If you haven’t seen Vernon Zimmerman’s film Fade to Black, I recommend you watch it immediately. It is a criminally underrated gem that can only be appreciated by a certain portion of the movie-loving population. Released in 1980, Fade to Black is a film made for horror cinephiles ripped down the middle between dark character study and oddball slasher. It is one of my all-time favorite horror films to come out of the 1980s and a lot of that has to do with the film’s lead character, Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher), a unique kind of serial killer.
There are two ways to look at a character like Eric. You either sympathize with him or you think he’s a weasel. He’s an awkward loner obsessed with movies. They are his only source of comfort, and the characters his only friends. He’s so frightened of the world and uncomfortable in his own skin that he begins to impersonate these characters in his everyday life, merging them with his own personality. These new personas enable him to take revenge on his bullies.
His attachment to film is framed like an addiction. The late-night movie sessions he obsessively engages in are very suggestive of drug use. Sitting in a little ball in a ratty t-shirt in the dark as he stares at the projecting images with a dazed expression, the drug has consumed his life. He’s only alive when he’s pretending to be someone else.
Eric’s behavior can easily be written off as the behavior of someone struggling with a mental illness, someone who’s just “crazy,” but if you’re able to understand what’s going on inside his head, then his odd behavior seems reasonable, even rationale. Fade to Black is not the only film to show a movie-inspired killer but most take a satirical approach while Fade to Black takes a slightly more clinical approach. Eric Binford may be a product of fiction but the cinephilic killer is very real.
In 1995, the owner of a chain of movie theaters named Peter Moore was accused of killing four men in North Wales. Also referred to as The Man in Black, Moore targeted members of the LGBTQ community, stabbing, and mutilating their bodies for “fun.” At the time of his arrest, it was widely believed that he had been obsessed with the Friday the 13th franchise and even blamed the murders on a fictitious male lover named Jason.
Moore wasn’t like most prolific serial killers. He had a good life growing up with a mother who doted on him. He had no prior violent behavior that anyone could see and his murder spree seemingly came out of nowhere but his actions during his own trial were that of a narcissistic psychopath in complete control. Not of a delusional movie fan. I’m not 100% sure where the Friday the 13th excuse came from but it was likely something the press made up or an excuse Moore tried to use at the last minute.
According to Alex Carlile, the lead prosecutor at Moore’s trial, Moore was a monster of a human who lived to be the center of attention. A master manipulator who was incredibly vane, he enjoyed being on trial.
Does anyone remember the man from 2015 who bit his friend after marathoning The Walking Dead? This is very much like that, only worse. In November of 1994, a man named Daniel Sterling reportedly stabbed his girlfriend Lisa Stellwagen and drank her blood because he just loved Interview with the Vampire too much. The morning after seeing the film together, Stellwagen woke up to find Sterling staring at her in bed. When she asked what was wrong, he responded with these words straight from the Edward Cullen handbook: “I’m going to kill you and drink your blood.” And he attempted to do just that, stabbing her a total of seven times in both the back and chest. Thankfully, she survived the attack and was able to stop him.
“I was influenced by the movie. I enjoyed the movie,” Sterling said. “But I cannot sit here and blame the movie.” He also said that he believed in vampires but didn’t want to be one, which is an odd thing to say after you had just gotten finished acting like a vampire.
More about the case came to light a few years later where it was revealed that Sterling originally tried to blame the attack on a black man. His actions were later believed to have been a crime of passion brought on by a jealous rage when he discovered that Stellwagon had gone out with another man shortly before the attack. During Sterling’s trial, psychiatric experts testified that he’d suffered from psychological issues his entire life after his mother committed suicide when he was 10. He was believed to have had Type 1 Bipolar Disorder and at the time of the attack, had been suffering from a manic episode.
In a murder spree that lasted for two days, Daniel Gonzalez claimed to have been inspired by the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and to a lesser extent Friday the 13th, when he went on a drug-fueled rampage that left four people dead and two injured. He wrote about his experiences in letters that described how much he enjoyed the murders and how similar he thought he was to dream demon, Freddy Krueger.
On September 15, 2004, Gonzalez started randomly stabbing people he encountered on the street, murdering them in events that he described as “orgasmic.” Upon his arrest, Gonzalez was given six life sentences without the possibility of parole only to die by suicide just three years later on August 9, 2007.
Like Sterling, Gonzalez’s early life contained its fair share of red flags. He’d been born into a good family and given a proper education but suffered from serious behavioral problems. When he around 18 years old, he was admitted to Oak Tree Clinic, a mental health hospital where he received treatment for about a year. His claims of being influenced by Freddy Krueger were believed to have started there, which I’m going to assume originated from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which takes place in a psychiatric hospital. It’s possible he found comfort in the film, taking on a Freddy persona to better cope with his new surroundings.
The Copycat Criminal
It’s all about the copycats. What these men did has nothing to do with their minds somehow being corrupted by the graphic depravity of horror films. Similar to the actions displayed by Eric Binford in Fade to Black, the films were the medium used to purge whatever turmoil already lived inside of them, while simultaneously serving as their model for adaptability.
Before mass civilization assembled everyone together into large piles, people lived in tribes or small groups where mimicking actions and behavior was a survival technique. Also called “mirroring,” it’s a technique that allows humans to adapt to their surroundings and better relate to their peers. However, as society has evolved and we have become excessively exposed while remaining in total isolation, television and social media have somewhat warped this. We now relate more to fictional characters than to real people.
Copycat crimes seem like a subunit of the “mirroring” effect. Used to take on a new persona other than your own, it’s often used to justify violent behavior. This is also a part of “mob mentality” in which people absorb the anger of those around them. It is a part of a depersonalization process used in culture change, war, and, even group activities. Just like how warriors paint their faces for battle or gang members dress in matching clothes, copycat criminals mimic someone of inspiration to reduce their inhibitions. Even if on a subconscious level.
Another explanation for this behavior centers on the idea that copycats thrive on the attention publicity gained by the original crime, and the subsequent attention that their related acts will receive. They learn that committing a similar action will give them the same attention. Easy fame.
Personally, I see some copycat criminals as adopting new personas of others, either real or fictional, because they have no sense of self. We all know people like this. They seem to have no opinion or personalized tastes. Everything they do, say, or think can be traced back to another person. When they grow out of this persona, they take on a new one until they become a confusing mixture of them all, losing who they originally were in the process, very much like poor Eric in Zimmerman’s Fade to Black.