The Natural Born Killers Controversy Explained

We all know the names of the most famous serial killers: Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. Unfortunately, I could go on and on. The names behind the crimes aren't as important as the why, and filmmaker Oliver Stone thought he had it figured out. 

Stone is real familiar with controversy. The infamous director has a tendency to sort through history, find a perfectly dormant beehive of a topic, and promptly take a baseball bat to it. And that's exactly what he did with serial killers and the media in 1994's "Natural Born Killers."

In case you've never seen it, here's the quick overview. A young couple full of childhood trauma, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), embark on a sadistic crime spree. The media makes a spectacle of the violence and elevates the pair to pop icons, which only pushes the couple to become more violent and vicious. It was Stone's critique of a media that kneels at the altar of "if it bleeds, it leads," even suggesting that the media are complicit in the wounds that leave the blood trail. Shortly before the movie was released, Stone revealed:

"[The film] began as satire and became more real, less surreal, and, to be honest, I think the Mickey and Mallory story, which we've described, could happen any day now."

He had no way of knowing how right he was.

In March of 1995, a teenage couple began a crime spree that stretched across Louisiana and Mississippi, which they claimed was inspired by "Natural Born Killers." By 1998, Oliver Stone and Time Warner would be accused of inspiring more people to join that long list of killers we are all so familiar with.

The bloody landscape

These days, we are used to hearing every gory detail about a violent crime on TV, the internet, or on social media. Before that, people read about carnage when they sat down at their kitchen table and unfolded their freshly delivered newspaper. Something about these stories has always been newsworthy and has always fascinated the public. Prior to Stone's film, two things were invented that kept all of our eyes on a constant lookout for the next big murder: Court TV and the 24-hour news cycle.

Before these two beasts, you could read a terrible story, shake your head at the senseless violence, fold your newspaper up, and never think about it again. You could gasp as the nightly news relayed horrible details of murder, but go to sleep with a contented sigh when the program signed off for the night. When the 24-hour news cycle began on CNN in 1980 and Court TV emerged in 1991, it wasn't as easy to forget about the violence outside our doors. By the '90s, every brutal killing with an interesting story was available 24/7.

And there was plenty to follow in the '90s: Lorena Bobbit, the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding. We all devoured every sordid detail. For a short time, these perpetrators of violence became stars of their own TV shows and people followed their storylines faithfully. Stone touched on this phenomenon in an interview shortly before "Natural Born Killers" was released, saying:

"A woman cut off a man's penis and was publicized for it and acquitted. Two boys killed their parents in cold blood, admitted it, and got away with it based on child abuse... A figure skater ... beat up another figure skater ... everything seemed to [become] a public display of the private. Everything private was suddenly aired in a soap opera fashion...It's either going to die out and people are going to get sick and tired of this whole thing [or] hopefully we'll move on into more sanity in our television."

Unfortunately for Stone, the movie that was intended as a call for sanity would become a bloodletting for the vampiric news cycle.

Acid and stone

In March of 1995, seven months after the release of Stone's film, Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend, Benjamin Darras, both 18, shot a convenience store clerk, leaving her paralyzed, before shooting and killing a cotton gin manager, William Savage. When the homicidal teens were asked why they had done these things, they blamed dropping acid and watching "Natural Born Killers." The convenience store clerk, Patsy Byers, hired a lawyer, who put together a lawsuit against Time Warner and Stone for inciting violence and product liability.

The case was dismissed in January of '97 when the courts found that Stone and Time Warner were protected under the First Amendment, but that decision was later overturned by The Intermediate Louisiana Court of Appeals in May of '98. The director and Time Warner both asked The Louisiana higher courts and The Supreme Court to review the case, but they refused.

The lawyers for Byers spent the next two years combing through production notes, private journals, unused footage, and even Stone's personal statements about the film. They were looking for anything they could use to prove Stone and Time Warner set out to cause violence. Finally, in March of 2001, a judge ruled there was no evidence to prove the film was created to cause violence and dismissed the case.

Darras received life in prison for the murder of Savage. Edmondson was sentenced to 35 years for her part in the crime but was paroled after 11. Stone and Time Warner would continue to be punished.

"Natural Born Killers" was also mentioned in the diaries and "Basement Tapes" of the Columbine shooters, who used the acronym "NBK" as a codeword for the carnage they would unleash on April 20, 1999. While a lawsuit never materialized from this potential connection, the media ran with it, and the discussion of potential links between Columbine and the movie still continues today.

The controversy continues

Columbine was a huge shock to our society. It was the first widely-reported school shooting, and it presented parents with the idea that their kids might not be safe in their classrooms. It also introduced us all to the fact that we might be sitting in a room with very violent and sadistic people and not know it until it's too late. We don't like those ideas, so we look for someone or something to blame, and Stone's movie became an easy target.

Along with Columbine, Edmondson, and Darras, "Natural Born Killers" is accused of inspiring countless other violent acts. The template for each of them is pretty similar, though. A person, or a group of people, does something terrible, and those affected search for an answer to the most obvious question: "Why?"

I've seen a lot of violent films and, if anything, watching them makes me more certain of the fact that I don't like violence. Like most people, I can't imagine harming, let alone murdering, another person, so I don't know the answer to the question of "why?" While simple explanations for society's ills might be the bloodythirsty news, violent movies, or gory video games, they aren't the correct ones.

A psychiatrist in "Natural Born Killers," played by Steven Wright, sheds some light on the thought process behind violence when he says:

"Mickey and Mallory know the difference between right and wrong. They just don't give a damn."

I think many real-life murderers feel the same way about morality, and I'm sure a movie wouldn't change that.