Washington — It is a grisly story, the one about the 15 people in the United States who have killed themselves after watching the film "The Deer Hunter" on TV, apparently in imitation of the film's "Russian roulette" scene.
Linda Talbott of Handgun Control Inc. had just told me with relief that there had been no further fatality reports that month when I found a news report someone had slipped under my door: UPI had just reported that a 15-year-old Pennsylvania boys was in serious condition after being shot by another person "while playing a form of Russian roulette, apparently mimicking a scene from the movie 'The Deer Hunter.'"
Is this film killing people?
The National Coalition on Television Violence, a group of organizations and individuals worried about high levels of violence on TV, had recently released the story about the 15 fatalities allegedly following the airing of "The Deer Hunter." The Academy Award-winning film, which all three major networks decided not to run because of its excessive violence, has been shown on Home Box Office and some independent TV stations across the country. This Universal film, syndicated by its parent company, MCA-TV, has been advertised by its distributor as highly profitable and is expected to be shown again on TV this spring.
No comment on "The Deer Hunter" could be obtained from MCA-TV, whose president, Don Menschel, was unavailable during repeated phone calls over several days and did not return any calls. The Gannett TV stations, however, plan to show the MCA-TV syndicated film over all their seven outlets "any time in May," according to a spokesman in their Colorado headquarters. The stations air in several Western, Southern, and Midwestern areas: Phoenix, Ariz; Denver; Little Rock, Ark.; Oklahoma City; Louisville, Ky.; Atlanta; and Fort Wayne, Ind.
The question arises: Will further killings or woundings follow future airings of "The Deer Hunter" this spring? The states in this list are already included in four of the killings and one wounding: Timothy Wayne Grubbs, 21, in Oklahoma City; Timothy Rowe, 13, in Augusta, Ga.; Philip Hinshaw, 23, in Boulder, Colo.; John Phillip Triste, 8, in Mesa, Ariz.; all fatalities, and Stewart Robinson, 11 , in Muncie, Ind., wounded. All were playing Russian roulette.
The controversy about whether TV violence results in social violence is as old as the medium of TV itself. For more than three decades, congressional committees have held periodic hearings on the subject to try to determine if there is a causal link. The networks argue that there is no relationship, cry censorship, and usually invoke Shakespeare, as in: "'Hamlet' is violent; would you want to ban it from TV?"
On the other side, those who study violence and the media, like experts at the Annenberg School of Communications, trace alarming correlations between suggested violence on TV and later reenactments. One classic example followed the airing of the movie "Fuzz" in the early '70s on Boston TV when a group of youths who had seen the film reenacted a gasoline immolation scene from it with a victim who died as a result.
The specific relationship between a given TV scene of violence and an apparent reenactment is usually difficult to pinpoint, though. What is extraordinary about the continuing tragedy of the "Deer Hunter" case is that the violent scene is so bizarre and therefore so traceable. It runs like a thread through all 15 killings.
In "The Deer Hunter," Michael Cimino's war film, Vietnamese captors force American soldiers to play Russian roulette, a lethal game of chance in which all chambers of a gun are empty but one, and the player who puts a pistol to his head does not know which one it is. To lose the game may be to lose fatally.
In the most recent incident, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Hanover Township Police Chief Richard Yourren said he became suspicious that the shooting was not accidental, and an investigation indicated that the pair involved "were apparently mimicking a scene in 'The Deer Hunter.' When I asked him -- 20-year old Robert Powell [who allegedly fired the .38-calibe snub-nosed revolver] -- if he had ever seen the movie, he almost fell off his chair," the police chief said.
He added that Powell was apparently the first of three people in the room to play the "game," pointing the gun at himself and pulling the trigger. When it did not go off, he then allegedly pointed it at a second person; again it did not go off. But it did on the third attempt, striking 15-year-old John Rowles. A third person is being sought for questioning. John's condition has improved, and he has since been released from the hospital.
Dr. Thomas Radecki, an Illinois psychiatrist who is head of the National Coalition on TV Violence, noted at the time the 15 deaths were reported that "stations have been notified of the deaths and the grave risks but have continued showing the film."
If automobiles or toys that are potentially hazardous to the consumer can be recalled, he asks, why shouldn't a film whose showing has left a trail of deaths be considered dangerous to the public? "'The Deer Hunter' and the continuing use of violence on television is posing a clear danger to the public health," Dr. Radecki says.
Although "The Deer Hunter" has been shown in movie theaters throughout the nation, there are no known reported killings traceable to its showing in commercial theaters. Dr. Radecki is asked about the phenomenon of the violence following its showing in a home environment.
Are handgun violence on TV and the accessibility of handguns in viewers' homes a potentially lethal combination, like some drugs mixed with alcohol? He answers: "I can speculate there might be a psychological element, something in the home environment. . . . For someone seeing it in a more alien or foreign location, a movie theater, it may not be psychologically experienced as part of their real life. Mendoza [Richard Mendoza, San Antonio, killed at 24] happened to have a revolver sitting next to him -- very few people take a revolver into a theater. For most people [seeing it in a theater] there is a time lapse of several hours to several days [before having access to a gun]. There is not any research I know of comparing incidents of violence in a theater compared with that seen at home. . . .
"My personal speculation is that there are other films as violent as 'The Deer Hunter' that have caused as many deaths, but since the type of death is so unusual here . . . . Russian roulette is an unusual way to kill yourself. . . . Other suicides and murder [victims] don't say usually what they're thinking of. . . . It's my speculation that there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of murders and suicides related to such imitation of TV, of mixed media, TV and movie theaters, but since we don't have the infinite gathering capability, that information is lost."
I asked Dr. Radecki about the tragically high incidence of children listed among the 15 killed apparently after viewing "The Deer Hunter." Are children more susceptible than adults to suggestions of violence on TV?
"I'm still learning myself about violence," he answered. "The age groups involved in this don't differ very much: It is the age group from 19-24 in which most of the violent action like murder occurs." (Six of the 15 were teen-agers.)
He doesn't believe that teen-agers as a group are more susceptible to suggestions of violence. "It may be that there are fewer risks for them, they don't have maturity as a restricting force, less to lose. The fact that an eight-year-old was involved [in the 'Deer Hunter' list] surprised me, although I treated a 10-year-old who had shot another person. He had access to a handgun. . . . Society has to start realizing that TV violence is a health problem and that TV and movies that have a high level of violence should be restricted to movie theaters and to adults." He suggests that the Motion Picture Association of America should use its "X" rating for violence.
Linda Talbott points out, "This film was shown all over the country in theaters and we didn't see any imitations. Suddenly it's shown on TV and then there's imitation. Marshall McLuhan has pointed out the mesmerizing, hypnotic effect of the [TV] medium. The data coming in suggests that [when watching a film on TV] the normal judgment mechanisms are not operating the same way. . . . The accessibility factor [the presence of the gun] is great. People who go to theaters are generally aware that their concept of reality is being suspended. But TV is right there in your own home; it's as though the line between reality and fantasy is blurred."
Since all of the casualities in the "Deer Hunter" list are young males and the scene involved is a particularly macho one, she was asked whether her organization had found any incidents of female violence stemming from TV viewing. In general, no, she said, "but we do have a report of one little girl who shot another girl in imitation of a scene in 'Charlie's Angels.' Role modeling."
Sally Steenland, a spokeswoman for the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting and also a member of the coalition, says of the 15 fatalities: "It's a horrifying statistic. Our organization said to the stations which have an opportunity to show 'The Deer Hunter' that they should take a hard look and do some hard thinking before making the decision [about whether to show it]. They're supposed to operate in the public interest, and the track record of this film is imitation -- 15 people [after watching it] said, 'Hey, let's try that!' The stations really have a responsibility."
A talk with Federal Communications Commission chairman Charles Ferris underlines the fact that the stations do indeed have a responsibility as federal licensees whose ability to broadcast depends on the government being assured that they are indeed operating in the public interest. His carefully worded response to questions about whether "The Deer Hunter" should be shown on television indicates both his personal and professional concern as well as his awareness of the constitutional limits of the FCC.
He began by noting that he was aware that with certain films, like "Shelter Skelter" [based on the Charles Manson ritual murders in Los Angeles], incidents sometimes occurred later that paralleled events shown in a film.
"Certainly that's a connection that we on the commission have to balance with our constitutional inability to dictate on matters of content what broadcasters air over the airwaves," Mr. Ferris says.
"We do have to show restraint on the role of the government dictating content. . . . As a person, yes I am [concerned], but what I can do as chairman in an institution of government is a totally separate question.
"The commission gives discretion to licensees to exercise that discretion over content, what airs over the airwaves. Hopefully, those who have the licenses exercise judgment and discretion rather than having . . . purely crass and economic motives.
"I personally, if I were a broadcaster, would be guided by this principle and not by the profit motive exclusively. There are many individuals who are easily motivated [by TV] and fail to make the distinction between fantasy or fiction and reality," he notes.
But he again stressed that it was up to the stations, not the FCC, to "exercise judgment" on behalf of those viewers.
"The FCC does not and should notm have power to dictate content," even when stations exercise bad judgment, he says firmly.
When asked about the coalition argument that "The Deer Hunter" poses a danger to public mental health, and should not be shown on TV for this reason, Mr. Ferris points out that the FTC and the Consumer Product Safety Commission protect the public by government authority, but the FCC does not. It is just licensing authority for broadcasting.
"As a person I have tremendous sympathy" about the 15 deaths, Mr. Ferris says , "but as a chairman of the FCC I'm not able to do anything."
He is asked whether there is any appropriate way to prevent the future airing of the violent scenes that have apparently resulted in so many fatalities. Although his words are couched in that understated governmental language that sounds mild, the implication is clear to broadcasters who tune in: acting against "the public interest" may jeopardize your license.
Chairman Ferris suggests that "groups or organizations direct the attention of broadcasters to [this issue]. [Broadcasters] presented with evidence of the proximity of incidents, and put on notice this is a likely result of the exercise of their discretionary responsibility, understandably would think twice about airing a program that way.
"If confronted . . . by reasoned petitions, I would think there would be second thoughts as to whether it would be responsible to the community these licensees serve. If those who were going to sponsor such a program were confronted with this new evidence, they would have concern as well as to whether it was responsible. . . ."
The remedy, he stresses, lies not with the FCC taking the initiative but concerned groups petitioning the stations in the public interest, and the FCC then having a public record on which to act.
One of the stations that had aired "The Deer Hunter," WOR-TV in New York City , showed it on election night and the following Tuesday. The station received 210 phone calls, according to station manager Bob Fennimore, who says that 136 of the callers thanked the station for running the film.
Sixty of the calls were "unfavorable," he says, with viewers complaining about both violence and rough language. He says that half of those complaining felt the movie should have been shown. Mr. Fennimore says the 14 others just noted that they had seen the film.
"I will say we probably will not carry it ["The Deer Hunter"] again," he adds.
Asked whether the station considered there to be a link between the airing of the film and the 15 deaths nationwide, Mr. Fennimore says, "That list -- obviously those people needed help; to say the movie gave them a way to escape, I can't answer that. Who knows if they weren't contemplating suicide to begin with? . . . I certainly feel for the families of those people. Television is something that reaches masses, reaches people. As broadcasters we have a responsibility to look at what we put on the air. We did some editing, we took out some phrases and one frame showing nudity."
Were any of the scenes of Russian roulette violence left out?
No, Mr. Fennimore says.
He notes that the station also ran a disclaimer before and during the showing of the film, at least four times, and also ran a notice by the Handgun Control Association. The disclaimer said in part, "as a powerful portryal of war, and those whose lives are touched and changed by war, 'The Deer Hunter' incorporates scenes of dramatic violence and uses realistic language which some may consider unsuitable for other than adult viewers. . . ."
Mr. Fennimore adds, "We would not put on the air anything we felt to be dangerous to people. That's not what TV is all about."
At another station that had aired "The Deer Hunter," WCDA-TV in Washington, there was a vehement reaction from a station spokesman. When asked whether the station considered there to be a link between the airing of the film and the list of 15 dead, the spokesman said, "I find it hard to believe that you're making an absolute statement that this movie caused the deaths of these people without having information other than that these people died after playing 'Deer Hunter,' whatever that is."
The spokesman's reference is to one of the 15 fatalities, listed in the coalition release: Mickey Culpepper, 23, of metairie, La.
According to the Jefferson Parish sheriff's office, witnesses told them Culpepper was playing with a .38-caliber revolver and asked the friend unloading the weapon to leave one bullet in the chamber. The witnesses then said Culpepper walked into the living room, spun the weapon's chamber, placed it at his head, and said, "Look, I'm going to play 'Deer Hunter'!"
When he pulled the trigger the weapon discharged, striking him in the head; he died two hours later in a local hospital.
The WDCA spokesman said, "People shouldn't have guns in their house. Guns kill people, whether it's on TV or not."
The spokesman said the station had run a disclaimer before and during airing the film on Oct. 30 and 31 and had received a commendatory letter from Handgun Control Inc. for running the disclaimers.
The spokesman also said, "We received several hundred calls thanking us for running the movie. One hundred percent of the negative calls [number unspecified] had to do with language, not with violence. No one said, 'How can you show a movie where people are putting a gun to their head and shooting themselves?' They said, 'How can you send such filthy language into my house?'"
The station did edit a couple of scenes in the film, according to the spokesman -- one sequence in a Russian roulette scene where a bullet is shown blowing away part of a man's head and another sequence in which animals were thrashing in pain after being shot.
The spokesman concluded: "To say that 15 people who died have seen the movie may be an exaggeration."
Home Box Office ran "The Deer Hunter" six or seven times over a four-week period last May. HBO plays to an audience of 5 million subscribers; the film was shown in 2,700 communities dotted all over the US. Robbin Ahrold, director of public relations for HBO, initially said that plans for showing the film again were "in limbo" but later found that they would not be running it again because the license to show it on pay TV had expired.
He says that "only 9 of the 17" (killings and woundings) took place in markets where HBO was available -- other markets were served by competitors.
Mr. Ahrold says HBO's program guide on the film noted that the picture contained very explicit violence and included the MPAA rating "R" -- but the company ran no disclaimers.
"There was no precedent in pay-TV exhibition for this kind of reaction to a film. We had no reports of any deaths attributed to its showing in theaters. . . . We were shocked when the reports began to come in. At the first report I was somewhat skeptical about linking antisocial behavior with the TV program. As the evidence began to build up, the picture became much clearer, and there seemed to be evidence that the viewing of the film did lead mostly children to playing Russian roulette."
He added that it seemed "a rather widespread phenomenon linked to repeated viewing of the film by teen-agers. And it does raise a question in my mind as to the easy availability of handguns."
Mr. Ahrold specifically mentioned the Augusta, Ga., case in which 13-year-old Timothy Rowe, who had been watching "The Deer Hunter" on TV one Saturday night, shot himself fatally in the head. The Rowe boy, an Anchorage, Alaska, resident who was visiting an aunt in Augusta, shot himself with a .38-caliber service revolver he found on a closet shelf.
"If someone had come to me in February or March, and said, 'If you put such and such a title on the air there's a chance that seven people will commit suicide as a result of having seen the film,' we probably would not have scheduled the film," Mr. Fennimore says, in New York. "But nothing like that had ever happened before. . . . It isn't as though pay TV had never programmed violence on TV before -- the Clint Eastwood films, other films have much violence as 'The Deer Hunter.' We've never had a reaction of any sort in seven years of HBO to film violence."
One of the experts on violence and the media is Dr. George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications, who has testified frequently at congressional hearings on the subject. Dr. Gerbner is skeptical about singling out any particular violent film or program for its effect on viewers.
He says, "I'm as concerned about violence as anybody. But I try to differentiate between systematic evidence and a lot of scapegoating and wishful thinking. . . . I would be skeptical without more systematic evidence and larger and more comparable numbers. Of course, it's not impossible, considering the theory of imitative or social learning."
But he concluded, "This is a successful movie.It's going to play for some time. . . . Violence occurs on TV at the rate of five incidents per hour in prime time. It's not unusual. There may or may not be anything to this.I would not single out this program."