You’ve undoubtedly heard the term “copycat killer.” It’s often used as a popular trope in crime dramas and police procedurals (the genre reference used by publishers of crime novels). While copycat killers can make for great television, they also have a solid basis in reality. In the world of criminal justice, a copycat crime is a criminal offence that was inspired by or otherwise modeled after a previous crime. A copycat killer is someone who specifically commits a murder with the intention of imitating a different murder. This phenomenon has been attributed to sensationalized media coverage following certain crimes. Things like unusual, high-profile, or widespread felonies often best fit the criteria. The crime doesn’t need to be an exact step-by-step replica of its inspiration to qualify as a copycat. This can make it difficult to nail down whether an incident is a copycat crime, a crime by a potential serial killer, or just a coincidence. To truly determine that, the perpetrator must be caught and admit to their intention—otherwise, it is just speculation. That being said, there are some very strong cases that have been called copycat killings.
The concept of a “copycat killer” is thought to have originated following the murders perpetrated by one of the most infamous serial killers of all time: Jack the Ripper. Still unsolved to this day, there are only five victims that have been definitively linked to Jack the Ripper. However, after widespread media coverage of the victims, numerous others were found dead under similar circumstances in the same part of London. Both at the time of the murders and today, it is thought that Jack the Ripper was actually multiple killers. It’s highly possible that the extensive media coverage at the time encouraged other murderers in the same area. As recently as 2008, Jack the Ripper inspired a copycat named Derek Brown. Brown found his victims in the same Whitechapel area of East London where the original Jack the Ripper was active. He even took victims that fit the same profile; namely, sex workers. He was caught after two murders, but it’s widely agreed this was a copycat case.
Another infamously unsolved case with a prominent copycat is the Zodiac Killer. The original Zodiac Killer was active for a five-year period in the 1960s in San Francisco. Police had seven confirmed victims, all shot to death, most notorious for the cryptic, taunting letters the killer sent to the police and the media. Several decades later, in 1989, New York City would see their own Zodiac copycat. Heriberto “Eddie” Seda replicated the method of the murders, as well as sending similarly cryptic letters to the police and media. He even left notes of a similar nature at the scene of each crime before eventually being caught and convicted.
Copycat killings aren’t limited to real-life murders. There are several well-known cases of people copying fictional murders. One man admitted that he took inspiration from the series Breaking Bad when he tried to dissolve a body in acid after committing a murder. The hit horror movie Scream also allegedly inspired a murder in Belgium, where a man stalked his teenaged neighbor and ultimately killed her. Ironically, Scream was itself loosely based on the true crime story of the Gainesville Ripper.
While it is important to be wary of sensationalized media, whether it’s in the news or the popular true crime genre, it is also important to remember these cases are very uncommon. Whether true crime or crime fiction, there is an ongoing debate on how much the media a person consumes affects their likelihood to actually engage in criminal activity. After all, many well-adjusted people also enjoy dramatic police procedurals or gory horror movies. Jacqueline Helfgott, a professor of criminal justice at Seattle University, believes that there is a small set of people that can be referred to as “edge-sitters.” For someone who is on the fence between acceptable verses criminal behavior, the right media exposure may be enough to push them to crime. This can lead to copycats like the ones discussed above. However, the majority of people convicted as copycat killers already had violent tendencies before escalating to murder. Raymond Surette, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, compares violent media to a rudder rather than a trigger: “The ship of crime is sailing along, and the media can steer it one way or the other.”