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The Copycat Effect among Homicide-Suicides: Fact or Fiction?

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The Copycat Effect among Homicide-Suicides: Fact or Fiction?

Homicide followed by suicide is a rare event, mostly occurring in families: mothers killing their children, fathers murdering their family members, and subsequently taking their own lives. Homicide-suicides bring about shock and incomprehension, leaving people questioning what could cause such a tragic event. It has been suggested that a homicide-suicide can lead to more homicide-suicides, especially when media reporting on such events is excessive. Such a copycat effect has long been established among suicides. Extensive, glorifying media reporting on suicide can lead to more suicides. However, the question remains whether this has any effect on the occurrence of homicide-suicides.

For a copycat homicide to be qualified as a copycat, it must have been inspired by an earlier, publicized homicide – that is, there must be a pair of homicides linked by the media. The copycat effect is also sometimes referred to as the ‘contagion effect’ or as the ‘imitation effect’ and generally refers to the power of mass communication and culture to create an epidemic of similar behaviors. It is oftentimes difficult to know when a homicide, particularly a homicide-suicide, is linked to an earlier event: because of the suicide of the perpetrator, the answer may forever be lost. Therefore, we have to take a closer look at the actual facts: if homicide-suicides are indeed inspired by previous homicide-suicides, then surely we must see clusters of homicide-suicides that greatly resemble one another?

A look at all homicide-suicides that took place in the Netherlands between 1992 and 2014 shows a total of 205 cases . The average number of homicide-suicides has been relatively stable, around nine cases per year. The incidence varies from four to 26 per year. The largest peak occurred in 2010; other peaks emerged in 1996, 2000, 2005 and 2013. The peak in 1996 was mainly caused by a peak in homicide-suicides with child victims, the peaks in 2000, 2010 and 2013 by intimate partner homicide-suicide, and the peak in 2005 a combination of several subtypes. Overall, the vast majority of homicide-suicides are intimate partner-suicides and child homicide-suicides.

None of the cases in 1996 occurred close in time or in the same geographical area. In two cases, multiple children were killed. One case involved a father who strangled his three children out of bereavement over his wife’s death in the previous year. The other child homicide-suicide that followed in a short time span concerned a father who stabbed his three sons and he then tried to kill himself. The alleged motive included revenge: his girlfriend had broken up with him a day prior to the event. Even though these cases – and other child homicide-suicides occurring in clusters such as this one – seem to have much in common, underlying motives and methods differ drastically. The peak in 2010 was caused by intimate partner homicide-suicides. Seven of the thirteen cases took place within a short time-span. Only two of these cases took place in the same area. These two intimate partner homicide-suicides, however, were vastly different. One case was the result of a fight between the two partners. In the other case, the husband suffered from a psychotic depression.

It is tempting to ascribe atrocious acts like homicide-suicide to the inspirational power of mass communication. However, the vast heterogeneity of homicide-suicide in terms of relationship between victim-offender, spatial distribution, method and most importantly, motive, so far pleads against a copycat effect among homicide-suicide in the Netherlands.  

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