Depiction of Violence: Perception of Violence

I would offer with all seriousness that the following is one of the most traumatic scenes of violence in movies:

How old were you when you first saw it? Did you cry? (Do you still cry when you see it?) Did it give you nightmares? Disney animated films are filled with dead parents, as were the fairy tales many of these films were based on.

Renowned child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote the fascinating The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, believed that the original, far more violent versions of fairy tales (which he thought Disney sanitized and diluted) actually have more positive effects on kids. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but think about Bambi, Lion KingCinderella, etc.; all involve lost parents. One of, if not the biggest fear of children is losing a parent. While fairy tales do show kids their worst fears, they go on to show the children surviving the tragedy, even triumphing, getting their happy endings. And kids watch or listen to the same stories over and over again. So every time after the first time, they are aware that no matter how scary the story gets, a happy ending is just around the corner.

Could that be what horror movies do for grownups, help them face their own fears, simply shifting from the death of a parent to death of self?

Are media like roller coasters, offering us safe, secure ways to confront danger? Do media depictions, from horror films to TV crime shows, act as inoculations, exposing us to small doses of our worst fears so we can gain control of them through the characters on screen?

The Passion of the Christ is filled with harrowing violence:

And yet many of the same parents who normally decried violence in the media took their children to see the R-rated movie. They believed this movie violence served a positive purpose, showing the sacrifices made by their lord and savior. (The Passion of the Christ actually inspired one man to confess to a murder he had gotten away with – it had been ruled a suicide.) But to anyone who does not embrace Christian beliefs, the film could easily be seen as an example of “torture porn” comparable to Hostel.

In 1975, The Street Fighter became the first film to be rated X for violence alone (many films had previously been rated X for sex). Among the 15+ minutes cut to attain an R-rating, was this scene:

That clip usually gets a pretty big reaction, especially from male viewers, but what did you actually see? You saw Sonny Chiba grab another man’s covered crotch. You then saw Chiba’s shoulder dip, after which he held up a piece of cloth stained red. (When asked about the blood in one of his films, director Jean-Luc Godard replied, “It’s not blood, it’s red.”) Did you fill in the blanks? Did you think you actually saw him rip off the rapist’s genitals?

Almost a decade later, in 1984, came this scene:

This film received a PG-rating. (Yes, it sparked enough parental complaints to lead to the creation of PG-13,  but it retains its original PG-rating.)

Which is worse, which is “more violent,” the clip that actually shows a heart being ripped out of a chest or the one that merely implies a manual castration? Most agree the latter is worse. But why? Is the clip from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom easier to take because it is so exaggerated and clearly set in a fantastical setting? Is it easier for us to separate from that supernatural violence than it is from a hand-to-hand fight set in the more realistic world of a crime film? Is it because every guy knows it hurts to be hit in the genitals, much less to have them ripped off?

This famous scene helped Quentin Tarantino first make a name for himself.

Did you see the ear being cut off? Did you think you did? I must admit that it was not until the second or third time I saw the film that I realized I had not actually seen it.

It is a basic principle of horror fiction, going back at least to Edgar Allan Poe, that it is better to hint at what terrifies than to explicitly describe or show it. Leave it to readers or viewers to complete the scene and “experience” the horror for themselves.

Tarantino provides us with an opportunity to test this theory, as he did film the ear actually being cut off:

I don’t know about you, but I found the original scene much harder to take. The shots of the ear being cut off were easier for me, as I could easily distract myself by critiquing the special effects and the realness of the prosthetic ear.

Is this all “movie violence”? As such, is it easy to disconnect it from our real lives, view it as just entertainment? How many of us have been involved in an actual shootout?

We may ho-hum at the bullets flying by, but does the glass in the arm make us recoil? Can we relate more directly to being cut by glass? Do we know for sure that hurts? Would it have bothered us as much if he had taken a bullet to the arm instead?

As Quentin Tarantino explained in a Playboy interview:

Playboy: Certain scenes in your films are not for the squeamish. When you’re watching a movie, what makes you cringe?

Tarantino: Actually, a lot of things. I mean, somebody’s head could be blown off with a shotgun and that would not affect me. A decapitation can be enjoyed as just a cool special effect or for how it works in the piece. What affects me are real-life human things. If someone gets a paper cut on a movie set, I’m like shivers , because I can relate to that. Being shot with an Uzi – that’s harder to relate to.

Does who is committing the violence matter?

Good guys can be just as violent, if not more so, as the bad guys.  It has become quite common for the villain in an action film to suffer the same consequences he (and it is almost always he) inflicted on an innocent earlier in the movie. For instance, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (SPOILER ALERT) contains a horrific rape scene:

The victim later gets her revenge in a similar manner. Both scenes are very intense, though the latter may actually be a bit more graphic.

And yet we cringe at the first and cheer the second. Is this because we excuse, even embrace the vengeance as retribution for the bad guy’s earlier act? Do we accept, even endorse, violence committed by good guys that would appall us if done by bad guys? Do we apply the same double standards in real life? Do we welcome in movies violent behavior that would repel us in real life or do the movies carry over, reflecting or leading, our real life attitudes?

Are all of the above examples of media violence equal? Do we even classify them all as media violence? Do we consider some action instead? Are we sure we are all referring to the same thing when we discuss media violence?

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