Film & TV

Films as Scapegoats: Violence in the Media

We look into the way violent media is blamed on violent crimes and if there’s a real reason to worry.

Everybody watches films. Not everybody shoots a child. A bit of an obvious statement you might think, but when it comes to violence in the media, everybody seems to have a PhD in Sociology. It seems as if every other week the news informs us of the latest mass shooting, more often than not, occurring in the so called Land of the Free. The long running argument has been that these acts of violence are all down to our exposure to violent scenes in the movies and television shows that we watch. These arguments are becoming more and more persistent, due to the belief that films are being made to display increasingly violent imagery. Looking at examples of ‘violence’ in old films compared with new releases actually solidifies this claim that we want more and more violence. Hitchcock’s Psycho, for instance, horrified viewers at the time with its infamous ‘shower scene’, but contemporary viewers are unlikely to bat an eyelid at it (and why should they, we don’t even see the knife touch her?!). It is therefore argued that the more violence shown onscreen, the more we become desensitized to it, and continually demand for more graphic and gruesome violence. Who knows, in years to come, Tarantino’s filmography may seem as violent as the fluffiest kitten video you can imagine! However, arguably this desensitization conditions us to accept violence as normal, leading to the recreation of such violent events in real life. While there may be some logic to this argument, it’s not as if after every episode of Game of Thrones we are all genuinely going to go out on a murderous rampage (even if certain character’s deaths in the show make us feel like it!) And yet the somewhat tedious debate goes on, making a pretty huge impact upon the film and TV industry.

But is there any truth to it? In film and TV, violence isn’t just reserved for the ‘baddies’; heroes are violent, resolving conflicts with the pull of a trigger. Rather than being condemned for their actions, they are rewarded. These are often the ‘heroes’ and role models of younger audiences; think of ‘The Avengers’. Therefore certain individuals may see this as a way of justifying violence against those who do them wrong. This is perhaps why so many reports of mass shootings and similar violent crimes describe the perpetrator as being a ‘loner’, ‘bullied’, or ‘misunderstood’, attacking those they believe have judged them. But maybe, it’s just because these people are psychopaths.

Without getting too bogged down in the statistics, there are some studies which do quite strongly suggest watching violence makes us act in an aggressive way for a short while after watching it. However, there are plenty of conflicting studies that brand such suggestions as incorrect. Is this not also the case with televised sporting events, with a favourite team losing leading to cases of domestic abuse? Obviously this is less about what you watch and more about what you are like as a person.

Even so, the news media jump on any chance to blame violent films for the murder of masses. One of the earliest examples of this, somewhat surprisingly, is a British crime; The Hungerford Massacre of 1987, in which Michael Ryan shot and killed 16 people, and seriously injured several others. Despite there being absolutely no evidence that he had ever seen the film, the press continually reported that the massacre was spurred by his obsession with the Rambo film First Blood. While the only connection between the two was that they both involve guns, the damage was done and the press have never been able to let go of the idea that violent films are inherently evil and to blame almost entirely for violent crimes committed by those under 25. Unlike our friends across the pond, the British learned from this tragedy and The Firearms Act was amended the following year to prevent similar massacres.

Another British violent crime that gained widespread notoriety and led to major changes for the film industry was the murder of Jamie Bulger. The media coverage that ensued following his death blamed the horror film Child’s Play 3 on the actions of the two ten year old boys who kidnapped, tortured and killed him. Again there was no evidence that the boy in question had ever seen the film, let alone been influenced by it. With crimes as horrific as this, violent films can perhaps be seen as a way of rationalising their behaviour, as it is far easier to blame their actions on a film than it is to accept that such young boys could do something so evil. Due to the media coverage and subsequent increase in the mass panic of the public concerning media violence, major changes were enforced for the BBFC’s rating system, with stricter classifications. This included a test to determine whether a film could cause ‘harm’ to the viewer; themselves, or other people through their actions.

Of course, this is now a much bigger issue in America, where guns are more or less freely available. While many famous cases like the Columbine High School Massacre and Sandy Hook school shooting use video games as the source of blame, others are more explicitly linked to films. The shooting that took place a few years back in Colorado, for example, saw James Holmes, the man who fatally shot twelve people and injured seventy at a screening of Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, welcome the comparison made between him and ‘The Joker’. Amazingly (in the ironic sense), this led to an increase of gun sales in the state, rather than enforcing stricter gun laws in the area.

The Columbine High School Massacre, while not blamed on films, nonetheless certainly impacted the film industry. Just six months after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed one of the worst school shootings in US history, ‘black comedy parody’ Duck! The Carbine High Massacre was released. I’m not sure poor taste and bad timing really quite cover it. But thus began the emergence of a growing number of indie films based around the events that occurred at Columbine. Some examples of these include Elephant, Zero Day, Home Room and April Showers, the latter of which is written and directed by a survivor of the Columbine massacre. Like all other violent media, these films garnered criticism and controversy, in these cases even more so, based on the influences of their content. And perhaps this was cause for concern. With the rise of online social media sites like Tumblr, groups of predominantly teenage girls have joined together as the self-defined ‘Columbiners’, who are obsessed with Eric and Dylan; dressing as them and posing with guns, drawing pictures of them and making ‘fan-edit’ videos of them with footage taken from the above mentioned films and various other documentaries on the massacre, such as Bowling For Columbine. Whether these individuals would actually carry out a similar attack is unknown, although they do discuss their plans to openly. While some women obsessing over serial killers (known as hybristophilia) isn’t a new concept, these films have certainly allowed for these ‘Columbiners’ to develop and express their obsessions, possibly even influencing them. Of course, for the vast majority of us, violent media will have no significant impacts, but it cannot be denied that with almost 200 shootings in schools in the US since Columbine, and counting, there may be reason to fear such films, particularly if potential attackers are viewing. That being said, the majority of the people who have committed these atrocities are all considered to be mentally ill, and to blame their actions on the films they watch and not the appalling lack of mental health care provision and refusal to make gun regulations far stricter is a tragedy.