’t care for it, but I don’t know if he ever saw it. He went around and said that, and I don’t think it was the right thing to do… We did well in spite of it all.”
Tarantino’s Feud With Oliver Stone
Tarantino later tried to publish his original version of the screenplay of Natural Born Killers in book form, as he’d done with his other movie scripts but was sued by the producers of Natural Born Killers. The lawsuit stated that when he’d sold them the script, he forfeited the right to publish it as his own. Later they changed their mind and allowed Tarantino to publish the text.
The Pulp Fiction director remained disdainful, saying, “I hated that f***ing movie. If you like my stuff, don’t watch that movie.” Tarantino also admitted that he’s never “seen it all from beginning to end.” What was it about Natural Born Killers that incited so much hate and violence?
The Film Was Based on Real Murderers
Not only did the film inspire tons of copycat crimes following its 1994 release, but it was also loosely based on two very real murderers. Tarantino incorporated scenes inspired by the real-life 1958 murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate into the script. Charles and Caril were two teens from Lincoln, Nebraska, who, over the course of a ten-day-long road trip, murdered ten people.
Like in the movie, Charles, who inspired Woody Harrelson’s character Mickey Knox, was the leader. Caril, who inspired Juliette Lewis’s character Mallory Knox, became romantically involved with Charles and got caught up in a life of murder and violence. The real-life murder spree began with the murders of Caril’s family, like in the film.
Partners in Crime
Charles and Caril’s murderous road trip was unusual for the 1950s when violent crime was less common and less publicized. Charles was nineteen years old in 1958; he was a provocative, tough high school dropout with an extremely low IQ. Caril, his partner in crime, was only thirteen when they first met and became romantically involved.
Starkweather was already a murderer, having killed a gas station employee in 1957. Fugate was pulled into her boyfriend’s bloodthirsty rampage when she came home one day in January 1958 and discovered that he’d murdered her stepdad, mother, and two-year-old sister. Fugate reportedly helped hide their bodies, and the couple stayed in her family’s house until neighbors and loved ones became suspicious.
A Very Bloody Road Trip
The couple then became fugitives, running from the law and killing many more people along the way. Their first murder together was the killing of August Meyer, a seventy-year-old family friend of the Fugate’s. Starkweather shot Meyer in his own home and beat his dog to death on January 27th.
Later that same day, Charles and Caril murdered two teenagers, named Robert Jensen and Carol King, who had graciously given them a ride. Charles shot Jensen and raped King before Caril shot her in a jealous rage. They then stole Robert and Carol’s vehicle and drove back to Lincoln, Nebraska.
They Showed No Mercy
Charles and Caril’s following targets were the Ward family. C. Lauer Ward was president of the Capital Steel Company. Lillian Fencl, the family’s housekeeper, let Starkweather and Fugate into the house when C. Lauer was at work. The housekeeper and Clara Ward, the lady of the house, were stabbed to death.
When C. Lauer returned home after work, they shot him in the head. The couple then stole the Wards’ car and drove to Wyoming, where they murdered Merle Collison. Merle was a 37-year-old shoe salesman who had mistakenly parked on the side of the road to take a nap.
Apprehended by the Authorities
The couple put Collison’s body under his dashboard and got in his car to continue their road trip. They were having trouble starting the vehicle when a man named Joe Sprinkle came up to offer them a hand. Joe quickly noticed Merle’s body, and Charles pulled a gun on him.
They fought over the gun just as the deputy sheriff passed by. He noticed the violent altercation and a chase ensued. Starkweather made a run for it and was caught by the police. He left Fugate behind, who screamed for help and claimed that Charles was trying to kill her.
He Was Sentenced to Death
Initially, Starkweather was only convicted of murdering Robert Jensen. However, he is understood to have committed the other murders as well. He was sentenced to death, and in June 1959, he died in the electric chair at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
Despite pleading innocent, Caril Ann was given a life sentence for assisting in the murder spree at age fourteen. Caril was let out on parole in 1976 after sitting in jail for seventeen years. She later married and moved to Michigan. To this day, Caril claims to be innocent, adamant that she was a hostage of the bloodthirsty Charles.
Natural Born Killers: A Box-Office Success
When Natural Born Killers, the notorious film based on Charles and Caril’s murderous bloodlust, came to theaters in 1994, it was a smashing success. The film grossed more than $50 million, $15 million more than its production budget. However, despite its commercial success, the film got incredibly mixed reactions.
While some critics praised the combination of romance and action, the acting, the plot, and the artistic technique, others bashed the film for its graphic violence and idealization of murder. Despite its controversy, or because of it, Natural Born Killers became a cult classic and began inspiring copycat crimes.
Copycat Criminals Sarah Edmondson and Benjamin James Darras
On March 5th, 1995, eighteen-year-old teens Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend Benjamin James Darras dropped acid and watched Natural Born Killers on repeat in the Edmondsons’ Muskogee, Oklahoma cabin. On March 7th, the couple left the house to attend a Grateful Dead show in Memphis, Tennessee.
They packed Sarah’s car with blankets and a .38-Special revolver. Later that day, the two traveled to Hernando, Mississippi, where Benjamin shot William Savage, a cotton mill manager, twice in the head. The murderer kept a piece of bloody fabric from Savage’s clothing as a souvenir.
A Victim Survived
The couple then made their way to Ponchatoula, Louisiana, where Sarah shot a convenience store cashier named Patsy Byers in the neck. Patsy survived the shooting but was paralyzed from the neck down. Months later, one of Sarah’s ex-boyfriends, named Patrick Williams, was stopped by police for speeding.
Still resentful about the breakup, Williams snitched about his ex-girlfriend and her new beau. He told the authorities about Sarah and Benjamin’s attempted murder of Patsy Byers. The FBI was notified and proceeded to arrest the two teens. Later they discovered that the murder of William Savage was related too.
Patsy Byers’s Lawsuit
Sarah was charged for armed robbery and Byers’ attempted murder and given thirty years in prison, out of which she served 12 before being released on parole. Benjamin was charged for the murder of Savage and is still in prison, where he continues to seek a pardon.
Byers, who was paralyzed for life, sued Edmondson and Darras. She later added Time Warner to her lawsuit, claiming that the filmmakers should have known that the film would inspire people to commit similar crimes. The case was dismissed because the first amendment protects the filmmakers’ rights to freedom of expression.
The Shooting at Heath High School
Edmondson and Darras were only the first of many people, primarily teens between 15 and 18, who went on murder sprees after watching Natural Born Killers. In 1997, a fourteen-year-old boy named Michael Carneal went to his West Paducah, Kentucky high school, armed with seven firearms wrapped in a blanket.
Carneal claimed that what was in the blanket was an art project, but when he entered the building, he put in a pair of earplugs and began shooting at students who were in a prayer meeting. Carneal killed three of his fellow students and wounded five more.
Another Lawsuit Against Time Warner
After shooting eight students, Michael dropped his firearm and surrendered quietly to the school’s principal. Carneal was sentenced to life in prison and was given no possibility of parole. The lawyer representing the murdered ‘students’ parents sued Time Warner, four other production companies, and three video game companies, including Atari.
The suit claimed that specific films and video games had inspired Michael to go on a shooting spree and that games like Doom had even provided him with target practice. Among the movies mentioned explicitly in the case was Natural Born Killers. The case was dismissed in 2001.
The Shooting That Rocked the Nation
Two years after the Heath High School killings, another school shooting rocked the nation. One April morning in 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where they were students. The two teenage boys went into the library wearing trench coats.
There they shot and killed a teacher and twelve students and wounded over twenty other people. When they were finished, Dylan and Eric shot themselves. It was later discovered that the teens had put two bombs in the cafeteria, but the bombs didn’t detonate, so they came in and started their merciless shooting rampage.
The Columbine High School Massacre
In the aftermath of the massacre, Harris’s journal was discovered. In the journal, he had repetitively used the initials NBK, which stood for Natural Born Killers, to refer to the mass murder he and Klebold were planning. Both teens were fans of the film.
In Harris’s journal, long passages referred to the film, “When I go NBK… people [will] say things like “Oh, it was so tragic,” or “oh, he is crazy!” He went on, “before I leave this worthless place, I will kill whoever I deem unfit for anything at all, especially life.”
The Dangers of Bullying
After reviewing the evidence, Eric Harris was considered the mastermind behind the plan and Dylan Klebold more of a depressed sidekick, who wrote in his journal, “I’m stuck in humanity. Maybe going NBK with Eric is the way to break free.” It was also revealed that both boys were severely bullied in their high school.
The two were considered to be at the bottom of the school hierarchy and rumored to be a gay couple. They were constantly bullied and were attacked by a group of students who threw ketchup-covered tampons and other condiments on them in front of the entire cafeteria.
Bowling for Columbine
Among the evidence against Harris and Klebold, there are tapes recording conversations between the two. In one recording, they talk about who would adapt their story, whether Tarantino or Spielberg. The Columbine massacre became the most famous school shooting in American history.
The sheer number of people murdered and the vast amount of evidence, videotaped and written, showing that the teens had planned their attack for a year, made the shootings a fascinating case. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore even created a film about the massacre. Moore’s documentary is called Bowling for Columbine, and it gained great critical acclaim.
The Columbine Killings Inspired More Copycat Crimes
At the time, the Columbine massacre was the deadliest school shooting America had ever seen. The perpetrators had been huge fans of Natural Born Killers and even nicknamed their murderous plans after the film. The worst part is that Harris and Klebold got what they wanted. The two teens wanted to become famous like Mickey and Mallory, and they did.
The media frenzy surrounding Columbine ironically gained them posthumous notoriety, and they became counterculture icons. The Columbine killings have directly inspired numerous school shootings. Harris and Klebold have been deemed gods, martyrs, and heroes by other copycat killers.
Sensationalizing Murderers in America
The film Natural Born Killers was meant to criticize the media’s glorification of murder and murderers. Instead, the film inspired many young, impressionable people to go on murder sprees themselves in order to become famous. It worked for Harris and Klebold; they have been portrayed and referenced in numerous movies, shows, books, and games.
The two murderers have a large fanbase of people who deem themselves “Columbiners.” Some even create fan art and idolize Harris and Klebold, while others dress as them for Halloween. Eight different school shooters since 1999 have directly referenced the Columbine massacre as their inspiration.
Another Massacre Inspired by the Film
In 1996, a fourteen-year-old named Barry Loukaitis came into his math class dressed as a cowboy, holding a rifle and two handguns. Barry opened fire, killed two fellow high school students and his algebra teacher, and wounded another student. He held the rest of the class hostage.
Another teacher and coach, Jon Lane, came into the classroom and volunteered as a hostage. Lane wrestled the gun out of Barry’s hands and knocked him down, holding him on the ground until the police arrived. Loukatis had seen Natural Born Killers over seven times and constantly quoted it to his friends.
The Richardson Family Murders
In Alberta, Canada, in 2006, twelve-year-old Jasmine Richardson and her twenty-three-year-old boyfriend Jeremy Allen Steinke murdered her parents and her eight-year-old brother. Jasmine’s parents had forbidden her to date the older man, and the two retaliated by killing them. The night before they murdered Jasmine’s family, the couple watched Natural Born Killers.
Steinke had also told his friends he wanted to go “Natural Born Killer on [Jasmine’s] family.” It was later revealed that Richardson had brought up the idea earlier via email. Jeremy stabbed Jasmine’s parents to death in the basement, and she slit her younger brother Jacob’s throat upstairs.
Runawaydevil and Souleater
Before meeting Steinke, Richardson had been an ordinary girl. Later, she became a goth and started referring to herself online as an insane, nocturnal Wiccan, under the screen name “runawaydevil.” Steinke used the screen name “souleater” and claimed to be a vampire. Jeremy wore a vial full of blood around his neck.
They chatted on sites like “Vampirefreaks” and “Nexopia.” A month before the murders, Richardson wrote to Steinke, “So I have this plan. it begins with me killing them and ends with me living with you.” Robert Remington and Sherri Zickefoose wrote a book called Runaway Devil about them.
The Prime Suspect in Her Family’s Murders
After committing the murders, Jeremy and Jasmine went to a restaurant and set out on the run. A few days later, the bodies were discovered by Jacob’s friend, who’d come over to play. At first, Jasmine was thought to be missing, but she became the prime suspect in the murders after her room was searched.
Richardson was caught and charged with three counts of murder in the first degree. Due to Jasmine’s young age, she was only sentenced to ten years in jail, four of which she spent in a psychiatric facility. Steinke was given 25 to life.
Life Is So Unfair
Days before the murders, Steinke wrote in his blog, “my Lover’s parents are totally unfair… they don’t know what is going on; they just assume.” He had previously emailed Jasmine, “I miss you more than killing people. Can we get together and kill people together?”
When questioned about his motivation and why he murdered the Richardsons, Jeremy revealed, “when you find your soulmate, you do anything for them, I did anything.” He and Jasmine continued to write each other love letters while in jail. Jeremy said his favorite film, Natural Born Killers, is “the best love story of all time.”
Another Copycat Killing in Canada
Another nine murder sprees committed by teens and young adults are considered copycat killings inspired by Oliver Stone’s reviled work of fiction. In 2006, in Quebec, Canada, Kimveer Gill, who had listed Natural Born Killers as one of his favorite movies on his blog, committed the Dawson College shooting.
Gill stood outside the entrance to the college and started shooting; he then entered the building and headed towards the cafeteria atrium. Gill killed one student and injured nineteen more, six of whom later needed surgery. The police shot Kimveer, and then he shot himself in the head and died.
Like the Natural Born Killers
A 14-year-old young teenage boy from Dallas, Texas, reportedly cut off the head of a 13-year-old female classmate of his in 1994. When the boy was questioned, he supposedly said he “wanted to be famous. Like the Natural Born Killers.” Due to his young age, not much more is known about the case.
In the same year, a seventeen-year-old from Bluffdale, Utah named Nathan Martinez murdered his stepmother and ten-year-old half-sister while they were asleep. The shooter was caught three days later in O’Neill, Nebraska, after being searched for across the entire nation.
Dressed Like Mickey Knox
Nathan Martinez was utterly obsessed with Natural Born Killers and had seen the movie with his friend Bryant Hamblen more than ten times in the weeks leading up to the shooting. Bryant testified against Martinez and claimed that the young man often talked about killing his family and had stolen money from his stepmom to buy the film’s soundtrack.
When the young man was caught, his head was shaved in the same way Mickey’s was near the film’s end. Martinez was also wearing the same type of round, tinted sunglasses that Woody Harrelson’s character wears throughout the movie.
One of Four Boys
In Senoia, Georgia, in 1995, four fifteen-year-old boys discussed murdering their parents and going on a nationwide killing spree like the Natural Born Killers. One of them, Jason Lewis, followed through, shooting and killing his parents while they were watching television.
Jason had been on the phone with one of his friends, talking about his plans to kill his parents and run away, when he suddenly said, “I’m going to do it.” Jason’s friend heard the whole thing through the receiver. When he was finished shooting his mom and dad, Lewis said to his friend, “I did it. It’s done.”
Haven’t You Seen Natural Born Killers?
In June 1995, three young men (19, 20, and 21-years-old) murdered a disabled sixty-five-year-old veteran named Phillip Meskinis while he was asleep in Avon, Massachusetts. They stabbed him a total of 27 times, so brutally that his body was split open. Both of his wrists were fractured by the sheer force of the attack.
The leader of the group, Michael Freeman, told his girlfriend about the murder. When she was horrified by it, he said, “haven’t you ever seen Natural Born Killers before?” The trio of murderers had watched the film multiple times before killing Meskinis.
Another Random Act of Violence
In 1997, twenty-one-year-old William Sodders murdered a firefighter named James Halversen while he was running at the Centereach, New York High School’s track. Sodders went down to the track to do target practice with his friend Eric Calvin. But when he saw Halversen, he was possessed to commit a random act of violence.
Sodders knelt and pretended to tie his shoelaces on the track. When the firefighter approached, Sodders leaped up and fired at him at close range with his new 9 mm gun before shooting Halversen’s dog too. The day after, William’s father turned him in to the authorities.
Acting Like Mickey Knox
Nicole, William’s girlfriend, had told Patrick, his father, that she believed William was responsible for Halversen’s death. Patrick Sodders shared that Natural Born Killers was William’s favorite movie. According to him, William loved the Knox couple and had begun acting like Mikey. His father said, “he’s been acting out the part of psychotic killers.”
Sodders wasn’t the only person to start acting like Woody Harrelson’s memorable character. In April 2001, a twenty-one-year-old named Luther Casteel was kicked out of a bar in Elgin, Illinois, after bothering several female customers and a server. Later that night, he returned to the bar…
“I Am a Natural Born Killer”
When he came back, Casteel had shaved his head and styled his remaining hair into a mohawk. He was wearing a military combat uniform and carrying four firearms and 200 rounds of ammo. Casteel started shooting at the people in the bar, yelling, “I am the king, I am a natural born killer,” and laughing.
He shot and killed the barman and a patron of the bar. Casteel also severely wounded sixteen other people before the remaining employees and customers subdued him. Casteel was initially sentenced to death, but later his sentence was changed to life without parole.
Like a Scene in the Film
In Jacksonville, Florida, in 2004, Kara Winn and Angus Wallen shot Brandon Murphy, their twenty-two-year-old roommate, to death. Winn and Wallen, both twenty-seven at the time, set the apartment on fire to try and disguise their crime. It all began when they attempted to steal Murphy’s credit card.
Murphy caught them in the act, so they shot at him, Winn getting him in the shoulder, and Wallen killing him with a shot to the head. Winn and Wallen had watched Natural Born Killers the night before and lit the apartment on fire like in a scene from the film.
Murder Midway Through the Movie
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2008, the troubled Eric Tavulares was arrested for strangling his girlfriend to death. Her name was Lauren Aljubouri; they were both eighteen years old. The couple had been halfway through watching Natural Born Killers when they decided to shut it off and go to sleep.
Eric then lay in bed talking to Lauren when suddenly he felt a “mental switch” and started to strangle her. He confessed right away, telling the police, “I did it. I can’t believe it. I did it.” Tavulares admitted that he had seen Natural Born Killers approximately twenty times.
Bans and Boycotts
Due to the number of murders blamed on Oliver Stone’s film, it simultaneously gained a cult following as well as several bans and boycotts. Perhaps society’s disgust and rejection of the movie is also what made it so appealing to people who saw themselves as outcasts or rebels.
The movie was initially released in a toned-down version after the MPAA forced Stone to cut out various shots (altogether about four minutes of footage) that they deemed too violent. The movie was then rated R instead of NC17. Two years later, Stone released his original director’s cut, which included the deleted four minutes.
Loathsome and Evil
Upon its release in Ireland, the movie was banned, and in England, the release was delayed while police investigated possible copycat murders in the U.K. The film was rated by Entertainment Weekly as the 8th most controversial film of all time; A Clockwork Orange, which also famously incited copycat killings, was also on the list.
Many thought the film should be banned. The Daily Mail described it as an “evil” film, and David Puttnam called it “loathsome.” Many people blamed Oliver Stone for the murders. People claimed he was a privileged hypocrite who thought that movie violence was cool.
Woody Harrelson’s Career Was Hurt
The star of the film, Woody Harrelson, who plays the notorious Mickey Knox, had only acted in comedies before being cast by Oliver Stone. Harrelson broadened his capabilities in the film and began taking more serious roles later. However, he did admit that his career was hurt by the controversy the film caused.
Harrelson thinks that the criticism of the movie was partially unfair since much of it came from people who refused to watch it, claiming it was dangerous. Woody expressed doubt that anyone can just “decide to become a serial killer” because they saw a violent movie.
The Press Were Angry at the Cast
Harrelson’s co-star Juliette Lewis, who portrayed the character of Mallory Knox, also shared her opinion in an interview with entertainment weekly in 2019. Lewis claimed that “The script itself was dangerous. It was multi-layered, and so it was exciting because it had risky elements in the subversiveness of it.”
Juliette reminisced about the criticism they experienced: “It was wild… I never had experienced the level of animosity and aggression or disdain from journalists. They were so, so mad at us!” She explained that it wasn’t right to blame the film, saying serial killers shouldn’t use a movie as an excuse.
Oliver Stone−Forever Misunderstood
To this day, Stone claims that the film was misunderstood, and its true message was overlooked during the controversy and scapegoating. He maintains that the film’s message is that the media over-glorifies violence in America and that the people love and obsess over murderers and death.
Mickey and Mallory Knox are meant to be examples of serial killers who were idolized. Robert Downy Jr.’s character, Wayne Gale, represents the sensationalistic way in which the press treats murder. Tommy Lee Jones’s character, Warden Dwight McClusky, is meant to symbolize the terrible way in which inmates are treated in America.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Oliver Stone refused to be held accountable, “To my mind, almost everything that was important about Natural Born Killers was overlooked amid all that hysteria over the death toll, and all the nonsense about whether or not I was promoting violence or instigating murder.”
Unfortunately, his message didn’t come across clearly. The film was considered part of the problem instead of being read as a critique of violence and glorification. Sadly, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The public and the media sensationalized the movie in the same way that the Knox couple are sensationalized in the film.
America’s Obsession With Murder
Today it’s undisputed that America is obsessed with murder. From true-crime shows and podcasts to gory news stories and violent films, the American public consumes tales of murder in large amounts daily. Most of us are desensitized by it and barely cringe at the brutal scenes we encounter.
Looking back, Natural Born Killers does accurately depict the exaltation of murder in America. However, because the film contributed to the very culture it was critiquing, it is relevant to ask if its creators should be held accountable for the sadism it inspired or whether art should remain open to interpretation.