So, Film, TV or Videogames Kill?
When Psycho came out in 1959, a teenager killed his grandmother, and at the trial tried coping that old plea used in ecclesiastical and civilian courts for centuries, “The Devil made me do it.” Seeing Hitchcock’s film, the killer claimed, made him so mentally deranged he was compelled to kill his grandmother. His defense failed.
When the National Rifle Association’s Wayne Lapierre spoke for 25 minutes on Friday about the mass murder of children and teachers in a school in Newtown, Connecticut, much of his time was devoted to answering his own rhetorical question, “isn’t fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?” Various politicians echoed Lapierre’s accusations. But then, some politicians always have.For the last 2,500 years, the most popular and memorable dramatic stories have tended to be filled with sex and violence. Some people have always been offended by this, and periodically throughout its history, theaters have been condemned, censored, and shut down as a result. Other people have argued that, rather than being a danger to individuals and society, the depiction of these deep human impulses on stage and screen produces “catharsis.”
The term was used a couple of times in Aristotle’s Poetics, but what he meant by it has been debated for centuries. Aristotle’s father was a doctor, and he may have had in mind the biological process of “purgation,” or cleaning out the bowels. Or he may have meant the more metaphysical sense of “cleansing” which implies “purification.”
Whatever Aristotle and other ancients mean by “catharsis,” there has always been a widely-held belief that we are, both as individuals and as societies, auto-toxic. That is, our own systems generate bad things, whether of the body, mind, or spirit, and they must be flushed out of our systems because if they aren’t, all that crap will poison us.
Other scholars, philosophers and psychologists have argued for centuries that the process of “catharsis” is not what happens in art and entertainment at all. People, they argue, become fascinated with sex, violence, and other impure, unclean, or poisonous thoughts and emotions, and therefore the depiction of these noxious acts increases toxicity rather than purges it.
The term “fascination” stems from the Latin word meaning “to bind,” and in recent history it gave us the word “fascism.” Psychiatrists use the term “cathexis” to convey the notion of something that holds us in its grip. The two sides agree that individuals and societies generate impure thoughts and emotions; where they differ is in what should be done about it.
While there is research, largely from child psychologists, that concludes watching violent films and videos make some children more aggressive immediately afterwards, it is intrinsically hard to prove that the effect is long lasting or cumulative – and none that I’m aware of that proves it leads to mass murder.
This argument over the effects of drama has gone on for well over two thousand years. People who create stories, drama, films, television and video games generally side with Aristotle, perhaps because they have a vested interest in his idea of catharsis.
This much seems clear: the most memorable, and popular, stories do fascinate, do bind us to them. But by the end of nearly all stories, the reader or audience is provided with a sense of release, sometimes even a sense of freedom and exultation. So, it may be possible that the most memorable films involve both catharsis and cathexis.
The NRA used to claim that guns don’t kill people, that people kill people. Now, they’re telling us that stories kill people. It wasn’t persuasive when the teenager killed his grandmother after seeing Psycho. Why should it be persuasive now?