How a tabloid witch hunt for a killer dollmovie reveals a pursuit of profit over truth
England 1993 and a horrific murder has shocked and horrified the nation. A pair often-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, have been found to have tortured and murdered two-year-old James Bulger after abducting him from his mother’s side at a supermarket.
This senseless, sadistic crime dominated the news for months, terrifying parents nationwide. Search for motive and reason continued into the trial where judge Justice Morland suggested exposure to violent videos might have inspired the boys’ actions. To any horror fan or sensible person Morland’s theory might sound an absurd idea, but this wasn’t long after the “Video Nasty” panic of the eighties.
Headed by “moral campaigner” Mary Whitehouse, this tabloid-fuelled movement had whipped up hysteria, claiming movies such as The Evil Dead and The Exorcist would corrupt young minds, leading to deviant behaviour and violence. In the case of the Bulger killing, many saw proof of what Whitehouse had warned.
Police investigation into the video rental history of each boy’s parents found Child’s Play 3 had been rented by Venables’ father. At the climax of that movie the possessed killer doll, Chucky, dies near a railway track (actually a ghost train) and had earlier been struck with a paintball pellet. For some, the similarities to the Bulger killing were all too obvious. Bulger had died on a railway track having also been spattered with paint.
But that was where the similarities ended and detectives handling the case found it unlikely the movie had even been seen by Venables, since he was not living with his father at the time of the rental. Later psychiatric reports confirmed that Venables disliked horror films, yet by this time Police had already viewed over 200 titles from the Venables’ family rental history and found no scene or storyline resembling what had occurred, nothing they could say might’ve inspired the horrible crime.
Inspector Ray Simpson of Merseyside Police famously commented: “If you are going to link this murder to a film, you may as well link it to the railway children.”
Unfortunately, such facts seemed to elude a frenzied tabloid media, who zealously offered up Child’s Play 3 as scapegoat, rather than explore the more disturbing truths about the case. Nowadays, it’s easy to see the motive behind such willful ignorance. The original video nasty furor had proven quite profitable for the press, so why not bring it back for a sequel? Ironically, this was likely the same thinking which had led those Hollywood execs to greenlight Chucky’s third outing.
Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper led the charge against Chucky. The paper had long been shunned in Liverpool due to its shameful coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, when 97 Liverpool football fans lost their lives in a human crush at Hillsborough stadium. Initially The Sun had blamed the fans themselves, for being drunk, unruly and ignorant of police instruction. However, further investigation found fault lay with the supervising police who’d opened extra gates in attempt to ease congestion outside the turnstiles. The resulting influx of bodies caused the crush, which also saw 766 people injured.
Boycotts followed that reckless reporting, and The Sun became largely known as “The Scum” in Merseyside and Liverpool. Ever keen to win back the region’s custom, the paper quickly seized upon the Liverpool-based Bulger case and its tenuous link to Child’s Play 3. They aggressively campaigned against the movie, publishing front-page headlines such as “Burn your video nasty” above an image of the VHS cover set alight inside a bin.
Under such intense pressure many video stores refused to stock Child’s Play 3 and Sky TV (also owned by Murdoch) dropped it from scheduling, yet contrary to the Daily Mirror’s triumphant credit-claiming headline, “Banned, thanks to your Daily Mirror”, Child’s Play 3 was never officially banned, nor were the series’ previous instalments ever linked to the controversy.
It’s worth mentioning here that Mary Whitehouse’s NVLA apparently stayed out of this one, perhaps due to a lesson learned from their fruitless and embarrassing persecution of The Evil Dead some years prior. Or perhaps they recognised what the tabloids refused to? Something Judge Morland realised over the course of the case.
Post-trial, Morland laid the blame firmly at the feet of the killers’ parents, stating: “The home background, upbringing, family circumstances, parental behaviour and relationships were needed in the public domain so that informed and worthwhile debate can take place for the public good in the case of grave crimes by young children.”
Sadly, such debate and analysis never took place with a lazy, dishonest media more focused on sensationalism than truth.
Venables and Thompson were initially sentenced to eight years, which was soon extended to fifteen after another campaign from The Sun pressured home secretary Michael Howard to intervene. A later appeal overturned this decision, and the boys were released in 2001 having served the original eight-year sentence. Now both 17 years old, the boys were given new identities and while Thompson has seemingly stayed out of trouble since, Venables has returned to prison repeatedly for various offences over the last two decades. They stand the youngest convicted murderers in modern British history.
To this day The Sun remains unpopular in Merseyside, where the continuing boycott is estimated to cost the paper roughly £15 million per month in losses. Meanwhile, Child’s Play 3 can be freely purchased on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, although it has rarely been shown on television.
In 1999, Leeds city councilor Loran Cohen attempted to ban the movie’s belated sequel, Bride of Chucky, citing the unproven link to the Bulger case as her reasoning. During a radio interview Cohen claimed to be on a “moral crusade”, but since the councilor must’ve known Child’s Play 3 was never seen by Venables, and that it was never actually banned, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly “moral” about her grandstanding against its sequel. Instead, it seems like an attempt to gain publicity, to virtue-signal against a soft target, and if that was the case, it’s all the more distasteful that she did so in the memory of such a tragic event.
Cohen’s “crusade” rightfully failed, yet for many in the UK, the Chucky series still carries the stigma of a horrific crime it had nothing to do with, largely due to the behaviour of a few self-serving parties.
One person who had very little to say about the movie was James Bulger’s mother, Denise, who’d lost him in the supermarket that fateful day and had to suffer the grief of her loss while under the glare of an intrusive and amoral media. Inspiringly, Denise rebuilt her life following the tragedy and now lives with her three sons and second husband. For decades she has campaigned for various legislation to protect children from criminal offenders and in 2010 she launched the James Bulger memorial trust to support young victims of crime.
Denise received the British citizen award for her efforts in 2017 and wrote a book dedicated to James’ memory which can be purchased from the charity’s website: forjames.org.