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The family annihilator is a type of murderer that, in recent decades, has gained prominence in the media and pop culture in the world of Murder Tropes
The murderer, almost always a man
, kills his wife and children (and in rare cases, his in-laws or parents) as a means to "protect" the family from discovering the killer's own failures at life (e.g., Unconfessed Unemployment
, financial ruin, or the disintegration of the family unit for some other reason). Often has shades of Put Them All Out of My Misery
. After killing his entire family, the killer will then turn his weapon upon himself
, or (if he can't bring himself to kill himself) flee town to escape his crimes.
The trope gained fame mainly through the murderous antics of John List, arguably the Trope Codifier
. Having lost his job and become deeply in debt, List's Insane Troll Logic
was that poverty was an affront to God, so it would be better for his family to go straight to heaven than on welfare. List then went into hiding and successfully stayed hidden until America's Most Wanted
featured him on the show, bringing about his arrest as a result.
Current social mores play a big part in how sympathetic the murderer remains to the audience — while few would suggest that debt is a good reason to kill your family, fantasy situations involving the threat of a Fate Worse than Death
will leave many people arguing that the act was justified, or at least sympathetic. However, the variant where the killer doesn't follow through and end his own life
is almost always portrayed as unforgivable.
While Offing the Offspring
describes premeditated filicide, this trope involves the head of the household unilaterally killing their kids and their spouse. Compare Where I Was Born and Razed
. The occasional Real Life
examples get massive attention in national news — these might be part of what gives this trope its resonance. The examples from Greek Mythology
below make this Older Than Feudalism
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- In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, it's eventually revealed that Kyouko Sakura's father killed the rest of her family and then himself after he realized that the increased number of followers at his church was not due to people actually believing him, but because of Kyouko's powers as a Puella Magi (born from her wish to get him more followers) making them listen.
- In Naruto, Haku's father killed his mother and tried to kill him when he found out about their Superpowerful Genetics.
- In Maus, the protagonist is the only one of his siblings who survived the war, by coincidence - the others, being taken care of by their aunt, were made to eat poison with her in order to avoid a crueler fate at the hands of Nazis.
- The NYC cops in Watchmen arrested a father who admitted to murdering his kids, because he feared that the possibility of nuclear war would make their lives miserable. Of course, the irony of this situation comes twofold: the war never happened, though that's because NYC was blown up by Veidt and made to look like an interstellar attack. So they would've all died, anyway.
- Threefolds, if you considered that Adrian Veidt's plan might be doomed to failure.
- Enigma has a group called the Interior League who break into peoples homes and rearrange their furniture in such a way that when the owner enters the room, seeing the new furniture pattern triggers some response in their brain that causes them to go stark raving mad and murder their whole family.
- A particularly disturbing variation occurs in the 1999 remake of The Haunting (1999): Hugh Crain, the Eccentric Millionaire who built Hill House, not only seems to have killed or driven his wife to her death, but the children from the mills whom he 'adopted' were also slain by him, or else allowed to waste away due to neglect. So even though, presumably, the mitigation of what ruined his life (no offspring) should have made him happy and fulfilled, the industrialist instead destroys the very thing he'd been seeking for so long.
- Deputy Billy in the horror film 30 Days of Night, in order to save them from what would be (at least for them) a far more horrific death.
- Something similar happens in the movie The Mist, but tragically, the protagonist knows he's one bullet short for their group, but "takes care of" everyone else (including his son), before turning the empty gun on himself and pointlessly pulling the trigger in shock over and over. The real kicker is that the ominous pounding that prompted their giving up draws closer and is revealed to be the Big Damn Heroes clearing out the mist and killing the monsters, making for a harrowing Shoot the Shaggy Dog ending.
- The backstory of in-universe Memetic Badass Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects involves a unique take on this; his family had been taken hostage, and he killed them simply to show the hostage-takers how not-to-be-fucked-with he was.
- For the title character in The Stepfather this got to be a habit, followed by changes of identity to start the process again.
- This is Billy Bedlam's rap sheet introduction in Con Air after finding his wife had cheated on him. He drove four towns over to his wife's family house; killed her parents, her brothers, her sisters...and even the dog.
- Death on Demand has a black and white opening which depicts the then-living killer butchering his wife, mother in-law and two daughters during Thanksgiving dinner.
- For Colored Girls has the alcoholic, PTSD-suffering war vet toss his kids out of the window when he suspected his wife of cheating (which she did, years earlier), and thought her lover pulled up in a limo one afternoon, saying that it's time to return the kids to their rightful father (the limo actually housed her female boss). The wife tries to save her kids by grabbing them before they fell, but her grip couldn't hold for too long, and no one else managed to get into the room in time.
- This is what kick-starts the curse of the Ju-on series of films, as well as the remake series, The Grudge: In the Japanese series, Takeo Saeki reads his wife Kayako's diary, discovers that she harbours an obsessive crush on her old college friend, Kobayashi, and becomes so jealous, paranoid and outright crazy that he starts to believe that a) Kayako is having an affair, and b) that he is not the natural father of their son, Toshio (none of which are true). He then snaps Kayako's neck, leaving her paralysed but not quite dead until he slashes her with a utility knife, drowns Toshio, and even slaughters Toshio's beloved cat. Takeo himself is later killed when Kayako, now a seriously angry spirit, takes her revenge. In the American series, the murders and his motives are very similar, except in this continuity, the object of Kayako's desire is instead a university professor named Peter, and there is no suspicion with regards to Toshio's parentage.
- Alec Trevelyan's backstory in Goldeneye has his father kill his mother and himself so that they won't have to live with the shame of having survived the Soviet purge of Lienz Cossacks.
- In Downfall, Ernst-Robert Grawitz commits suicide in his apartment during dinner with his wife and three children — by detonating a grenade and killing his family along with himself. It's believed he did it in Real Life as well (a grenade exploded inside his house, killing him and his family), although there were (obviously) no witnesses around to prove it.
- In Falling Down, it's heavily implied that Bill Foster intends to do this to his wife and daughter, even though he refuses to admit it when Prendergast draws this conclusion when they finally meet face to face. Drawing a gun on his family while tearfully saying that he's sorry says it all.
- The Others has a Gender Flipped version: a mother, delirious with isolation and worried sick over her husband's fate in World War II, uses a Vorpal Pillow on her children, and then, in remorse, a shotgun on herself. The Twist Ending is that the main characters are this family, and "the others" they've been dealing with are the still-living people who have since moved into the house.
- Jack in Stephen King's The Shining is driven to do this and fails, unlike his predecessor who previously stayed in the cursed hotel.
- In Euripides's Medea, Medea kills her children (along with Jason's new wife and father-in-law) as revenge against Jason for leaving her. (In the original legend, she also kills and dismembers her brother. The people of Corinth kill Medea's children.)
- The short story A Family Supper has this happening in the background, and one of the central questions is whether it's happening in the main story as well. The story begins with a discussion of fugu, a type of fish that can be lethally poisonous if prepared incorrectly, and the titular meal is described only as "fish".
- Sethe tries to do this in Toni Morrison's Beloved to keep her children from being sent back into slavery, although she only succeeds on one count out of four.
- Thomas Hardy's Jude The Obscure has a frater familicide. Jude's family is poor, he is ill and another child is on its way; his eldest son, deciding that his parents would be better off without their children, kills his siblings and then himself - which also drives his mother to a miscarriage.
- One of the other psychics in Dorothy Gilman's The Clairvoyant Countess is rescued from one of these.
- One of the patients that Doctor Kreizler sees at the very beginning of The Alienist has killed his children to protect them from evil.
- It's mentioned that a main character's father in the novel Final Destination: Looks Could Kill went insane at a reunion and killed most of his family, and a number of other random people, before committing Suicide by Cop.
- Gerald Tarrant of the Coldfire Trilogy became the immortal being known as the Hunter by vivisecting his wife and children - except for one who was out of town that night. In later centuries, he would repeat this feat on his descendants whenever any of them dared to declare themselves to be the second Count of Merentha - always leaving behind one survivor to carry on the family name.
- In Brave Story, Mitsuru's father killed his wife and daughter before killing himself. (Mitsuru escaped by not being home at the time, but was left with... a few issues.)
- Tana French's Broken Harbor raises the possibility that this is what happened to the family whose murder kicks off the plot. It was actually the mother.
- In Shutter Island, it's strongly hinted near the end that Daniels was the one to kill his family. It turns out it was his wife was the one to kill the kids, while suffering severe depression; Daniels killed her when he found them, then went insane over the whole situation. The film has the same ending.
- Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland, an early American novel, has a small, tight-knit circle of friends and family haunted by voices that appear to know more than human knowledge can tell. And then the most staunchly religious member — the eponymous Wieland — hears voices from God telling him to kill all his family. He complies. The results aren't pretty.
- The Wheel of Time features the Posthumous Character Lews Therin Telamon, The Chosen One—also known as "Kinslayer," because, after after going insane like all male wizards do, he killed every friend and family member he could get his hands on. Since he was The Archmage, this was all of them. It Sucks to Be the Chosen One.
Live Action TV
- An episode of CSI: Miami had a guy who did this and then claimed post-partum depression; that is, he claimed his wife had been suffering post-partum depression in the weeks leading up to the slaughter. Only, she hadn't.
- Occurred (naturally) on Law & Order: SVU: The wife seemed to be unstable; later, the detectives (who had just been to the house that day) find everyone dead, save the husband who was only grazed. Elliot is sympathetic, only to learn from the Crime Scene Unit that the only way the husband could've been injured is if he was aiming the gun at himself.
- Supernatural has a particular kind of ghost called a "Woman in White" that results from a woman killing her children and then committing suicide. The idea seems to have come from South American legends of La Llorona.
- Supernatural loves this trope. It appears in an episode in which a house is haunted by the ghost of a farmer who murdered his family so they wouldn't starve, and pops up again with the father in a haunted family portrait who killed his family, and now murders whoever owns the picture. It's subverted both times. The farmer ghost isn't real (long story), and it was the adopted daughter that killed everyone and then framed the father.
- In the series finale of The Shield, Shane's last play to keep his pregnant wife out of jail has failed, and they're faced with the prospect of having their children go into the foster care system. Seeing no other way out, he slips fatal doses of painkillers to his wife and son, and then simply waits for the cops. When they break down his door, he puts a bullet in his head.
- In the Torchwood miniseries Children of Earth, civil servant John Frobisher is told that his two daughters must be sacrificed to the invading aliens in order for the government to save face. He returns home, sends his family to one of the bedrooms, takes a gun and follows them up. The door closes and three gunshots are heard, then a pause followed by a fourth.
- In the Criminal Minds episode "Normal", the BAU predict that since the killer is murdering women resembling his wife, eventually he will kill his real family. The Reveal is that he'd done so before the episode even began, and was hallucinating that they were still alive. In the end, he gets told that he killed them and breaks down.
- Another episode, "The Fox," has a serial killer who stages his crimes to look like this in order to keep the police from looking for a murderer outside the family.
- One of Dexter's victims was a cop who murdered her husband and daughter, because she found them to be a burden.
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent had a case similar to List's (with elements of Romand's), in that the father lied about having a job with the UN — actually, of having a job at all fortunately the wife was unharmed and the detectives were able to save the kids.
- Averted in a Law & Order episode in which the father seemed to fit the profile, but actually it was the daughter's druggie boyfriend.
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had a similar aversion in "Blood Drops," where the murder looks like the father killed everyone save for the youngest daughter (who was hiding) and the eldest daughter (who was out with her boyfriend). It turns out the eldest daughter and her boyfriend killed them all, as her father had been raping her for years, no one would speak out against him, and he was moving on to the youngest girl — who was actually the eldest's daughter.
- The "hopeless unemployment" version of this trope forms the plot of Bob Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown."
- The Metallica song "Harvester of Sorrow", in madness and drug related form.
- Voted in top 10 for "the most depressive song ever" in Finland, Pimeä tie, mukavaa matkaa ("Lightless road, have a pleasant journey") is the voice of a young couple, who have failed to get a loan for buying a home, are disappointed in the society ("suppose they'll soon put a price tag on breathing air"), and are in a car with their children to end it all. In the chorus the other parent urges the driving one to "close your eyes, now we're leaving at full throttle" as the children sleep in the back seat, and tells the audience "it's okay to forget us in case we paid too little".
- Suicide's Frankie Teardrop is about a desperate underpaid factory worker doing this.
- Heavily implied in the song "River Below" by Billy Talent. Made more explicit in the music video. (He kills the band too.)
Myth and Legend
- Heracles, the archetype of testosterone-overdose, was cursed by Hera with a fit of madness, and he killed his wife Megara and all their children. As an indirect result, he ended up undergoing his famed Twelve Labors.
- ''Why We're Here'' is a Lovecraftian parody of the infamous Chick Tracts. In it, a good family man talks to Old Man Whateley who converts him to the Truth of the Cthulhu Mythos. The good family man promptly chops up his family with an axe to spare them from the horror of the Elder Gods.
- In a variant, Tristan apBlanc of Ravenloft caused the deaths of almost his entire immediate family: his sons by accident, and his foster mother and wife on purpose. He also sealed his daughter up in prison, although whether she dies there or not depends on the outcome of an adventure.
- In the New World of Darkness book Ghost Stories, one of the stories centers its background around the death of Thomas Moth's family. Supposedly, they were killed by the gardener Henry Creed. In truth, Moth killed his wife and children on discovering they were Henry Creed's children, not his. He then lynched Creed and spent the rest of his life as a broken recluse. The ghosts of Creed and Moth's slain family possessed the tree on which Creed was lynched, the primary antagonist of the story.
- The award-winning atmospheric H.P. Lovecraft pastiche Interactive Fiction game Anchorhead has this happen in Back Story to a distant relative of the player's husband. And he was doing them all a favor.
- God of War's Kratos killed his wife and child in a fit of battle rage induced by Ares. The subsequent nightmares drive him through the game's story and eventually cause him to leap off a tall cliff.
- In the mediocre game Spy Fiction, the villain, Scarface, married a female terrorist and had a son by her. Then he discovered she was a Double Agent killed her and shot his son in the head. The kid survived to become the other villain.
- In the video game The Suffering, main character Torque is sent to Abbott State Penitentiary on being convicted of killing his family. Of course, he doesn't remember doing it. The Multiple Endings reveal different circumstances of how his family really died, depending on your Karma Meter.
- Good: Blackmore hired thugs to do it after Torque stopped working for him. It wouldn't count normally but Blackmore is his Split Personality.
- Neutral: Torque accidentally killed his wife in an argument and his child who he beat killed the other one and then committed suicide.
- Evil: Torque killed them all himself, as in Torque and not Blackmore.
- In Dead Space 2, Nolan Stross killed his wife and child in a fit of madness induced by contact with the Aegis VII Marker.
- Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines had a quest in which the main character had to help exorcise a haunted hotel. The ghosts are from a family that was killed by the father in the 1940s when he became convinced a gift his wife received from her mother must have been from someone she was cheating on him with. It's pure Nightmare Fuel.
- Captain Brage in Baldur's Gate gets his hands on a cursed bastard sword, goes berserk and kills his family, along with several of his fellow officers.
- In the first Fatal Frame game, the Master of the Himuro Mansion goes insane when the Rope Maiden ritual fails, and he proceeds to kill not only his family, but the priests, the attendants, and everyone in the household not previously killed by the Dark. Then he becomes a ghost that continues to slay anyone who enters the Mansion.
- In the sequel to the flash game Exmortis You find the bodies of three children, a woman, and their father/husband. A revolver lays next to him with but one bullet remaining, and the blood splatter suggests he took his life. Oh, he also spells it out in a journal you find.
- Umineko: When They Cry. Hey, my successors are unworthy and I'm about to die. What is my choice of action? Gee, let's try slaughtering them all for a magic ritual to revive my dead witch lover. Good plan, Kinzo. Subverted when it is revealed that Kinzo was actually dead before any of the games started (and that only an Unreliable Narrator made him appear to be alive), and that he therefore never killed his family.
- Yousuke Suzumi kills his family after Saya operates with his brain, resulting that he can see the world like the protagonist does and that makes him insane. He believes that he kills two Eldritch Abominations.
- Joked about in at least one episode of Family Guy, in a cut away involving a couple in debt.
- The DeFeo Murders: On Wednesday, November 13th, 1974, around 3AM, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed both his parents, his two younger brothers and two younger sisters at their home in Amityville, New York. Reasons varied between "self defense" as he thought his family was plotting to kill him for some reason to being possessed by a supernatural entity. The murders are popularized by the The Amityville Horror series which depicts the horrific and supposedly true story of the Lutz Family who moved into the DeFeo home a year after the killings and experienced traumatic supernatural activty that, to this day, they feel is not worth mentioning.
- In 1905, Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray murdered his pregnant wife and their two daughters in a drunken rage after quarreling with his wife. The police soon discovered that Lanfray had drunk seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, a coffee laced with brandy, two creme de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe after eating lunch and before killing his family. Despite the fact that Lanfray had consumed a very large amount of alcohol, moral panic cited his consumption of absinthe as the sole motivator for the crimes. Not only was Lanfray found guilty of the murders, but the sensationalism of the case fueled the then-fledgling temperance movement, resulting in eventually getting absinthe banned, first in Switzerland in 1908, then soon after in most of Europe and the United States. As of 2011, these bans have largely been repealed.
- John List murdered his entire family rather than admit to them that he lost his job and that the family was in dire financial trouble. He went into hiding and adopted an alias and remarried and would have gotten away with his crime if not for America's Most Wanted doing a special on him.
- Another real life version was the tragedy surrounding professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and son then hanged himself using his weights machine. Exactly why it happened is not known, but a history of steroid use and some pretty significant brain injuries were likely involved, since the autopsy showed that "Benoit's brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient." Another reason would be the death of his best friend Eddie Guerrero, which was reportedly something he was never fully able to move on from.
- The father of Judith Barsi, young star of many a Don Bluth film, killed Judith and her mother, burned their house down, and shot himself. The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven, in which she voiced Ducky and Anne-Marie, respectively, were actually released posthumously.
- For a brief time in the fall/winter of '08/09 you couldn't watch TV for half an hour without hearing of some guy who lost everything due to the financial crisis and decided to off his family, random relatives, a few people at work, and finally himself.
- The Korean general Ge Baek did this becaue he was going out into battle and knew he would lose. He killed his whole family before he left to stop the enemy capturing them. In fact in Tae Kwon Do there is a pattern dedicated to him because of this.
- It's suspected that now-deceased James Matory did this to his wife Earlene Williams and their children Ivy Matory, Violet Matory, and Yolanda Marie Williams, along with a small boy staying over at the Matory/Williams household the evening of Earlene's murder, named Sir-Krisopher Clay Marshall (unrelated to the Matory/Williams family). The last time any of the children were seen was with James at a Denny's in the early morning hours of July 19, 1977. They have never been seen again and James was prosecuted for the four children's murders, but the outcome of that trial is unknown.
- Ronald Gene Simmons killed fourteen members of his family, eight of them his own children (and one them was also his grandchild.)
- A rare female example, Magda Goebbels killed her own children with poison while they slept, before she and her husband killed themselves as Berlin fell in 1945.
- A Japanese teacher commented (after 30 years of living in there) that suicide numbers in Japan would be a lot higher were family members dying via familicide counted. According to him, the most usual way is to clean the house, to get the family in the car, and have a fatal driving accident in steep mountains.
- Jean-Claude Romand: a French drop-out from medical school, managed to make everyone in his family believe that he was a doctor working for the World Health Organization. The biggest irony is that he was knowledgeable enough in medicine so that genuine doctors would not realize that he was an impostor when they spoke to him, making you wonder why he just did not just pass his exams and become what he claimed he was. He killed his entire family when he was about to be exposed.
- Cambodian immigrant Chhouy Harm, who had been struggling with schizophrenia and depression, killed her son in law and two of her granddaughters and injured her daughter in their West Seattle home, before taking her own life.
- Bradford Bishop is believed to have murdered his wife, mother, and three sons after not getting a promotion at work. The world may never know for sure if he did do it because he disappeared in 1976 long before the bodies were discovered and there hasn't been a sighting of him since 1994. If he is still alive, he'd be well into his seventies by now.
- The Celts used to do this if they lost a battle. The father would escape from the battlefield, come home, murder his wife and children before killing himself to prevent his family from being captured by the enemy.
- As did the Fenno-Ugric nations in the early Middle Ages. The Russian bylina stories are full of descriptions of mass murder-suicides by defeated Chuds.
- In 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal went berserk at a palace party, killing nine other royals (including his parents, the King and Queen, and two siblings) and wounding five more. He shot himself in the head, but survived three days in a coma, during which Nepal's constitution mandated that he be declared King, regardless of his invocation of this trope.
- Back in the early 20th century, Marty Bergen, a well-regarded catcher in Major League Baseball, murdered his entire family with an ax.
- Dateline once had an episode about a family where this happened. The father and most of the children were found dead in the house after a police stand-off. The father of the children ran the family as a small cult and believed he was the Second Coming of Jesus. The survivors were interviewed and said that their father actually told them to kill all small children and then themselves if the police ever found them.
- In early 2007, Thai businessman Boonchai Surawuthipong was in debt, and worried that the mafia would abduct his children. So he shot his wife, his three children, and himself.
- Another female instance: People's Temple member Sharon Amos killed her two younger children (ages 11 and 10), then convinced 21-year-old daughter Liane to assist her suicide before Liane's own death. Amos was convinced that she and her children would be murdered anyway as a result of the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan and members of his party at a nearby airstrip by People's Temple members. That assassination also triggered the mass murder/suicide at Jonestown. Since leader Jim Jones was considered a parental figure by his followers, he may well also qualify for this trope, especially since his own wife and several of his own children also died there.
- There was a rash of these in pre-Revolutionary America; in fact, it's from descriptions of the events that we get the term "family annihilator" to describe such scenarios.