Origins: The 1978 film The Deer Hunter is a powerful, disturbing, and compelling look at the Vietnam War through the lives of three friends before, during, and after their service in the war. In one of its most memorable scenes, Vietnamese captors wager on the fate of American soldiers forced to play Russian roulette, a game of chance in which the player points a gun housing only one bullet at his own head (or someone else's) and pulls the trigger. If the hammer strikes an empty chamber all is well, but if it finds the one with a bullet, a life is ended.
Something in this movie spoke to people, both to those honestly shivering on the verge of suicide yet needing one last push in the form of intervention by the Hand of Fate, and those temporarily rendered deaf to the voice of reason by the fatalistic appeal of playing games with the Grim Reaper. Whatever the motivation, showings of The Deer Hunter inspired a number of boys and men to take their own lives in this fashion. The victims included both those fully intending to off themselves and those it later turned out were just messing with what struck them and their buddies at the time as a cool idea. All were suicides, although it is to be granted that some were (mostly) unplanned.
The full body count attributable to The Deer Hunter suicides will likely never be known because often such deaths are solitary affairs, leaving no one around to explain what influenced the deceased to take his life. Some have attempted to take measure of this phenomenon, including
A quick scan of old newspaper articles finds too many documented accounts of Deer Hunter suicides to chalk all of them up to overblown radical anti-violence rhetoric:
Officials Monday confirmed that Ted Tolwinski,
[The New York Times, 1981]
A 23-year-old man [Daniel Bouley] shot himself in the head in a game of Russian roulette apparently inspired by watching the movie The Deer Hunter on television, the Anoka County Sheriff's Department said today.
[The Washington Post, 1980]
A 16-year-old boy fatally shot himself in the head reenacting a Russian roulette scene he had seen in the movie The Deer Hunter.
[The New York Times, 1979]
Oklahoma City police say William Dillon Gates, apparently inspired by movie The Deer Hunter, shot himself to death in a game of Russian Roulette with two other men.
Two teens were re-enacting a scene from the movie The Deer Hunter when one of them shot himself in the head, apparently by accident, according to Rock County Sheriff's Department reports released Thursday. Brandon Accardi, 16, was pronounced dead at Beloit Memorial Hospital early Saturday after a shooting at his home Friday.
The Deer Hunter fan site
Last updated: 16 August 2007
Mann, James. "What Is TV Doing to America?" U.S. News & World Report. 2 August 1982 (p. 27). The New York Times. "Suicide in Oklahoma." 5 April 1979 (p. 12). Ostrander, Kathleen. "Teen Re-Enacting Movie Shot Himself, Police Say." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 10 March 2000 (p. B3). Simon, Paul. "Reducing TV Violence." The [Louisville] Courier-Journal. 31 August 1989 (p. A15). Sweeney, Louise. "Is This Movie Killing People?" The Christian Science Monitor. 5 February 1981 (p. B22). United Press International. "Two Die After Plea Fails to Halt Showing of Film." The New York Times. 25 November 1981 (p. A16). United Press International. "Minnesota Man, 23, Kills Himself Trying Russian Roulette at Party." The New York Times. 25 June 1981 (p. D23). The Washington Post. "Youth Kills Himself Enacting Movie Role." 21 March 1980 (p. A9).