Dining on Death.
A few years ago when my children were smaller and tucked safely into bed I decided to while away the luxury of free time one evening by settling into the sofa to watch some television; my shows, uninterrupted by spouse or kids.
I flipped threw the evenings offerings: Two, a show about twin brothers; one a serial killer, the other twin running from place to place trying to avoid being blamed for crimes he didn’t commit. Another station featured Millennium a show about a rogue psychic FBI agent who also tracked serial killers. Yet another station featured the stories of real serial killers, from the past and those who still kill among us.
I continued to flip the channels. There was a show about the sex crimes unit of a police station. Several police procedurals shows actually dominated the dial. I had little to choose from that didn’t involve the violent death or abuse as the plot of every story.
Oh there were the mindless sitcom fare; but mostly I noticed that if you include the evening news hour, we are literally dining on death for entertainments sake. Gnawing on the bones of life, filling our minds with the stories littered with mutilation and murder, simply to while away our leisure time.
With that realization, something in me had shifted. At first I thought it was the hormone prolactin that had softened my brain. Nursing mothers have these prolactins coursing through their veins triggering the letdown sensation in the breasts when the milk flows. So I wonder if the chemicals in my mother’s brain soften my thinking so that images of death, the abuse of men, women, and children being used to drive the plot of a story became repugnant? Is it the programming or biology at work?
My loathing for the blood soaked path that leisure entertainment was taking me culminated in the episode of a police procedural where the detectives were to solve the murder of a young pregnant woman whose fetus was cut out of her. I didn’t watch. I decided that we have collectively lost our minds and that 15th century painter; Hieronymus Bosh was running the asylum from the astral realm.
Our fascination with the dark side has always been with us from Beowulf to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But these works and films made from horror were meant to educate us. It didn’t take long for the blood letting in film to begin to stimulate and fascinate the viewer. That rush of fear, adrenaline coursing through the body, is addictive. It appealed to the same part of our brain that causes us to slow down as we pass an accident; our come out of our house when we hear a fire engine siren wailing as the truck roars down our block
Thinking back to that nights dismal choice of television shows I thought I could trace it’s crass beginnings to the 70’s, a decade that spawned slasher films.
I couldn’t bring myself to sit through one at the movies. It wasn’t just the blood, the screaming all contrived for entertainments sake; most of the story was stupid and the acting wretched. Much of the movies were the same. A group of teenagers with the occasional movie about a disparate group of adults being terrorized and picked off one by one until a hero and possibly a heroine is left. The audiences that fed on these films were mostly teenagers. But they grew up. I suspect the audience craved more and bigger thrills and chills as they aged.
This escalation of gore plateaued in the 80’s and 90’s with movies that kept reinventing ways to kill, with chainsaws, nail guns, and many, many rounds of ammunitions. On TV or in the movies you can see people die or be tortured to death in as many ways and many times as there are writers and directors. Immolation anyone? Not only did the audience love it, but the characters in the stories did too, homicide made justifiable through revenge.
The other popular police procedural that spawned clones is the CSI series. If the viewing public is bored with watching crimes being committed it can now teleport virtually into the body as it’s being destroyed. Through the miracle of computer generated special effects. No longer satisfied with externals we can now travel the course of a fatal gun shot as the bullet penetrates the body, In living color though tissue, vessels and organs.
We are also treated to endless laboratory scenes where evidence is processed, both fibers metals and flesh and all the residue of flesh, particularly sperm and vaginal secretions where they look for sperm.
These clinical scenes serve to distance the viewer from the dead person who served as the plotline of the story. How they died and who raped, tortured and or killed them is turned into a test tube investigation. The viewer can watch as the technicians make practical use of the blood and guts and prints to solve the crime.
In the end it’s all rendered digestible. If you watch enough of these stories they become the only stories being told. The only way to tell any kind of story in fact has to be through some kind of death, tragic, accidental or criminal.
When a new show debuts, say Criminal minds, a series about the Behavioral Science section of the FBI, the feature often focuses on the mind of the criminal. The creators of these kinds of show treat serial killers like rock stars. What makes them tick is now an interesting piece of entertainment. Is it know wonder these aberrant human beings love attention? They certainly obtain just that by being featured weekly on television.
I was in the gym recently eves dropping on a conversation between two 30 something soccer moms. Their conversation revolved around kids, house, husband just as I was about to climb onto to the elliptical trainer I over heard one woman say to the other, “I’m not going anywhere tonight, the new season of Dexter starts” where by her companion queries: “Isn’t that the show about a serial killer who kills bad guys?” “Yeah, and he usually cuts off their limbs, you know while there still alive, so they can suffer…” I was horrified that these two young mothers were dining on death, cheering the creative talents of a serial killer; hero or anti-hero who relishes his job.
We are not sparing our children but cultivating in them, through cartoons, the taste for blood and righteous violence. I remember seeing the Jungle Book, a Disney cartoon in the theater when I was a child. During the climax of the the man eating Tiger, Shere Kan is chased away by Mowgli , the boy hero of the cartoon. In subsequent Disney stories. Lion King, for example, fratricide is introduced when Scar kills Mufasa, driving away his son and nephew cub, Simba. A grown up Simba later returns to kill his uncle Scar. This is not Hamlet for children..
Ironically much adult backlash resounded with the introduction of a cheaply produced children’s show called Barney featuring the ubiquitous purple dinosaur of that name. Preschoolers loved the show and the simple theme song. Adults and almost everyone over the age of 8 wanted him dead. Why such a violent hatred for a creature singing about love and friendship?
How does it serve children to whose brains are not fully developed enough to process complex action and it’s consequences, to watch endless stories laced with cruelty and murder
“I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family…” is the entire emotional and psychological world for children 4 and under.
In this the age of remade movies I think of one film whose moral message stays with me still. Cape Fear, staring Gregory Peck in the old version and Nick Nolte. The movie is about a lawyer (played by Peck and Nolte respectively), who’s being stalked by an ex con he defended when the con is released from prison.
The confrontation between the two ends differently in each film. Gregory Peck’s character has the ex con played by Robert Mitchem on the ground, his hands around the man’s throat (or is it a gun to his head) The ex con is goading him; “do it, go ahead, do it.” Gregory Peck’s character hesitates. No he says if I do this, then I’ll become like you or no better than you”
In the Nolte updated story, the convict is threatening both the wife and the daughter with emotional and psychological violence. This causes lawyer Nolte’s character to respond with equal violence, killing the convict.
The first version of the story had greater impact on me than the second. Perhaps it’s because I don’t want to become like them. I don’t want to feel jazzed up from killing or punching out someone no matter how loathsome they appear.
A while back, actress Kim Bassinger lost a lawsuit for pulling out of the film, Boxing Helena, breaking her contract. She objected to the story she was to star in. The story was subsequently made staring some other actress. But the loathsome plotline that offended her sensibilities was maintained. On the video box cover, the film is said to be about a doctor so obsessed with a woman that he amputates her limbs and keeps her in a box. I can barely type this idea much less pay to see such a thing in the theatre or rent it from the video store.
Follow that movie with the slew of Quentin Tarentino movies that feature so called hi brow intellectual violent satire or Sin City, a movie about an imaginary world/ underworld taken from the comic book of the same name, where the colors came from the blood spilled through out as the characters massacre each other and the conclusion I’ve come to is this: our diet of depravity is numbing our minds and hearts to the real life atrocity that goes on in the world.
Why do we watch? The Greeks had actors in plays so that the audience could empathize with the emotions being expressed, acted out. Who today wants to empathize again and again with fear and horror? What happens to the body/ mind neural pathways hard wired to receive these emotions in their chemical form? Do we burn out our neurons or build more to receive bigger and bigger charges? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; Eleanor Roosevelt’s haunting reminder is now a warning. Are we in fact creating areas of the brain that craves depravity in all its escalating gore, for mere amusement?
Now I think I understand why the Roman’s built the coliseum.
What would I like to see instead? Well, first of all I’d like to see television shows where building something, creating a new civilization or discovering one is the main thrust of the story. There’s plenty of drama to be had with out dropping a corpse into the midst. Instead, try creating anything from nothing as every author staring at a blank screen or every artist staring at a blank canvas or block of clay does and you discover quite quickly how much blood sweat and tears go into a project. I’d rather let my mind feast on that.