GRATUITOUS TV AND MOVIE VIOLENCE

Does TV violence make society more violent for real? Is there too much gun-play, knife wielding, rape, and murder on television and at the cinema? Many Humanists would seem to think so. When the Manchester Humanists held a meeting on PORNOGRAPHY in 1998 one complaint was that the depiction violence was a worse problem than the depiction of naked people making love. Indeed my own XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS article linking the exploits of a mythical warrior woman on a popular TV show to Humanism, left one member simply Ďaghastí at the very suggestion that we should be mentioned in the same breath as a show that features so much fighting and swordplay.

The aim of this article is to redress the balance somewhat and argue a case in favor of at least some depictions of violence in the entertainment arts. In many ways the odds of my success seem initially slim. The case against the depiction of violence in the media is well known. Here it is in digest -


There is a lot of violence and street crime in the world as it is without depicting more of it on TV and encouraging more of it. There is too much violence, often depicted graphically, in sickeningly realistic close up detail, and much of it is gratuitous. If you cut out much of the fight scene, you would not actually affect the understanding of the story being told at all. Many impressionable children believe what they see on TV, and will sometimes imitate a violent scene, or try to re-enact stunts seen on TV. Some unpleasant, impressionable people will be inspired by a memorable murder or rape act depicted on film, and may try to copy it on real people. For some people, violence may becoming an attractive sexual fetish, a turn on and a thrill in its own right. Rumours of the existence of snuff movies are rife. These involve film, or video footage of some poor victim(s) abducted, and tortured slowly and agonizingly to death (possibly with dismemberment, unanaethetised castration, and all the instruments of a medieval inquisitional torture chamber or Gestapo interrogation booth used along the way) in front of the camera, and the film footage then selling at high price on the black market.


Snuff movies remain a major myth of the late 20th century. Despite the aforementioned rumours, police investigations have yet to uncover any genuine snuff movie material. What do exist are video films of real life disasters, such as planes crashing at air shows, etc, in which people have perished. There are many such films available, and some even appear on TV. This is not new practice. We have all no doubt seen footage of wartime ship sinkings, and the famous film footage of the Hindenberg airship crash that also involved real deaths. These are not to be confused with Ďsnuffí movies.

TV shows about real life disasters, i.e.; 999, Rescue, and Americaís 911 generally show only cases where the victims have survived the car crashes, sinking ships, house-fires, etc. Generally, there is a reluctance to show us death and mayhem that explicitly when it happens for real.


Catharsis - Work and life in general cause stress and frustration. A good way to ease such stress is through cathartic releases of angry energy. This is why many people enjoy physical sports, i.e. boxing, football; etc. Notice in such events that the crowd is often as frenzied and excitable as the fighters and players themselves. The audience is effectively releasing its inner fury and frustration onto the action and actors themselves. As you can see from my ANTI-SPORT article, I hate boxing for precisely the reason that it involves people genuinely hurting one another. My inner tensions in effect require alternative means of release. In Japan, I would be able to work for a company who allow employees to enter a room containing inflatable models of the bosses which they can use as punchbags to release their frustrations of the day. Here, in the U.K. we are less enlightened. My own anger, and no human or humanist is without such a force inside them at some time (even Gandhi) can find some release in watching artificially created violence, where actors pretend to fight, and the knives, guns, etc, are make belief. This is what Aristotle called Catharsis; a way of empathizing your emotions to a depicted or dramatized situation. Comedy drama brings out the lighter, happier emotions; tragedy-drama allows us to explore our darker feelings, and nobody gets hurt for real, unlike with boxing. Wrestling, of course is widely believed to be fixed, as a competitive sport, and is in reality mere choreography and dance, but the pretense to reality is such a deception as to make wrestling leave me emotionally cold.

Escapism is another important keyword in the use of dramatized violence. We know that it is not real, but a fictional event we are seeing. The more fantastic and surreal and allegorical the violence depicted the more we are aware of this; in a film such as The third Evil Dead movie where the hero replaces a severed arm with a chainsaw, and battles skeletons that talk, and swear as he mows them down in droves, we are well aware that the violence, for all its extremity is somehow detached from the real world, and this helps us enjoy it more. What therefore can be said for stories such as The Silence Of The Lambs (about two serial killers) where the violence seems often plausible, realistic and closer to actual social events?

The real life murderer fascinates the human psyche. Jack The Ripper appeals in some ways to our imagination for two reasons; his anonymity and his ingenuity in evading capture. We want to know what makes a human being commit such atrocious offenses. We ask ourselves what might have gone through the mind of a serial killer to make him act so, and a film like Silence Of The Lambs gives us an opportunity to explore the mind of a killer in such a way. The violence the killers commit is necessary because that is what such killers do; and the film promises and attempts to deliver insights into the psychology of such individuals. The TV series Cracker attempts a similar exercise. The violence disturbs us, yes; but at the same time, we want to see what lies behind such actions. Short of meeting a killer face to face, which would be too problematic and traumatic for us anyway) such a drama, safely trapped on celluloid or behind a cathode Ray tube on TV, shows us what might be involved. Such an exercise is valuable. This, whether escapist, as in Xena, or realistic, as in the truth based Henry; Portrait Of A Serial Killer, violence on TV or in films has some value.

Naturally we do not wish to frighten our children with such as Henry; Portrait of a Serial Killer, so such films are rightly given an X certificate and designated strictly adult viewing. TVís watershed rulings work relatively well; pushing programs containing Ďadultí content to post 9 PM viewing slots to prevent children seeing them. Parents should of course monitor what their children watch, both during TV transmission, and from any videos stored in the home. They should also be cautious about what other parents have on TV when their children go to visit and play at neighbor and friendsí houses.

Children can be gullible and will sometimes mimic TV action scenes; yes, but few come to harm. It does happen. You here occasionally of some poor child convinced he is Superman hurling himself out of a high rise window only to discover too late that he canít defy gravity as his hero can. Many shows come with a closing narrative voice over telling kids not to imitate stunts and fights staged on the show. Again, parental education should help children distinguish between reality and fantasy. When my nephew, then aged seven became scared of ghosts after catching a glimpse of the film Poltergeist on TV; I demonstrated to him that this was only on TV by having him touch the screen and walk round it; I had him tell me of something he knew didnít exist; he did so; I told him the film makers had made the story up just as he had invented his pink giant hippopotamus. With such examples, he soon learned the difference between TV ghost an d real ones, and slept well, probably disappointed that such things were not infesting his house.

There are many sad and sick individuals who may well get some jollification from re-enacting a TV act of violence on someone in the street. Deprive them of the TV scene that inspired them, and they will probably look elsewhere or find some such deed in their own dark imagination anyway. They may go into a garden and see a spider catch a fly and get their murderous ideas straight from there; worse; extreme censorship of violence could have the same effect as prohibition had on alcohol sales, and create an underground culture for black market violence. We may not like boxing, but it is better than unlicensed gloves off street fighting with bare knuckles. Those who call for an end to TV violence may well provoke the creation of the very snuff-movie culture they half-imagine exists already.

Violent fiction is not new. Youíd think film and TV invented it. Far from it. Most children first see violence in street entertainments such as Punch And Judy puppet Shows. Here, Punch beats up his wife, the baby, the dog, a crocodile, the policeman who comes to arrest him, the judge who sentences him and the hangman who ends up hanged instead of him. His anarchic hedonism simply brings tears of laughter to the audience, and few children then go home to commit similar atrocities do they? The fairy stories we were raised on were and still are incredibly violent. In the original version of The Three Bears, Goldilocks is eaten by the bears. In Hanzel and Gretal, a cannibalistic witch tries to fatten two children up as food, only to perish in her own oven. Humpty Dumpty involves the depiction of a fat bald figure tumbling to his gory death, but it never compelled any child learning his rhyme to push bald fat people off walls, for fun, did it? Similarly, did the story of Little Red Riding Hood inspire or compel any child molesting transsexual chauvinist to lurk in the woods; kill octogenarians and attempt the same on children? Of course not.

Violence is a staple ingredient of literature. The Bible writers knew that depictions of floods, tempests and plagues would keep a congregationís attention more than anything else. Beowolf, Gilgamesh, Homerís Oddessy; Virgilís Aeniad, et al are full of decapitations, disembowelments and horrible deaths. Why? Because that sort of material kept the audiences attentive. Without TV to watch, what did those Greek children play? Were they Hercules fighting the Hydra? Were they Zeus, the mighty, castrating Cronos and hurling his thunderbolts with a bang, bang youíre dead mentality. Highly probably.

The Romans sadly depicted escapist cathartic massacres with real people instead of actors, in the Coliseum games and the persecutions of Christians. Of course, much propaganda and hype was used to make sure the audience knew that they were seeing enemies of the state dying, or noble gladiators proving their loyalty to the Empire through death. (Those about To Die salute you, Caesar). The Roman arena was not fiction; no one thought it was; it was more akin to blood sport; a boxing match to the death; a modern equivalent would be live televised genocide. Ultimately, the spectacle of the Coliseum and other such arena slaughters grew tedious for many. The box office takings actually decreased from the monotony of the kill. Far from filled with blood lust from its ongoing depiction, many Romans stayed away in droves. What they wanted wasnít deaths, but variety and originality. One late emperor flooded the Coliseum and used crocodiles instead of lions, but after brief flurry of revived interest, that too got boring for many. Violence in isolation is not particularly good entertainment, and poor box office. The Nazis tried to keep their murders more discreet than the Romans.

The promise of blood and gore nevertheless drew an audience. If a play was called a tragedy the audience knew they were in for something with lots of blood and gore; Shakespeare knew that when he wrote Macbeth, Titus Androicus, Hamlet and other tragedies. Had he delivered anything less, his own blood might have been shed before he got away from the Globe.

Itís amazing how many people naively think TV violence is bad but go to see a play like Titus in which among other killings, sees two boys baked into a pie and fed to their father. That Shakespeare was a genius for wordplay compared to modern TV script writers (who could hardly get away with iambic pentameter in this day and age) he still retained a motive for writing equal to theirsí bums on seats, good box office, good reviews, and enough money to keep his head above water until the next play or show was ready.

Opera is also frequently violent. Wagnerís Brunhilde leaps into Siegfriedís funeral pyre at the close of the Gotterdammerung. Bizetís Carmen dies by the knife. Verdiís Rigoletto involves rape, murder, and death a plenty. Were the audiences thereof leaving the opera boxes with murder on their minds? I doubt it. The middle class intelligentsia often think dramatized violence is all right for them; but dangerous when presented before less educated palettes and people of lesser taste; ie; the proletariat. Poppycock and prejudice. Shakespeareís plays were open to the masses. The Globe and other Elizabethan theatres were open to mass audiences; they had to be or the plays could never be afforded by the theatres. Wealthier theatre goers got better seats, then, just as now in modern theatres. Opera tended to be out of the pocket reach of the working classes, who were and are undoubtedly as capable of its appreciation as any middle class academic snob who thinks otherwise.

Violence was always a major element of the cinema. Nosferatu the Vampire terrorized us in the silent era; All Quiet On The Western Front gave us the full horrors of trench warfare as never depicted before in the 1930ís. King Kong (1933) tears open the jaw of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and casually throws a woman he has mistaken for Fay Wray to her death from a skyscraper. James Cagney casually murders his way through gangster land and blows himself up atop a gasometer shouting ĎTop Of The World Ma; with nihilistic pride as his world literally burns him into oblivion. All of this provoked little controversy.

By the 1950ís studio filming on backlots was giving way increasingly to location filming. The fight scenes that were filmed without the use of real blood or even on occassion without fist hitting flesh at all, suddenly looked stilted and artificial. The 50ís film The Wild One had fight scenes that looked gritty and dangerously realistic. It looks even today as if the actors (Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin) were genuinely slugging it out together).

Soldier Blue caused a great deal of outrage; for its violence, but this depiction of Americans ill-treating Indians was a savage parable on the then on-going Vietnam conflict, and a powerful anti-war anti-violent film.

Stanley Kubrickís film of Anthony Burgessís A Clockwork Orange was possibly the most violent film of its kind, and may still have that title, but it was actually banned so we canít really be sure. It wasnít banned by censors, but by Kubrick himself, who withdrew it due to Fatwa like death threats made by people offended by its violence. Note the absurd irony here. "Your film is promoting violence. Withdraw it or we kill your wife and kids." Kubrick understandably gave in. The film, which I have seen, depicts a gang of violent thugs; they kill and rob habitually. Atone point they kick an old woman to death to the tune of Singing In The Rain, with a kick to her torso punctuating every line. Captured, the leader (Malcolm McDowell) is brainwashed into being a good person, but slowly, his evil violent nature comes out again with terrible consequences. This is a film about the nature of human evil; it asks if we can change our tune and alter a personís behavior and ultimately concludes not.

Michael Winnerís Death Wish was another major controversial film. The story was simple. A middle class architect gets sickened by the violence of New York, especially when his home and family are attacked. The police seem unable to help, so he turns vigilante. At first he beats up muggers, and saves women from rapists but gradually goes on to kill the nasties on the streets, only to find himself pursued by the police, whilst cheered and made a folk hero by the public, some of whom start copying his behavior. There is a great deal of powerful social commentary in this film. It ultimately makes its hero (Charles Bronson) seem ambiguous; he gets to like his new role of avenging angel too much and even seems addicted to it. He is as much villain as anti-hero. The police, fearing that his arrest will make a martyr of him, drive him out of town; he moves to another US city and looks set to start again, even before getting out of the airport. The film ends.

A crop of increasingly dire sequels followed that sadly lose sight of the original premise. Bronson is reduced merely to a vengeful assailant clearing the streets; with no ambiguity. In the first film, he never sees the villains who originally attacked his family, but the sequels are simply direct eye for an eye revenge stories of no merit, so again the violence loses context and value.

Horror movies always had a grand Guignol drive to push back the boundaries of taste. The horror was often depicted with a subtle element of bad taste humour. "We belong dead" the monster declares as he pulls the lever that atomizes the castle at the end of The Bride Of Frankenstein. Bela Lugosiís Dracula hears wolves howling outside the Castle he dwells in, and proudly says to his guest and intended first victim; "Listen to them, my childen of the night. What music they make."

Sometimes the horror and humour get inseparable. Peter Lorre in Mad Love (also known as The Hands Of Orlac) pretends to be a regenerated deceased murderer) proudly declaring that he has successfully transplanted his head back before his shocked victim. Much of the horror lies not in the violence but in the villainís casual, amoral teases; that show the complete indifference to the victim truly felt by the villain.


There have been attempts to make purposely non-violent dramas for television. The wholesome sugar coatedness of shows like Little House On The Prairie; The Waltons, and Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman ultimately fills me with the urge to vomit; but such shows are undeniably successful. However, it should be observed that an endless diet of these; Last Of The Summer Wine, and Songs Of Praise, will not wean society away from genuine, real social violence.


I wonder what people are thinking when they see something violent on TV or in a film and feel offended or shocked by it. I wonder if they have really asked what is being depicted and why. On the whole gratuitous violence that serves no purpose is a lot less common than we may assume. Here are some of the more common justifiable scenarios for violent imagery and situations.

Most TV drama features a mixture of good people and bad people. Violence is usually involved when there is a conflict between the forces of good and evil. If a murderer (Evil) is on the loose; the drama is concerned with lots of aspects; how did s/he become evil and violent? What is sí/he doing to people that causes trouble, pain and death? How do people react? Why this victim and not another? What is done to stop the criminal or catch him/her? Do the authorities (forces of good) catch him/her, kill him/her? When the villain seems to be getting away with the violence, evil is in the ascendancy; when the forces of good close in, the opposite is true; horror is the sense that evil is winning; violence is the depiction of the extremes evil will reach or go to; but will the good guys find it necessary to fight violence with violence? If someone dies; how do the various figures in the drama cope or react? Is the death looked on as tragic? Does anyone care? If the villain is caught, captured, punished, or seen dying (violently perhaps) do we think his/her fate justified or not. In a war film, (good army and evil army) is the fighting and violence justified. Do the characters lament the futility of violence. Are we shocked by the horrors and wastage of war depicted to avoiding enlisting for a real army? With educational skills we can actually assess the nature and usage of violence in the media of TV and film to measure our own moral reactions. In short, TV and film violence has a social and legitimate usage.

The way violence is tackled as a subject of study varies.

In the TV Movie series Columbo the same basic plot is used pretty well every story. A criminal sets up and commits what he believes to be the perfect murder. He makes sure he has an alibi by convincing everyone he is somewhere other than the crime scene; or he makes sure someone else appears to have committed the murder. Enter a shabby detective, Columbo (played beautifully by Peter Falk) who immediately starts unraveling all the red herrings, and keeps turning up on the criminal responsible having demolished another part of the infallible false alibi. The criminal twists and turns and struggles, but finally has to admit guilt. Columbo, after the initial murder is committed (usually without explicit detail) actually gets remarkably gentile. The detective (modeled closely on the Policeman Porfiry in Dostoyevskyís violent novel Crime & Punishment) never carries a gun, and never fights physically with his suspects; they usually end up trying to outsmart him. He is actually quite a creepy figure in that you suspect he has solved the crime the moment he claps eyes on the murder scene, and is simply biding his time to announcing and proving the guilt of the suspect. Here is a depiction of the conquest of good over evil without violence being used again. It proves that such a thing can be done, but of course, Columbo stands out precisely because it is different. Columbo came at the height of 70ís US police dramas, which usually involved hard cops, lots of gunplay and endless car chases. The problem with such stories; from Kojak to Cannon was not that they could get violent; but that they began to get predictably alike, and ultimately laughable. It seemed every policeman had to have an unusual handicap. Macmillan had his wife interfering by turning up on a crime scene; Cannon was too fat to chase villains; Ironside was wheelchair bound; Longstreet was a blind private detective. Much of the formula depended on the obligatory car chase and shootout. Producers soon ran out of new ways to film a cheap car chase. There were only so many ways to film a car bouncing over the speed bumps of San Francisco, but you saw them all week after week. The villainís fate was invariably the same. He would seize a female hostage (invariably in cleavage revealing tee-shirt & hot pants) and end up on the edge of a cliff or atop a skyscraper. You knew things would end with the hostage safe and the villain plummeting to his death. The US Cop show craze perished the same way as the Roman arena. It ran out of ideas too quickly, and tried to put sensationalism before plausible, thoughtful character based drama. The reason the violence stuck out in memory was because it was often the only part of such shows worth remembering. When a good show, that could continually reinvent itself came along, like Columbo, things improved and the violence stayed in context. You remembered Columbo for the detectiveís intelligent analysis rather than for the crime he was trying to solve. The violence was caged and contained properly. It seems right because the rest of the material was of sufficient quality to make it appropriate.

Mention Rambo and most people think of the sequel to First Blood rather than the first film to feature John Rambo (possibly due to it not mentioning him by name in the first title). First Blood is a worthy violent film, whilst two and three were not. First Blood is a powerful allegory let down only by its ending. John Rambo, shell shocked Vietnam soldier, goes to visit a small US town, but is bullied by a nasty cop and is pushed into retaliation. Rambo, trained to kill and fight in a war, is powerful match for the townís policemen and the national guard who havenít had anything like his combat training; a viscous cat and mouse game ensues; the lone marine forced to play the Vietcong takes on the US Machine and fights it to a standstill; destroying much of the town in the process. The film actually says something about the futility of war, and the need to treat Combat veterans with respect; the battle between the chief cop (Brian Dehenny) and Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is nihilistic, and takes them to the brink of mutual destruction. (In the novel they both in fact die together; but film-makers spotting a sequel and a franchise, allowed the hero to survive). The book could be seen as an anti-nuclear war message about the dangers of mutually assured destruction; but in the film, the war is winnable. This is a far cry from Columbo. There, we knew who the villain was. We saw the murder from conception to execution; and we know our good guy, Columbo is pure good guy through and through. In Rambo, the authorities are the villains; and Rambo the misunderstood hero just passing through Hell and finding himself made into the villain. It nevertheless remains thoughtful stuff. The destruction depicted (helicopter crashes; petrol stations exploding, etc) is appropriate; The town has played Ahab to Ramboís Moby Dick and paid the price.

The sequels are a disgrace. The violence is suddenly gratuitous simply because there is no point or story any more. Rambo is simply sent on a proper wartime mission; thatís basicaly the plot; he goes back to Vietnam to rescue US soldiers still detained there a decade after the war ended; and America cheers as one man wins the war they lost. The violence seems empty and hollow because the film no longer has anything to say. It isnít the violence that is a problem; it is simply that this is a lousy film. There are just as many lousy non-violent films to moan about, but the violence gets the blame instead in Ramboís case. Itís unfair.

Martial Arts Movies are among the usual suspects when it comes to accusing TV and Movie drama of inspiring real life violence. The release of Bruce Leeís Enter The Dragon movie in the seventies caused a major sensation. Here was a high octane James Bond style fight movie with fight scenes like never seen in the west before. The fighters move quickly; kicking and charting rather than boxing and wrestling; sometimes the choreography is breathtaking; especially in large crowd fight scenes; and the action is relentless. The hero, who fights without a gun (as does the villain for once) takes out dozens of enemy fighters in minutes with kicks and karate blows; sometimes the fight is violent; you here ribs and neck bones shatter and break; an enemy uses jagged claws that rip viscous scars into the flesh of even the hero.

When the film came out, kids everywhere were leaping around kicking and pounding the air kung fu style. Judo and Karate clubs opened everywhere. Far from promoting senseless violence these often actualy taught the wisdom and gentility of Confucian self defense too (the name Kung Fu derives from that scholars name; a fact often overlooked). Judo instructors impress on their students that the techniques are for in the Judo club or for self defense only; opponents in a bout learn to bow to one another in respect before and after combat. Many a martial artist has been spared from a mugging or a knife attack or worse by such skills. The kids who fooled about with high kicks in the playground either soon gave up, or if they tried it in real fight situations, quickly got beat up. The craze for Kung Fu grew intense. Weapons used in the film were ultimately to be banned from commercial sale (a successful ban, as they were not that popular as toys anyway) and a best selling number one pop-song by Craig Douglas was called "Everybody was Kung Fu Fightingí. But the craze, like so many others has generally died down, bar the occasional revival.


Arthur Chappell