Last month, while at work on a sunny spring morning, a co-worker stood up and somewhat haltingly announced there had been at least one explosion at a marathon that was going on downtown. Instinctively a few of us went to Twitter to search for any additional news. The pictures that we found online in the first ten minutes after the initial reports of explosions were far more gruesome than most horror movies or television shows available.
In the days and weeks after the blasts we all processed it as best we could, employing coping skills dusty with disuse. The news ran around the same facts over and over. Slogans were invented. Charities were established. The President made a speech. Then, in the middle of it all, a few television shows decided against airing their planned weekly content “out of respect.” “Hannibal” ended up not airing their episode at all, despite making it available on iTunes. (I’m pretty sure it was about kids who had been brainwashed to become mini terminators for a serial killer’s casual use. I haven’t researched it fully, because I’m behind, and don’t want to accidentally spoil anything for myself.) “Castle” showed a rerun, but then ran the episode this week with a warning preceding it stating that it might be disturbing for some. (A guy was blown up in his car by a bomb, or a drone or something else with ‘splodey powers. The government was involved.) The bottom line was, someone somewhere at the network thought we were too fragile to handle their violent make believe stories.
That bothered me. Not the content or the casual death being portrayed, but the fact that TV execs suddenly felt the need to shield us from it. In my mind, you can’t have it both ways. Either the content of your show should be acceptable for viewing, or it isn’t. Proximity to actual violence shouldn’t matter. Why is it OK to make entertainment out of violent acts and gore normally, but then the same is somehow inappropriate following real life examples that hit close to home? Shows like “CSI” and “Law and Order” regularly dive into the deep end of the horror pool and reliably contain imagery of violent acts rendered in glorious HD. “Criminal Minds” is a poor man’s primer for the many deviant ways you can snuff out a life. Yet, when confronted with the reality of similar actions in a way that touches us personally, the artificial depictions make us uncomfortable and uneasy. If such content isn’t acceptable viewing material during the moments following a crisis, should it be a part of our regular entertainment diet at all?
It could be that the pretend violence is easier to separate ourselves from. It doesn’t happen to real people in real places that we’ve actually been. A nameless starlet laying filleted open on an autopsy table we can forget about at night. People in real pain, and suffering real anguish is much more visceral and will keep us awake into the wee hours. They’re different, but similar enough that when we hold the two too close together the overlap of fantasy and reality is jarring. In that sense, I can understand the logic in holding off on airing a particularly violent episode or one where a fireball takes a life too close in time to its real life analogue. When people are trying to heal from a trauma it may not be the brightest idea to casually tell stories about similar violence and in doing so, pick an emotional scab off a wound that still smarts. But is that actually the right thing, the healthy thing to do?
Stephen King once described viewing horror and violent media as “lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.” King is of the opinion that while disturbing, the violent media we consume can actually be cathartic. That, while not socially acceptable, we all have homicidal tendencies. It’s only the degree to which we can subjugate these desires that keeps us from ending up in jail or on the funny farm. Violent or disturbing entertainment gives those negative feelings a chance to stretch their legs and walk around without affecting your every day life. It’s letting pressure off an emotional valve that we all have, but are ashamed to show in public. In that sense, the folks at NBC and ABC may have actually done us a disservice by withholding those particular episodes. It may have actually been a help to see a bad guy blow up something, unravel his motivations for doing so and then watch him suffer the long arm of the law. Not only would it scratch a dark communal itch, but it would reinforce the notion that those who do travel too far down that dark path eventually find punishment and retribution waiting for them.
All of this discussion is pointless however, if we don’t believe that the media we absorb affects us in a real and tangible way. My opinion on this particular point has been informed more by my experiences than any academic arguments.
Once upon a time I was employed by a local news station as a reporter and video editor. When your job occasionally requires you to more or less race first responders to scenes of violence or people in peril, at some point you’re going to win that race and see something graphic. I have a vivid memory of standing around in the newsroom during a break one evening and listening to the other more seasoned reporters and anchors all tell their “first time I saw brains” stories in the same tones one might use to describe a particularly distasteful meal. A few months later I responded to a shots fired report in an apartment complex a few blocks from the studio. As I pulled up, it occurred to me that while there was a single police cruiser on scene already, neither officer was actually doing anything. I climbed out of my news vehicle and walked around the cruiser toward the open door of a ground floor apartment. As I rounded the rear of the car I became aware of a large amount of blood in the doorway. Then I saw the slumped figure, the gun and the result of a life of depression and helplessness ended in a final act of desperation. Later that night, as I poured an adult beverage to unwind after work, I was struck not by the memory of a life spilled unceremoniously across a dilapidated doorway but by the lack of emotional response that it registered with me. I should be traumatized, disturbed by the fragility of life and shaken by the very real violence. Right?
I called a good friend. He was someone I trusted, and also an EMT. Is this normal? Was something wrong with me? Is it possible I could be a sociopath? He assured me that, no, I was likely not a psycho-in-waiting and he had gone through the same thing the first time he had to deal with the messy end to what had previously been a life. But why didn’t it bother me? It should right? His answer stuck with me.
“I’m not comfortable saying this, because it aligns me with people like Tipper Gore, and I’m not entirely OK with that but … I think what we watch and the violence we find in video games and movies really does wear something down inside of us. It should be more shocking, but it isn’t.”
When Tipper argued in front of Congress that violent music could beget violent acts, was she right? I think not. There’s a large gap between seeing or hearing something depicted and going out to try it for yourself. At the same time, I do think shows like “Dexter” and “Hannibal” probably serve to dull some our initial revulsion to violence and tragedy. I remember thinking as I surveyed the scene at the apartment complex, “You know what? The movies and games mostly got it right.” It looked very much like something I could stumble across while channel surfing on a lazy afternoon. Would I have had a stronger reaction if I hadn’t seen similar scenes on “The Sopranos” and “The Wire?” I don’t know. Is watching death and destruction damaging to our cumulative sensitivity to the rest of humanity, or an escapist release? I don’t know. I know I enjoy programming that would probably traumatize my parents. I know artistically, there are times that carnage can serve a storytelling purpose. And I know that when confronting it in my real life, “that looks like a movie” was one of the first thoughts in my head.