In 1995, a 14-year boy, Sandy Charles, lured a 7-year old acquaintance into some bushes near their homes in the town of La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan under the pretext of playing a baseball game with him. With the help of an unnamed 7-year old accomplice, Charles then stabbed and bludgeoned Jonathan Thimpsen. After the murder, Sandy Charles then mutilated the body by removing strips of skin which he took home to place in a tin can covered in foil. An intense search of the area by friends and family led to Jonathan's body being found three days later. After an investigation, Sandy Charles was arrested.
As Charles would later admit to investigators, he boiled the skin on the family stove to reduced the fat to liquid but had refrained from actually drinking it stating that, "I just wanted to stay the way I am." According to testimony later presented in court, Jonathan had been selected at random so that his fat could be harvested based on a scene from the 1989 movie, Warlock. The movie, featuring a 17th century warlock who travels to the future, includes an off-camera murder of a young boy so that his fat could be extracted to make a potion enabling the warlock to fly. According to Sandy Charles' mother, her son had become obsessed with the movie and saw it more than ten times. While he admitted committing the crime to her, he also insisted that he could not stop himself. "He said it was like a dream. He said he didn't want to do it, but it was like it wasn't him doing it", she reported. He also later said that "There's a strong spirit in my room that gave me these thoughts. I was going to commit suicide until this thing popped into my head. I started thinking about killing someone else. Something wanted me to."
The killing of Jonathan Thimpsen and the subsequent publicity of Charles' trial generated international publicity given the age of the victim and the perpetrator as well as the bizarre circumstances involved. The RCMP officers investigating the murder concealed many of the details for fear of possible "mass hysteria." In a public statement before the trial began, RCMP Corporal Dave Hoefl refused to provide full details about the murder due to the possible impact on jury selection. "When you take a look at a 14-year-old doing this to a seven- year-old, there has to be a reason. There is a reason. We just have to decide whether it's in the public interest to know that reason right now," he said. "I'm not sure whether the community is ready for this or not - and in reality, I don't even think the province is ready for it." Based on the circumstances of the crime, Sandy Charles was tried for murder in an adult court.
During the trial, his defense attorney, Barry Singer, insisted that Charles was not guilty due to mental illness and that the movie had a powerful effect on his mind. "In the movie, the idea was that if you cut the fat off a virgin, unbaptised child, then boiled it down and drank it. That would give you the power to fly," said Singer. "Sandy was suffering from the delusion that if he did these things, it would give him the power to fly. The movie just gave him the know-how to do it." Following the lurid testimony given during the trial, Sandy Charles was later found guilty by reason of insanity on August 2, 1996. He was transferred to the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon where he was held until earlier this year when he applied to be transferred to a secure psychiatric unit closer to his home.
As many expected, the trial generated considerable debate concerning the link between movie violence and real-life crimes. In their coverage of the murder, the Toronto Globe and Mail cited experts who warned against drawing general conclusions from the murder but also warned that violent movies could be a "precipitating event" for an already troubled child. Based on concerns relating to movie violence as well as a petition in the early 1990s calling for an end to violence on television, the Canadian government passed legislation forcing cable companies to enable parents to block violent programs deemed unsuitable for children. Similar legislation was passd in the United States months later.
The debate concerning the potential impact of media violence on impressionable children is a longstanding one. During the 1950s, Fredric Wertham's crusade against violence in comic books led to the implementation of the Comics Code Authority while similar crusades against violence in video games, music lyrics, and the Internet have had limited successs. Concerns over the potential impact of inappropriate content in movies and television programs has generated considerable controversy over the years due to concerns about children modeling their behaviour on graphic violence seen on screen.
Moral panics over violent movie and television content remain a familiar phenomenon, especially as new, shocking media depictions of graphic violence help inspire to calls for greater censorship. Certainly the number of films that have faced censorship over the years in the United States alone, often for minor scenes that would likely have gone unnoticed by the audiences supposedly being protected, is mind-boggling. In other countries, battles over movies such as A Clockwork Orange led to either outright censorship or awkward compromises with movies being either dramatically reedited or removed from distribution altogether. Though changing social standards and legal challenges led to a reevaluation of many of the production codes that controlled movie content for decades, the battle over what can be shown on the screen is far from over.
But does media violence really lead to youth violence? Though Albert Bandura's classic Bobo Doll experiments suggest that children tend to imitate aggressive behaviours that they see being modeled, the impact of observational learning as it applies to movie and television violence seems more muted. No clear causal link between media violence and real-life crimes has ever been found despite decades of media violence research. Certainly the rise in movie and television violence of the past two decades has not led to a similar increase in real-life violence. If anything, there has been a sharp decrease in violence during that same period, especially among adolescents. Though school shootings and other examples of extreme violence appear to inspire copycat offenses, most young people appear perfectly capable of distinguishing between fictional violence and the real thing.
A more controversial theory about media violence deals with the idea of catharsis, or using violent media content to purge viewers of their violent thoughts or fantasies. The term "catharsis" was first coined by Aristotle who suggested in his Poetics that watching violent Greek tragedies helped audiences "through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions". In other words, watching violent movies or television shows made people less inclined to commit violent acts. This was in direct opposition to Plato's view that plays, music, and literature had a potentially harmful affect on morals (thus making him the first moral crusader). Along with being a common theme in literature, catharsis has also been adopted by psychonalysts such as Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud
While most moral panics surrounding media violence tend to peter out fairly quickly, new panics often arise to take their place. Though cases such as Sandy Charles continue to be invoked as a justification for greater control over media content, actual evidence to support such control is often lacking. More graphic cases of copycat violence can definitely be expected in future but the knee-jerk reaction and the calls for control will likely follow the same old pattern.