Suicide Club and the Werther Effect
Suicide Club doesn’t waste any time: in its introductory sequence, fifty-four Japanese schoolgirls swarm around a train platform on the Tokyo underground. Their tone is jovial and lighthearted, with eruptions of smiles and laughter. As the train approaches, the girls clasp hands, and with sing-song voices in unison, they count to three before gleefully hurling themselves onto the tracks. The train plows through mounds of twitching human flesh, leaving the platform awash with what must have amounted to several oil drums’ worth of blood.
As the story progresses, Detective Kuroda and his team of investigators follow a number of puzzling clues. While no simple explanation is forthcoming, it seems that the railway suicides, and untold others that follow, have been influenced by an insidious presence in the media and internet, toying with impressionable young minds. Japan’s youth take to killing themselves simply because it’s fashionable.
Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, perhaps the finest writer ever to hail from Germany, published his The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. The novel details Werther, a young man perpetually lovelorn and heartbroken before finally committing suicide with a pistol. The novel was a sensation; young German dandies at first imitated the protagonist’s style of dress, and then, when met with any sort of disappointment in love, they put bullets in their skulls just as their fictitious hero had. This rash of self-termination was so severe that the novel was banned in many places; it is also the reason that clusters of suicides, particularly those influenced by popular media, are termed the Werther Effect.
That children are the imitative sort is evident; we’re all familiar with the boy applying shaving cream just like Daddy, or the little girl nursing her doll. So too have we all seen the influence of television, rather than family, on our youth—a teen pop sensation can dictate styles of dress, a sitcom character’s catch phrase is parroted mindlessly at every turn. This is one plot device of Suicide Club; teenagers are so transfixed by all that glitters in the media that they can’t hear their parents speak during dinner, and incessantly sing the chorus of the latest tune crowned number one by the radio. But the songs in Suicide Club romanticize death, imploring listeners to self-destruct. Once fifty-four pop fans take that message to heart, and the resulting news coverage unwittingly glorifies the suicides—now celebrities of a sort—the Werther Effect takes root.
Adolescence is perhaps the most precarious time in a person’s development. Around the onset of puberty, young people seek to establish their individuality by distancing themselves from the family unit, vying instead for the approval of the peer group. Blows to the psyche are typically novel, uncharted territory, and may well seem like the end of the world. As roughly one-third of those who entertain suicidal ideation are believed to be high school or college students—who again, as part of a very normal mechanism of growth, disregard their elders in favor of ingratiating themselves socially—any impetus to behave in a maladaptive fashion can be potentially fatal. Dimwitted but popular characters in a given school can entice others to partake in illegal drugs or unprotected sex. When this sort of destructive behavior is only further idealized by television and rock stars, conformity might come at any price. In a sense, it is every wayward, dissatisfied youth standing on that railway platform. The rest of us might consider ourselves bystanders; but should we forget our responsibilities to provide sound guidance, and instead let young people daydream of Romeo, Juliet, and Kurt Cobain, we might find a bit of blood on our own shoes.