Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Pop culture violence: Why do we crave it?

In an editorial in today's New York Times, screenwriter Mike White ("School of Rock," "Year of the Dog") put an interesting insider spin on an old debate. He wrote:

"Hollywood and defenders of violent films dismiss Virginia Tech as a 'unique' event, arguing that Mr. Cho was profoundly alienated from our culture, not at all a product of it. They assert that there are law-abiding, sane American moviegoers who love the thrill of a visual bloodletting, and then there are mentally disturbed people like Mr. Cho, constitutionally wired to do damage — and never the twain shall meet.

"These commentators insist there’s no point debating which came first, the violent chicken or her violent representational egg, since no causal link has ever been proven between egg and chicken anyway. Besides, violent images can be found everywhere — on the news, in great art and literature, even Shakespeare!

"For those who believe that violence in cinema consists of either harmless action spectacles or Martin Scorsese masterpieces, I might suggest heading down to the local multiplex and taking a look at some of the grotesque, morbid creations being projected on the walls. To defend mindless exercises in sadism like 'The Hills Have Eyes II' by citing 'Macbeth' is almost like using 'Romeo and Juliet' to justify child pornography."

Maybe what we need to figure out as a society is not whether we have too many guns (we do, but it's a little late to do much about it) or violent movies (the First Amendment), but why we are drawn to them.

It's always been my theory that the creators of most teen slasher movies are people who were picked on or marginalized in high school. After all, the victims are always the hunky jocks and the gorgeous cheerleaders, dispatched in grisly fashion.

And you can go from there to video games. When you think about it, Seung-Hui Cho's recent rampage at Virginia Tech wasn't really the act of a sadistic, psychotic killer -- that would be Dennis Rader, the notorious BTK strangler, who reveled in killing his victims slowly. Cho's killing spree was more akin to a video game come to life, rounds fired off so quickly that it was if a clock was ticking down somewhere in the computer of his brain. These weren't human victims as much as they were simply targets, which made the carnage even more horrifying.

It extends further. The next time you're in a drug store or grocery store, check out the paperback book rack. I did, the other day, and found that literally eight out of 10 of the books on display involved murder of some sort, either a mystery or a serial killer shocker. And the CSI shows still rule network TV.

Everybody enjoys a scary read, and movie-goers will always revel at seeing stuck-up people get their comeuppance. When you're a teenager, it's great fun to shoot things on a video screen. But what is there in our makeup that seems to require dramatic bursts of blood to make the experience complete?

It seems to me that we need to find out.

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