“I kill therefore I am,” sang the late Phil Ochs, the Vietnam War-era protest singer. And throughout the history of media, writers, directors and producers have more than lived up to that credo.
With every generation, we think the next thing — be it comics, movies, television or video gaming — is the cause of growing teen and adult aggression and violence, whether real or imagined. Moral panic from politicians, hardly the epitome of ethicists, blows through like midday rains across the Caribbean. Yet some of that hard rain may hurt like hail.
The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that “there is no new thing under the sun,” and it may be that our seemingly unquenchable appetite for stories of mayhem echoes our perception of life itself, which 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes summed up as “nasty, brutish, and short.”
In the greatest story ever told, when Mel Gibson brought Latin back to life in “The Passion of the Christ,” he showed vividly what the New Testament witnessed in beatings, flagellation and crucifixion. No wonder that the less liturgical storytelling that followed bore a violent streak.
In ancient Greece, philosopher Plato was already worrying about the effects of Athenian theater on young people. Fast forward to Shakespeare, and illiterate audiences witnessed the spectacle of murders and sufferings in Richard III and King Lear, let alone the revenge play Titus Andronicus, in which the Bard depicted a bloodbath of murder, rape and mutilation, featuring a severed tongue, hands and heads. The Globe Theatre was indebted to the Roman Forum.
In modern times, the progenitor of slasher flicks was auteur Alfred Hitchcock, with whom a fascination with the craft of suspense produced a brief correspondence among the highlights of my childhood. The master studiously storyboarded almost unbearable tension and implied violence without actually showing it. Those of us old enough to have had nightmares about Norman Bates might swear his knife sliced more than a shower curtain. Those days are long gone.
While the “Saw” and “Hostel” movie franchises engaged in a race to the bottom of on-screen blood and guts, they were confined to the selective thrill of those moviegoers who craved more than just butter on their popcorn. Along came pay cable television, with the exploits of “Dexter” on Showtime and the rape, pillage and carnage of just ended “Game of Thrones” on HBO — and Hitchcock’s restraint was not even a shadow in the rear-view mirror. Video games followed suit, with our kids and teens shooting up everything in sight. War had come home.
Of late, Netflix wears the crown of Killer King, with a steady stream of gory violence, all too often committed against women. The intensity of its bingeing experience, coupled with its content, has alarmed students of violence in media. Of Netflix’s three most binge-watched series last year, two trafficked in violence and death: “Making a Murderer” and “13 Reasons Why.” Purdue professor Glenn Sparks offered The Washington Post a pungent analogy: “McDonalds used to make French fries with beef tallow because it tasted good. That didn’t mean they should continue serving it.”
A recent study by several major universities revealed a troubling tripwire: Google queries about suicide zoomed up nearly 20 percent in the weeks following the Netflix premiere of “13 Reasons Why.” Had its focus on suicide glamorized it?
There is an abundance of conflicting data and theorizing concerning media violence, and it is hard to say whether desensitization or even incentivization occur due to exposure to violent content. So-called social learning theory blamed modeling behavior, while later social cognitive theory cited desensitizing effects. But do any such theories add up to 1+1=2?
If media plus violence equals worsening real-world behavior, we have reason for concern. Broadcasting is subject to FCC review, yet 9-in-10 TV movies boast violent scenes, and network series are not much better; witness “CSI” on CBS. Despite the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system for theatrical releases, a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics reveals that gun violence in PG-13 films has more than tripled since 1985. MPAA’s devolution resembles shrinking the outfield to allow more homers.
I think back to Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” in 1969, and watching Vietnam on TV, and I wonder if the real world and the fictional one are a double helix or coincident train tracks leading to similar destinations.
One way or another, my unwillingness to endure the cruelties of “Game of Thrones” or even “CSI” and its ilk seems increasingly quaint and skittish. After all, Netflix has 60 million U.S. subscribers, yet the streets of America do not resemble AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
We can still change the channel and choose our poison. For myself, I read therefore I am. And no “true crime” books.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.