There have been countless books and journal articles written which try to define what we mean by violence in film. All of which somehow manage to suck the life out of an interesting topic and instead talk about “the complexity of mediated violence,” about how [violence] “fulfills numerous functions, including self-affirmation, self-discovery or as a demonstration of power.” All of which are blah blah blah kill-me-now dull.
For the purposes of this article I am talking about the fist fighting, knife wielding, flesh ripping, blood splattering scenes that any reasonable person would label as violent if they saw them. It’s widely accepted that violence in film is as old as the medium itself, with examples dating back the late 1800’s. The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, which employed the use of stop motion to create the effect of her head being hacked off is believed to be the first. So if violence in film has been present for the last 120 years, why has the public’s concern only become so acute recently?
The concern that violence in film may adversely affect us can be traced back to the theme of film and media violence permeating the judicial system in the early 1990s. The foremost case of which was the evidence to come from the James Bulger murder trial of Robbie Thompson and Jon Venables in 1993. The pair were said to have been heavily influenced by violent films including Child’s Play 3, which received national condemnation for the effect it was said to have had on them. For those of you who are too young to remember this film or who haven’t seen it, the Child’s Play franchise features a killer toy doll named Chucky whose sole aim is to inflict as much physical and psychological pain on his victims as possible. This film is also said to have inspired Anthony Dudson, who was imprisoned in 1992 for his role in the murder of a 16 year old girl.
Another film which has been made infamous by the spate of copycat killings attributed to it is Natural Born Killers. In the film, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis play Mickey and Mallory Knox who are two victims of traumatised childhoods that fall in love and proceed to become psychopathic serial murders. The film is alleged to have inspired Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to murder 12 students and a teacher at Columbmine High School in 1999.
A more recent example comes courtesy of the Saw franchise. In 2009 two boys aged 14 and 15 from Utah had conspired to kidnap several people including a local police officer and 2 teenage girls. They had planned to emulate the film by placing their victims in gruesome situations that tested their motivation to survive. Fortunately the pair were apprehended before they could carry out their crimes thanks to one their parents, who had overheard them planning their offences. Upon their detention the pair informed the police that they had already set up the necessary camera equipment so they could see their victims being tortured.
What strikes me about these films however, is the different ways in which the directors have attempted to use violence. In Child’s Play for example, violence is used purely for aesthetic reasons in order to shock its viewers. Whereas in Natural Born Killers, violence has been used for more ideological reasons. An almost spoof look at how the media is obsessed with violence and satirises a sensationalistic, celebrity-obsessed society.
Many of you reading this article will remember the tragedy in Colorado when During a pre-screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ in 2012 James Holmes entered the Century Theatre complex, set off tear gas grenades and then proceeded to shoot into the audience resulting in 12 people losing their lives and 58being injured. According to police reports Holmes who had dyed his hair red at the time had referred to himself as ‘’The Joker’’. Although this incident could be attributed to Holmes’s mental state rather than any genuine influence a movie may have had, it does draw attention to films like Batman. Particularly Christopher Nolan’s latest moody reincarnations of the franchise which sees violence as both the ‘problem’ and the ‘solution’.
Violence in action movies such as Batman is seen as acceptable because it’s used in a morally righteous way. We, as the viewing public appear to be ambivalent about what we see on screen in cases like this because it solves the ‘problem,’ while at the same time serving our agenda as well.
On a personal level, violence and the effects it has on peoples behaviour is a matter I am all too familiar with. In my day job I work as a probation officer and part of my role is to supervise violent young offenders. Fortunately I have not yet had a case in which the violence that occurred could be directly attributed to violence which the offenders had witnessed in a film. However, often when I enter a house to conduct an interview, my attention is drawn to the DVDs – which is nearly always a collection of the most violent films you could possibly think of. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all people who watch violent movies will commit violent crimes. I do believe however that there are small number of us who may be more easily suggestible than others, and violent films may provide that little bit of inspiration which separates fantasy from reality.
I think all of us have had times when we would love to have lived vicariously through a character capable of such violence. And instead of gawping helplessly as an old lady gets knocked over in front of you by a nihilistic yob, be the cinematic presence who suavely accosts the totemic symbol of urban decay, helps the old lady back to her feet and is applauded for your efforts.
I think the difference for most of us however is that nagging voice in the back of our minds which is reminding us, “don’t do that, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.” There will however be occasions when violence is needed and may indeed be worth the trouble, so it could be argued that to some extent violence in the general media may have permeated the general consciousness – and becomes unavoidable.
All of which brings us back to the point, does violence in film really affect us? I think that to some extent, violence in film gives us a cathartic a two hour outlet in which we can live through the surrogate we see on screen so we don’t have to go outside and try to enforce right from wrong. Whatever your feelings towards violence in film may be, the only certainty is that as long as it’s financially viable, it’s here to stay.