The Basketball Diaries and the Media Violence Debate

“The true story of the death of innocence”

Based on the cult 1978 novel of the same name, The Basketball Diaries (1995) follows the teenage travails of Jim Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio), as he sinks from star high school sports player to smacked-up down-and-out, ultimately finding redemption through his writing. His experiences range from abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, the death of his best friend from leukemia, being thrown out by his mother, and trying to rent out his own body to stay alive. It's not a happy film, but its sensitive portraits of disaffected teens struck plenty of chords in its audience: it deals with abusive authority figures, escapism through drugs and masturbation on a rooftop. It contains explicit scenes of drug abuse, as Jim and his friends graduate from solvent highs to heroin lows. It received a mixed response from critics, some of whom felt it was just too realistic, but DiCaprio was fêted for his performance as a strung out, DT-ridden junkie who still manages to retain the audience's sympathy despite the depths to which he sinks.

The Problem

The Basketball Diaries contains a scene where Carroll daydreams in class about bursting through the door, dressed as an anachronistic Terminator (considering this is meant to be 1960 something) and blasting his annoying classmates and sadistic teacher away with a pump action shotgun. This scene is shot in blood drenched slow motion, with every kill telescoped out into a series of grotesque moments, as Carroll is cheered on by his friends. This dream sequence is the scene cited in a number of school shooting cases as triggering violent actions in those who watched it.

Michael Carneal

This scene is what had the makers of the movie, along with the creators of video game Doom named in a $33million lawsuit (later dismissed) brought by the relatives of those killed by 14 year old Michael Carneal in Paducah, Kentucky in 1997.

It was like I was in a dream, and I woke up."
— Michael Carneal (attrib) as he waited for police to arrive

In the media storm which followed the Paducah shootings, The Basketball Diaries was repeatedly named as the film which triggered Carneal's actions. He apparently mentioned it to police when arrested. However, his friends state he had never actually seen the movie as he "hated DiCaprio". It will never be proven how much of an influence, if any, this movie had on Carneal - it is part of his whole media experience, which seems fairly typical of a solitary teenage boy who spent long hours without any adult supervision, watching TV and playing video games in his bedroom.

This is a classic example of a moral panic: a tragic event happens and politicians, parents and the media cast about for some sort of scapegoat to contextualise it (occurence and signification). The Basketball Diaries, dealing as it does with the darkness of youth culture, was the chosen target. Public attention was focused on the key dream sequence, and, despite later denials by Carneal and his friends that he had never seen the movie, his alleged remark to police ("Yes, I have seen this done in `Basketball Diaries") was seen as proof of direct influence. The Basketball Diaries gains the status of dangerous text (Warner Bros offer full refunds to any video store wishing to remove it from its shelves) and the wider social implications are endlessly discussed in the newspapers. In an effort to enforce social control, the relatives of the victims seek legal redress against the creators of the text. Unfortunately, this is a moral panic which looks set to repeat itself whenever a school shooting occurs, as in the subsequent cases in Littleton, Colorado and Springfield, Oregon.

The families of Carneal's victims eventually settled for a $42 million payout - derived from Carneal's parents home insurance. Carneal himself remains incarcerated - psychiatric evaluation over the ensuing years suggests he may have been suffering from severe mental illness.


On Tuesday, 20 April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve students and one teacher, injured twenty-one others, and then committed suicide at Columbine High School, Colorado. Their actions sent shockwaves across the world and caused a moral panic about violent teens, and the music, movies and video games of the 1990s that may have influenced their actions. Harris and Klebold were big Marilyn Manson fans, and spent a lot of time playing Doom. Marilyn Manson had to cancel a tour, and has spent the subsequent decade defending himself and his music against the charges (see the article he wrote, which originally appeared in Rolling Stone, here). Part of the moral panic focused on an otherwise innocuous movie from 1995, The Basketball Diaries, which contained a fantasy scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio rampaged through a classroom with a gun, wearing a long black trenchcoat — supposedly the aesthetic inspiration for Harris and Klebold. More attention was also given to Oliver Stone's 1994 opus, Natural Born Killers, a favorite of the boys, who used the acronym 'nbk' in their diary entries.

After the moral panic died down, a lengthy FBI investigation concluded that tabloid narratives about Goth subculture, the trenchcoat mafia, and over-medicated kids inspired to kill by video games were just entertaining fictions designed to sell newspapers.

Hindsight is always 20/20.