I've seen several videos about pranks when someone dresses up as a zombie or other kind of monster, to scare people. I would assume that if such an actor dressed up as a monster suddenly attacks someone who out of sheer reflex harms the actor, then the victim of the prank is not culpable if a reasonable person would likely have reacted the same way (please correct me if I'm wrong). But if an actor dressed like a monster just wanders around the street, especially around Halloween, and is attacked by someone, then the attacker is culpable, as no reasonable person would have thought the actor was a threat. (please correct me if I'm wrong)

But let's consider the following scenario:

  • Alice has a close relative, or boyfriend, or someone she cares deeply about, let's call him Bob.
  • Alice thinks Bob is too lazy, too comfortable, and wants to enact a scenario to thrill Bob up a little, and make him more self-confident and courageous.
  • So Alice hires Darren who is a well known stage illusionist / prankster / movie director, to put Bob through a scenario which seems dangerous (but is actually harmless), in order to instill some courage in him.
  • Darren creates an elaborate setup, for example fake news broadcasts made specifically for Bob, movie props, a big cast of actors, stage illusion tricks etc. to make it seem like there is an apocalyptic scenario, or that mythical monsters are real, or something similar, and the scenario is so professionally done that most reasonable people would be convinced it is real.
  • Charlie is one of the actors hired for the show, and is dressed up as a mythical monster (zombie, vampire, lich, whatever) which reasonable people in real life know not to exist, but due to the elaborate setup mentioned above, Bob is gradually convinced is real.
  • Bob attacks and kills Charlie, sincerely believing Charlie to be the aforementioned mythical monster. During this, Charlie wasn't actively attacking Bob, it's Bob who sought out and hunted down Charlie.
  • Neither Darren, nor Charlie, nor Alice intended this to happen. In fact Darren made all reasonable precautions to prevent such accidents, but despite all these precautions the tragedy still happened. Darren is a professional who organized similar events previously, without a single previous incident.

Who is culpable for Charlie's death? What will the three of them be finally charged with?

Addendum : would it be different if Charlie hadn't played the role of a non-human, but a human instead (like an evil necromancer who is responsible for the apocalyptic scenario), so Bob killed him knowing he was a human but believing to be a threat to the whole world, and believing the scenario to be truly apocalyptic?

  • 5
    There's been cases of people being acquitted after shooting someone believing that the victim was an animal. eg. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Beth_Harshbarger nytimes.com/1990/10/18/us/…
    – Ross Ridge
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 18:49
  • 22
    I think an scenario where Charlie was dressed-up as e.g. an angry bear would be simpler than a lich.
    – Ángel
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 0:59
  • 4
    @Ángel +1. It may be too late to change the question without invalidating answers, but I think the legal debate would almost certainly hinge on the "reasonableness" of Bob's belief. "I thought I was killing a bear" is a vastly better defense than "I thought I was killing an undead vampire." Vice versa, if Darren staged an "elaborate setup," frankly, that would seem to place on Darren some of the liability for the mishap (especially if Darren was a licensed professional). Without the vampire business, we could eliminate Darren from the story entirely, right? Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 17:17
  • "which seems dangerous (but is actually harmless)" The scenario you describe is too elaborate to be harmless.
    – Mast
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 5:23
  • "Who is culpable for Charlie's death? What will the three of them be finally charged with?" Region specific.
    – Mast
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 5:25

4 Answers 4


Laws on self-defense vary greatly from nation to nation. Generally, one cannot hunt down a hypothetical threat but one can defend against an actual threat or even a mistakenly assumed actual threat where no actual threat exists. Alice set it up so that Bob would feel threatened.

In many jurisdictions, the self-defense defense for homicide rests on the state of the mind of the suspect, insofar as it can be determined, and failing that on a "reasonable person" standard.

  • Presumably Bob genuinely felt threatened by Charlie and says so afterwards. "I thought he/it/whatever was trying to harm me. I didn't know it was a harmless actor." Just how much harm Bob needs to make self-defense stick varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It could be fear of imminent, serious bodily harm, or fear of being victimized in any sort of crime (stand your ground laws).
    As the comment by user6726 points out, just protraying a zombie or whatever isn't enough, there has to be threat to Bob.
  • Bob cannot hunt Charlie down because Charlie "is" an evil lich or whatever. Bob can defend himself against attacks by Charlie and (in some jurisdictions) against intrusions by Charlie in his property. So it makes a difference if Bob hunts in his own backyard or further afield.
  • The well-documented and extensive efforts by Alice and Darren to fool Bob should support Bob's statement. Say the court/jury believes that it was reasonable (or at least "not entirely unreasonable") for Bob to be afraid.
  • Since the perceived self-defense would apply even if Bob thought the attacker was human, thinking that it was non-human should make little difference. Except that it would further showcase the degree to which Bob was fooled to see a threat.
  • If the whole endeavor by Alice and Darren broke laws, the death might fall into felony homicide in some jurisdictions. This one could come to technicalities because Bob wasn't their accomplice. Otherwise, Darren's track record might prevent the two from being charged for negligent homicide.

Consider the well-publicized cases where either the police or civilians shot unarmed people, and say that they thought the victim was armed and a threat to them. If doesn't matter if the victim drew a gun or a wallet, it matters if the shooter can make his or her fears plausible enough.

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    @user6726, If Bob thought that Charlie was threatening because he was a zombie, that would apply. But not if Bob thought that Charlie was threatening and a zombie. See my first bullet point regarding perceived threats.
    – o.m.
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 17:46
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    @user6726, right, but if I see an apparent assault by someone who looks like a zombie and no film crew, I should disregard the makeup/skin condition/whatever and act as if it was a human attacker. Otherwise all muggers would dress up as mummies.
    – o.m.
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 17:52
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    This is a great summary, but I think a crucial point is missing: if Bob wasn't currently under attack by Charlie, but he specifically went out to hunt down the "monster", like hoping he can catch it off-guard, couldn't then the prosecution argue against self-defense? In a normal situation if a mugger physically assaults you, you have the right to self defense, but if you just notice someone on the street who mugged you yesterday, you don't have the right to go up to him and stab him in the back.
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 18:23
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    I feel like this is missing something. If I hunt down and kill a lion, I am not guilty of homicide even if self-defense does not apply. (Guilty of a felony very probably, but not of homicide.) I think this needs to be addressed to handle the question "What will the three of them be finally charged with?": in case self-defense is found not to apply, what should be the charge for someone who hunted down and killed a (they believed) non-human zombie/vampire/lich? Does it depend on the fake news reports fed to Bob (e.g., if he was led to believe that zombies are mindless)? Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 1:31
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    @o.m. "I didn't tamper with the corpse, the corpse tampered with me!" Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 9:35

Something like this?

Darren organised a situation where he knew a fight or flight situation was likely - it is his responsibility to ensure the safety of all involved. This would also include a debrief afterwards to ensure no lasting mental damage to Bob.

The setting would need to be safe.

  • If Darren had left a dangerous weapon for Bob to get hold of then it is their fault.
  • If Darren didn't have security ready to step in at a moment's notice it would be his fault.

Defense against a monster or mythical creature based upon the good faith belief that someone really is a monster or mythical creature, would fail as a matter of law. The same analysis would apply where the human threat that someone believed that they were defending themselves against was purely supernatural.

The case would be evaluated under the standards applicable to self-defense against humans who cannot use supernatural powers, because no reasonable person could believe (as a definitional matter of law) that these were really monsters or mythical creatures or supernatural powers exist (unless an ordinary insanity defense could be proven which would have to show the existence of a pre-existing mental illness, typically schizophrenia, that made someone hallucinate about what was true or made them unable to distinguish between right and wrong). Self-defense is evaluated from an objective reasonableness standard, not a purely subjective one.

On the other hand, if the defense was against an ordinary dangerous animal, the person who used force could argue successfully to a jury (and leave the jury to decide) that they reasonably believed that it was a dangerous animal and that if it was, that their use of force was justified.

Also, even if their use of force against an apparent actual ordinary dangerous animal was not justified under that standard, they could argue that they lacked the requisite intent for a crime such as assault or homicide against a person, and might be guilty instead of the crime of attempted illegal hunting, or unjustified discharge of a firearm in public.

  • 1
    What if one knew the monster was not real and assume it was in fact a human BUT the hidden identity plus menacing nature justified the defendant's use of force. After all, we are talking about the most dangerous game here.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 15:15
  • @hszmv "The case would be evaluated under the standards applicable to self-defense against humans who cannot use supernatural powers"
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 15:16
  • Yeah, my first read through had me thinking more of the 2016 Killer Clown Sightings in the U.S. and what if someone reacted defensively to the perceived threat.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 15:24
  • "no reasonable person could believe " - do you really think no reasonable person could be convinced if a team of professionals conspiring with his family members did a long con, built up an elaborate setup, gradually prepared the scene, by manipulating the information received, using gaslighting and other manipulation techniques, gradually isolated the subject from the outside world so that at the end all people around were in the conspiracy, then used professional stage magic and special effects to fake the supernatural?
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 19:35
  • @vsz When the law uses the term "reasonable person" this is legalese code for not considering the subjective beliefs of the actual person in that situation and instead looking to what a typical person off the street would do in that situation. It is also a subtle but intentional tool that legal language uses to marginalize certain beliefs in certain contexts even if they are actually widely held. It doesn't literally mean, in a legal context, that no person is generally reasonable could actually believe something or do something. A "reasonable person" is more rational than real typical people.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 20:06

This answer is based on my recollection of a book I once read. I no longer have access to the book, and I don't remember clearly which jurisdiction it applied to, but I believe it is the United States.

In general you are legally allowed to respond with deadly force if:

  • You are in a place where you do not have to flee. Called the castle doctrine, it usually applies to your house. If someone intrudes into your house, you are allowed to respond with force, including with deadly force, as opposed to flee.
  • If the castle doctrine does not apply, then you are still allowed to respond with deadly force if you genuinely believe your life is in danger. For example, if someone attacks you with a gun or knife, you are allowed to kill them. Note the limitations: as the gun is being drawn you are allowed to kill them; if they shoot, miss, drop the gun and run, you are NOT allowed to kill them.

Note one thing about these laws: they don't apply to only humans. You are also allowed to kill e.g. a dog if it attacks you in your house.

The upshot is, Bob is allowed to kill Charlie if 1) Charlie is unlawfully in his abode, or 2) Bob legitimately believes his life is in danger. Therefore the key part of your question is this one:

During this, Charlie wasn't actively attacking Bob, it's Bob who sought out and hunted down Charlie.

If Bob is doing this then neither 1) nor 2) apply. What he did is illegal, and he is culpable.

  • 3
    Some jurisdictions allow you to lethal force for the protection of others, if you believe that they're at risk of lethal injury. Hunting down a zombie to stop of a zombie apocalypse would probably count, though I'm not a lawyer.
    – nick012000
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 5:50
  • You aren't "allowed to kill them". You are allowed to use lethal force, which may cause death. If you shoot them and they drop, you can't shoot them again to secure a kill.
    – forest
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 3:53
  • @forest : but you are (under certain circumstances and in certain jurisdictions) allowed to kill wild animals, even if it's not in self-defense.
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 10:45

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