Violence: The Mainstreaming of Mayhem
In 1967, Warren Beatty released his famous gangster movie, Bonnie and Clyde, and immediately caused a sensation – it was no ordinary cops and robbers film.
At first it looks like we are being treated to a comedy. As a young couple Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are endearing and naïve. Before long we are identifying with the characters. Then suddenly the film takes an explicit turn into violent savagery. The scenes of graphic violence culminate with the famous death scene in which Beatty and Dunaway are gunned down on the side of a country road – riddled with literally hundreds of bullets in slow motion.
Who would have thought this groundbreaking film for violence would have led to the release of films that have made the scenes of cannibalism, mutilated organs, and other blood and guts common fare for the 1990s?1 The first to use slow motion filming sequences to draw audiences into the “feel of the killing,” Bonnie & Clyde crossed the line of acceptability by portraying a hideous and violent act in an artistic manner.
But today, Bonnie & Clyde seem tame in comparison with the abundance of violent flicks ranging from Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, a child-killer who has become a cartoon hero, to a killer, “Buffalo Bill” who skins his female victims in Silence of the Lambs. Buffalo Bill is eventually tracked down by an FBI agent assisted by an incarcerated psychopath serial killer, “Hannibal the Cannibal,” Lecter who was a psychiatrist before he was imprisoned for killing and eating his female victims.
The top grossing movie of 1991 features graphic footage of skinned female corpses, a policeman’s corpse strung up above Hannibal’s jail cell, with his shirt open to a partially skinned chest. Buffalo Bill, a former patient of Lecter’s, is a frustrated transsexual whose modus operandi is that he covets women’s bodies. As an added twist, Hannibal escapes and the movie closes with him calling the FBI Agent and telling her that he will not attack her. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a sequel with the escaped cannibalistic killer.
Although the scenes were reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s shadowy style in heightening suspense, the bloody sequences were obviously framed to nauseate and turn stomachs. Renny Harlin, director of Die Hard 2 said “Today we have the technology to do sequences that are louder and bigger and more effective than before.“2
And Harlin aptly demonstrated this in Die Hard 2, as viewers watched 264 people die – counting the 200 who were killed in the plane crash scene – as well as eyes being sprayed into; a man being crushed by moving luggage rollers; a man’s neck being sliced; and Bruce Willis biting flesh off a man’s hand and stabbing a man’s eye with an icicle.3 Expletives were used 125 times throughout the movie.4
In another blockbuster movie, Robocop, 32 people get killed.5 A man melts from toxic waste and subsequently gets run over where we watch his head slowly decapitated from the crash, rolling down the street.
Martin Scorsese, director of Goodfellas, a blood and bullets tale about gangster life said, “Maybe we need the catharsis of bloodletting and decapitation like the ancient Romans needed it, as ritual but not real like the Roman circus.“6 Scorsese should know, since he also directed movies such as Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. An academy award nominee, Goodfellas also had a high dose of profanity with 282 expletives throughout the film. Scorsese has admitted that his movies are therapy for his personal “anger, rage and craziness.“7
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Scorsese concedes that films such as Taxi Driver are “morality plays for myself … I’ve just found myself lucky to express my personal feelings on film, because that’s my medium.“8 (In a future article, we’ll be exploring how filmmakers such as Scorsese are using their creative genius to crusade for their personal beliefs.)
In the good old days of gangster and war movies, and classic westerns, the bad guys were shot, sliced, hung, stabbed and killed by the good guys. Of course, this was after the enforcement of the Hays Production code in 1934 which stipulated that violence on the screen could not inspire imitation.9 Only justifiable violence could be portrayed.
Prior to enforcement of the Hay’s code, the grandfather of the Motion Picture Association’s rating board, representatives of Catholic and Protestant churches across the nation were upset about the graphic violence and sex on the screen.10 In 1932 alone, there were 34 violent gangster films.11 The glamorization of sex and violence roused churches into action.12 The National Legion of Decency, an alliance of Catholic and Protestant churches, opened up an office in Hollywood in 1934.13
The group under the leadership of Joseph Breen enforced a stricter rating code than the Hays office. Every movie in Hollywood was reviewed by the group before being released. No violence was allowed, except to kill the bad guys. The code banned nudity, but kissing was allowed. Any derogatory references to clergy or religion were not allowed.14
Today’s brutally violent sequences have evolved into another slick tool of the entertainment industry. As former national PTA president Ana Kahn stated, film “violence is so gratuitous – not necessary for the plot. It is not natural violence, but violence thrown in to shock and titillate.“15
Violence on the increase
Since 1968, there has been a 1,983 percent increase in R-rated films.16 In 1968 there were 838 G-rated films.17 In 1989, there were nine.18 That same year there were 357 R-rated films, which was 67 percent of all the films that were released.19 With less G-rated films, audiences for these R-rated films are getting younger.
According to a USA Today poll, more than 80 percent of children ages 11 to 16 were admitted into R-rated moves.20 And with youth being the biggest audiences, producers will insert more violence and sex to get the PG-13 or R-rating.21 Most of the films produced are targeted towards this age bracket.
Critics predict that meat movies in the genre of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre will increase. “As the old-style sex film fades into oblivion (no more taboos remaining to violate), the meat movie phenomenon will sweep the nation. (Plenty of taboos left here: murder, necrophilia, cannibalism, etc.)” said Lew Brighton, a San Francisco film critic who reluctantly reviewed Texas Chainsaw Massacre when it was first released.22
Some would contend that certain types of violence are acceptable. The Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, is full of graphically violent acts. It is true that the Bible is replete with passages of men and women being stabbed, hung and whole nations being exterminated. In a passage in Judges, a woman kills a man by driving a pin through his head.27
“But Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent pin, and a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him (Sisera) and drove the pin through his temples and into the ground; for he was in a deep sleep from weariness. So he died” (Judges 4:22).
Sisera was an army captain who was fleeing from his defeated army on the battlefield. After many years of oppression under the Canaanites, the Israelites rose up and fought for their freedom. Sisera was hiding in a woman’s tent while his soldiers were slaughtered on the battlefield. There is an element of justice for the woman who drove the pin through Sisera’s head and killed him. Passages with elements of violence had meaning within its context, and reinforced an overall theme such as justice long overdue being served.
But the graphic scenes of random slaughter and mutilations that have recently been on our TV and movie screens have been showcased strictly for shock value. Instead of reinforcing and supporting an overall theme, long drawn out sequences of violent acts have become more common. And violence in the genre of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is glorified.
Of course, violence has been with us since the beginning of time and there is no way we can avoid violent sequences in cinema. But have we become a society that is brutalized and desensitized from it such as the Germans during Hitler’s occupation? The German people were primed for the violence they daily witnessed on their streets, during World War II, by the plethora of underground pornographic movies and above ground dark thriller films that were popular in the 1920s.28
A writer for the London Times noted this phenomenon in an article about the impact of such films on the minds of the German people at the end of World War II. He stated that “a man walking down a tree-lined surburban street, and suddenly something violent occurs. This appeared time and again, in one setting or another, until the German audience became accustomed to the idea that violence is an ordinary, ongoing part of everyday life.” Terror appeared as a part of everyday life.29
Then there are the Romans who producer Martin Scorsese referred to that enjoyed watching people being torn apart and eaten by lions in their coliseums. Has our TV screen and movie theatre become another coliseum of ecstatic violence? Has mayhem gone mainstream?
Social researchers predict that with gore becoming a regular part of the average American’s entertainment diet, that violent crimes will continue to escalate.30 Within the past 30 years, there has been a 300 to 500 percent increase in violence.31 In the U.S. more than 22,000 men, women and children die every year in handgun accidents, suicides and murders.32 And compared to Japan, a person in the U.S. is six times more likely to be burglarized, 10 times more likely to be murdered and 208 times more likely to be robbed.33 Violent crimes are on the rise. The perpetrators of those crimes are those within the age group of 15 to 24 years old, who are also the biggest consumer of R-rated films.34
Are our children being affected?
Incidentally, violent crimes show a marked increase after 1957, with the release of more violent TV programs and movies.35 Here are some pretty frightening statistics. Today’s children and adolescents spent more time watching television – 15,000 hours than they do in school, which is 11,000 hours.36 In that time they will have watched approximately 180,000 murders, rapes, and armed robberies and assaults.37 By the time they turn 18, they will have seen 200,000 violent acts on TV, including 25,000 murders.38 By the time they turn 70, they will have watched 7 straight years of TV.39 Adults spend 40 percent of their leisure time watching TV.40 This places TV viewing third, just behind sleep and work in weekly hours spent by adults.41
And according to a recent survey, 76 percent of those polled agreed that “TV has more influence on most children than parents have.“42
Today kids are exposed to unusually high doses of violence – 21 incidents during each hour of television on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Researchers found that children who viewed ordinary violent television for children during a break from nursery school at noon became more aggressive in everyday playground interaction than children who viewed non-violent programs. With TV becoming the electronic babysitter, exposure to violence typically begins by watching Saturday morning cartoons.
Approximately 94 percent of these cartoons have violent themes and cartoon violence has continued to increase. Fifty percent of the cartoons monitored by the National Coalition on Television Violence were found to glorify violence or use it to entertain. In fact, Saturday morning cartoons have three times as many acts of violence as prime time television. ABC on the average has 26 acts of violence per hour in its Saturday morning cartoon programming.43
The bad guys get killed and the good guys live in shows such as the Mutant Ninja Turtle series, Roadrunner, Bugs Bunny and Popeye. But the violence portrayed in popular cartoons seems cute and harmless, especially with the miraculous recoveries of the coyote from his foiled chases of the roadrunner. The first Mutant Ninja Turtle movie had 150 violent fighting acts.44
Researchers found that kids imitated the turtle heroes karate chops. In a survey conducted on educators, Hanne Sonquist, a member of the board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children expressed the concerns of educators regarding children imitating the turtle heroes style in handling conflict. “The way the Ninja turtles work out their difficulties is by socking each other and knocking each other out,” she said.45
From their Saturday morning cartoons, children grow up accustomed to watching violence on prime time TV shows, movies, videos and cable TV. The early evening “family hour” has especially high rates of violence. Nearly nine out of every 10 of these hours contain some violence.46 With violence becoming more common, children are learning to enjoy it and expect it.
Fifteen hundred 10 to 11 year olds in 34 schools in Australia were asked to describe the favorite scenes in their videos they watched. The most enjoyable were: “Where the man takes the heart out of another man,” in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; “When the teacher cuts the punk’s arm with the saw,” in Class of ’84; “When the killer chops the lady into a hundred pieces,” in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; another favorite was “Where the girl chopped off her dad’s head and ate it as a birthday cake,” in Friday the 13th.47
Friday the 13th was slated to become a cartoon series. However, network executives got cold feet after they found out that they couldn’t get advertisers for the slots. The idea was aborted.48 But the famed teen killer, Freddy Krueger, has become a cartoon hero.
Krueger has been hailed as a folk hero – the “Mickey Mouse of the 1990s.“49 In 1990, Krueger’s series and videos grossed more that $300 million.50 Today kids can buy Krueger talking dolls, a squeezable head that spits water, a Krueger glove with the scissor fingers, and many others. The plastic razor tipped glove is modeled after his weapon he uses to mutilate and kill teenagers in their sleep. Toddlers and young children are introduced to Krueger toys by playing with Freddy and Victim Spitballs-rubber balls that feature faces of Freddy and a startled victim.
In a poll conducted by the National Coalition on TV Violence, children ages 10 to 13 said they knew more about Freddy Krueger than Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or Martin Luther King.51 Eighty-nine percent said they saw at least one episode of Nightmare on Elm Street, and 62 percent said they saw at least four episodes.52 One 10 year old said he liked Freddy Krueger because he kills people. Krueger mania among children doesn’t seem to be waning soon.53
Why are children crowing a teenage murderer and molester a hero? Is it a lack of role models and heroes that are worth following? Or are they following their adult predecessors in honoring and glorifying meaningless violence? Krueger’s notoriety has lasted a decade, and may be a prophetic sign of the enemy’s designs for this generation. In one segment Krueger declares that he is god, before slashing his victim to death. His pseudo-deity is reinforced by his unstoppable evil rampages. With Krueger’s coffers being filled up with teenage victims on the screen, and dollars from his toys, what will Hollywood fabricate next to entertain our children?
On Screen and in Society
From cartoons to movies, our appetites are being conditioned for meaningless violence. Instead of violence being used against propagators of evil in our society, it has become a means of entertainment. Instead of content, storyline, and plot being emphasized or reinforced, violence is celebrated.
Violent criminals are glorified and escape retribution. Krueger continually returns to claim even more teenage victims. And although Bonnie & Clyde got their just desserts in the end, they were considered the Robin Hoods of poor whites in the South and therefore celebrities.
Shoot-outs, a killer chopping a woman into 100 pieces, or cutting someone’s arm off with a saw begin to look like “beautiful violence,” as the psychopath rapist and killer Malcolm in A Clockwork Orange described his hideous crimes. And most of the victims of violence are usually women, elderly, and minorities.
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange which garnered a New York Film Critics award and several academy award nominations, was considered a landmark for acceptable violent cinema. The 1971 film has six rape scenes. It opens up with Malcolm and his cohorts at a “milk” bar full of white female mannequins in bondage positions.
Recently a teenager was sentenced to life in prison without chance for parole for fatally stabbing and strangling a friend. Michael Anderson, 18, says he was inspired by repeatedly viewing A Clockwork Orange. He strangled and stabbed six times, 17-year-old Karen Hurwitz, with a martial arts sword.54
Some researchers defend watching violence by saying it acts as a catharsis, or outlet for violent energy. But a study conducted by Berkowitz and Rawlings shows that those who watch violent movies, but appear to have reduced aggressive or anti-social behavior, were constrained from acting out the scenes they viewed due to inhibitions.55 Violent and sadistic acts on the screen become lessons for potential criminals. Dr. David Pearl of the National Institute for Mental Health said that television violence provides how to do it training.56
An example of those who have taken their cues from television shows are the following. Six youth took their cues from a 1973 film, Fuzz on ABC, which showed hoodlums in Boston burning derelicts to death for fun.58 A few days later they poured gasoline over a 24-year-old homeless woman and burned her to death. In another case, a 14-year-old boy accidentally killed his brother with a gun, imitating a scene he had watched in Dirty Harry.59
A middle-aged couple were abducted and killed by two teenagers who had a fascination with violent movies.60 Seventeen-year-old Joseph Passeno and 16-year-old Bruce Michaels randomly chose their victims. The motive for the abduction and killing has stumped psychiatrists and parents in Michigan. However, the only clue that psychiatrists have been able to ascertain is their fascination with violent movies. In fact, Michaels described the killing as something akin to a sequence on a horror film.61
Clearly our television sets and movie screens are the Roman coliseums of yesterday. Although the victims are not ‘real’ and a product of a screenwriter’s imagination, the real victims are those on the streets. The victims are the homeless woman who was burned to death and the boy who was shot to death. The victim is a woman who was assaulted, raped, and murdered in front of 40 witnesses who did nothing. The victim is the 17-year-old who bled to death in front of 11 subway riders who watched the attack. The victim of this mainstream media mayhem is us.
And there doesn’t seem to be an end soon to the mayhem on the screen being projected onto society. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has found that there is a direct link between the violence on the screen and society. TV and film violence is responsible for 50 percent of the violence in our society according to their research.
Dr. Brandon Centerwall of the American Psychiatric Association estimates that there would be 10,000 fewer murders, 70,000 fewer rapes, 1 million fewer motor vehicle thefts, 2.5 million fewer burglaries and 10 million fewer larcenies here each year if not for violent TV and movies.
Movie industry executives defend their violence by saying it sells tickets and anyone can turn the channel or choose not to watch a film.62 But as one lady responded to a movie industry executive at a congressional committee hearing on violence in the media, “You’re telling us to turn off the water. But the water is still poisoned.“63
There is poison in the water and the movie industry needs to be held responsible. But we are allowing this poison to flow freely in our homes and are actually enjoying it. According to a survey by Dr. Ted Baehr, Christians are watching the same amount of R-rated movies as non-Christians.64
What does the Bible say about viewing violence? In Psalms 101:3, David says, “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes; I hate the work of them that turn aside; (it) shall not cleave to me.” The word “wicked” thing is translated from the Hebrew word, belial, which means anything that is unprofitable. In Psalms 12:8 God warns, “The wicked walk or prowl about on every side, as vileness is exalted (and baseness is rated high) among the sons of men.” As we honor vileness by paying for it and watching it, we are exalting wickedness.
We need to repent of honoring vileness and present our body as a living sacrifice to the Lord. This means placing our eyes, our ears, our minds and soul before Him. In Romans 12:1 we are exhorted to “make a decisive dedication of your bodies presenting all your members and faculties as a living sacrifice, holy (devoted, consecrated) and well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable (rational, intelligent) service and spiritual worship” (Amplified Bible).
1 Plagens, Peter, “Violence in Our Culture,” Newsweek, 4/1/91/ p 46-52.
2 Ibid. 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid.
7 LaHaye, Tim, “Hidden Censors,” p 128
8 Ibid. 9 Ibid., p 127-128. 10 Ibid. p 126.
11 Knight, Arthur, The Liveliest Art: A Panoramic History of the Movies, p 262. 12 Ibid. p 236. 13 Ibid. p 297-298. 14 Atkins, Thomas, Graphic Violence on the Screen, p 8.
15 Gerber, Gilda, Violence in the Media, p 62.
16 Gore, Tipper, Raising PG Kids in an X-rated Society, p 62.
17 John Ankerburg Show/Hollywood. 18 Ibid. 19 Ibid.
20 Baehr, Ted, The Movie & Video Guide for Christian Families,
p 23,24. 21 Ibid. 22 Atkins, p 71-72. 23 Joshua 10:16-28, NASB.
24 Halley, Henry, Halley’s Bible Handbook, p. 166-167; Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Mich. 49506, 1959.
25 Ibid. p 166. 26 Ibid. 27 Judges 4:22.
28 Scott, Otto, “Sadism,” Chalcedon Report, p 10-12, vol. 310, May 1991. 29 Ibid.
30 31 National Coalition on TV Violence, press release, 4/1/91.
32 Gilda Gerber, Violence in the Media, p 60.
33 Ibid. 34 Ibid. 35 Ibid. 36 Ibid. 37 Ibid.
38 National Coalition on Television Violence, press release 4/1/91.
39 Eve Epstein, “Cowabunga Dudes!: Turtles antics bring out beast in kids,” Associated Press, Gainesville Sun, 3/18/91.
40 Ibid. 41 42 Gerber, Gilda, Violence in the Media, p 107
43 “Prime Time TV Violence Down Again,” National Coalition on TV Violence report, 1/21/91.
44 Hess, Tom, “Toys You Never Dreamed Of,” Citizen Magazine, Nov. 1989, Vol. 3, No. 11. 45 Ibid. 46 Ibid. 47. Ibid.
48 Gerber, Gilda, “Violence in the Media.” 49 Ibid.
50 Ibid. 51 Ibid. 52 Ibid.
53 “Movie Helped Cause Murder,” American Family Association, Associated Press.
54 Gilda Gerber, Violence in the Media, p. 69. 55 Ibid.
56 “Teenagers Act Out Movie Violence,” Detroit News, 4/23/91.
57 Ibid. 58 Deceptive Appearances report, p. 10.