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The Movies Made Me Do It: Media Sensationalism and the Influence of Violence on Behavior…

I had the good fortune to watch the first three films in the Scream series last week, and it was quite an entertaining little experience. Well, mostly – the third one kinda sucks, but let’s not get into that here. I picked up on quite  few things I’d missed the last time I’d seen them, about seven or eight years ago, and one of the most interesting themes played with over the course of the series was the idea that violence in films serves as some sort of influence on kids, desensitising and even encouraging the practice of violence upon others. It’s a fascinating topic, one that I personally feel quite strongly about – but, at the same time, it’s a subject so big and so controversial that it’s probably quite difficult to make a new or witty observation upon. Still, the films inspired me to revisit the premise, and to ponder to myself.

A taste for violence?

It’s fascinating how the older generation – the parents, so to speak – fret and worry over teenage rebellion. It seems to have always been the way, as concerned moral guardians protested Elvis Presley’s thrusting hips on the Ed Sullivan Show, or even worried about late fifties cinema provoking teenage rebellion. To quote Marginal Conventions: Popular Culture, Mass Media, and Social Deviance:

In the 195os, the relatively new concepts of “teenager” and “juvenile delinquent” appeared simultaneously on our symbolic landscape. They were often used interchangeably and freely associated in the media. The message seemed to suggest that without careful parental vigilance the teen would become the deliquent. Films such as Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Ones blurred the distinction between the good and bad teen implying that all teens lacked an internal moral code and therefore needed external control and discipline.

Of course, this moral panic was only heightened by events like the Starkweather murders, in which the young man and his teenage girlfriend embarked on a wave of killings through America, carving out a niche in the American popular consciousness, to the point that any film featuring a young murder and a female companion in a car in America undoubtedly brings up the comparison. The media was quick to leap to conclusions:

Charlie Starkweather – who famously idolized the beautiful agony of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause – was for a time in the late 1950s the definitive emblem of America’s fear of the emerging teenage cult(ure)that emerged from postwar wealth and the availability of easy vehicular transport. His series of victims – Fugate’s family, a ‘model’ couple from the next town over, an established citizen and family in their elegant townhouse – seemed to escalate as a symbolic attack on the prevailing mores of conservative rural America. He transgressed moral law and physical space, using the anonymous national highway system to evade the massive manhunt out for him and to find victims. Discourse in newspapers focused on Starkweather’s connection to the moral panics of the time: comic books, rock and roll, obsessive car culture.

So this sort of moral concern and panic, linking violence in real life (especially among children) to violence and rebellion presented in film is not a new thing. Long before discussions over the horror of Columbine or debates over Grand Theft Auto, this idea was ticking away at the back of the American subconscious – this notion that their children were being taken from them, and corrupted.

Was the outlook always this Stark?

It’s a frightening thought, that loss of influence and control. The idea that the person for whom you hold a special responsibility might lose their way – there’s bound to be a strange feeling of powerlessness created by those circumstances. Indeed, even beyond the parents in that particular case, it’s easy to understand why entire communities can feel a sense of shared responsibility for the children in their care. As the old adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child.

So the perceived rise in violence among children scares us. We are genuinely terrified of the youngsters who live in our neighbourhoods. The instances of high school shootings in America, and any number of high profile murders in the United Kingdom, have demonstrated that children are constantly at risk – no longer just from deranged adults, but from those in their same age group. I thought one of the smarter things about Wes Craven’s Scream was that the killers were of the same age group as the victims – it really tapped into that cultural sense of fear we have of the youth gone wild, running out of control.

Do we like scary movies a little too much?

Surely, as these are kids in our neighbourhoods, towns and even families, we find it impossible to understand how things got so bad. Why did we need to invent ASBOS and why is “hoodie” a dirty word? Why do we cross the street when we see a bunch of youngsters approaching? Surely the very fact that they’ve been transformed into creatures we fear, and are completely alien, must be explained somehow. The obvious suggestion is an introspective look at the environments where we raise kids, shifting cultural norms and changes in the perception of children (and their rights) – in sort, to question how we as a society raise kids.

However, that fear is too tough to handle. And understandably so. In the wake of murder and death, nobody wants to look in the mirror and blame themselves. I certainly wouldn’t want to face the possibility that there’s something I could have done that might have prevented the tragedy from ever occurring. So we do what society does best: we externalise the threat.

See you in your dreams...

I think this is part of the appeal of the horror genre as a whole. The fact that there’s always some supernatural explanation or justification for the monsters – even if the explanation is that there is no explanation. It allows us to project our fears on to something distinct and different, and then vanquish it. So, instead of facing the crushing sense of urban isolation, we make Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Instead of movies about horrible people who appear normal, we make movies about physically deformed monsters. We look to make the world different than how it is, by making it something outside our society – rather than a problem with society itself.

So we blame movies and video games for corrupting our kids. They are obvious choices, to be fair. After all, in an era where parents spend less time with their children than ever, many families count on multimedia to raise their kids – acting as child-minder, companion and baby-sitter. Kids spend more time with television than ever before, so if an evil influence creeps into their life, it must be through that little box. That mustbe where the evil comes from.

Television coming to get our kids?

I don’t buy the explanation, as comforting as it would be to believe. We live in a world so quick to look for an outside force as the root of all corruption that they don’t always even get the facts straight. Nevermind that films (and video games) violent enough to suggest these sorts of horrible actions should never find their way into the hands of children – that is why we have age ratings, after all. If they somehow do… well, then that is our failing, too. We shouldn’t allow kids to watch those films. And by we, I mean parents and guardians.

However, we teach children from an early age to distinguish fact and fiction, fairy tales and reality. No kid old enough to watch television believes in witches who live in forests, or pigs who build houses, or wolves who dress up as grannies. If a person can’t tell the difference between a fictional construct and reality, there are more fundamental issues at play than the content of the movie or video game. There was something wrong to begin with. Perhaps it should have been caught – perhaps it couldn’t have – but there was a fundamental problem.

Is this where the argument falls down?

I don’t believe for a moment that stopping, for example, people who go on shooting sprees from watching Falling Down will stop them going on their rampage. I don’t believe that a kid who wants to murder his classmate will be unable to figure out how if he didn’t see Nightmare on Elm Street. You might argue that the increase in instants like this in recent times points to the fact that something has changed in society’s make-up, and that is somehow related.

I’d agree, but I don’t think violence is that thing. Perhaps it’s the fact that corporal punishment is on the decline, and parents cannot figure out how to impose discipline. Perhaps it’s the way that children are handled in such a cautious and sterile manner by authority figures, following endless scandals and embarrassments. Perhaps it’s the fact that parents are working longer hours, and don’t have time to connect with their kids as they used to. Perhaps it’s the fact that weapons like guns and knives are easier to get ahold of. Perhaps it’s the news media constantly drawing attention to incidents like this. I’m not suggesting any of the above is actually a contributing  factor, but they help underscore just how much society has changed.

Still not as scary as Mike Myers' last few films...

If we have more reason to fear our kids now than ever before, there are an infinite number of possible factors. Personally, I think it’s just a combination of a whole host of different ones. Studies on violence and behaviour have proven, time and again, inconclusive. At the very least, making the connection so strongly that it sounds like fact is just a little disingenuous. Maybe moral panic just sells papers.

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