Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a violent movie that was among last year’s highest grossers.
By Rebecca Keegan
Years after she first saw The Passion of the Christ, Lori Pearson still feels queasy when she recalls the brutally graphic movie about the final hours of Jesus’ life.
“After I left the theatre I remember feeling physically uncomfortable,” said Pearson, a Dublin, Ohio, mother of two teenagers who writes movie reviews for the website Kids in Mind. “It was gruesome torture sequence after gruesome torture sequence. That kind of thing has a tendency to stay with me.”
Pearson and her husband, Aris Christofides, started writing highly descriptive online reviews in 1992 to help parents navigate the sometimes confusing nature of movie ratings, but over the years their audience has evolved to include an unexpected group: adults looking to avoid certain types of screen violence themselves.
“We get a lot of e-mails from women who’ve been victims of sexual violence and don’t want to see those kinds of scenes,” Pearson said. “We get e-mail from people who’ve been in a car accident and don’t want to see a movie with a car accident. And a lot of people just can’t tolerate torture — including me.”
Amid the heated public debate over whether violent entertainment causes or encourages aggressive behaviour, it’s easy to overlook members of the audience who are quietly but profoundly affected by scenes of murder and mutilation in movies and television — the ones who go home and pull their covers over their heads or go out of their way to avoid such fare entirely.
Although it’s not often discussed, some people are more sensitive to screen violence than others, both for reasons of physiology and life experience.
In a world where increasingly grisly entertainment is delivered on bigger screens, with more realistic visual effects and in the sometimes assaulting detail of high definition and 3-D, those with more delicate sensibilities may feel under siege. And with violent movies such as The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games among last year’s highest grossers and programmes like Criminal Minds and The Walking Dead scoring some of TV’s highest ratings, Hollywood has little incentive to cater to them.
San Francisco psychologist Elaine Aron estimates that 15% to 20% of people are “highly sensitive,” a group she identified in the 1990s and published research on in medical journals such as Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience and the Journal of Analytical Psychology. Along with being more affected by noises and smells, these same people tend to react more strongly to violent imagery.
“Sensitive people have more active mirror neurons,” Aron said, describing a type of nerve cell that neuroscientists have only recently begun to research. “These are the parts of the brain where if you see somebody kick a ball, you feel as though you’re kicking the ball yourself. Then there are other parts of the brain that tell you, ‘No, it’s not you.’ But the experience of empathy still happens, and for some people, it’s very intense.”
Sensitive viewers don’t just react while sitting in a movie theatre — with a quickening of the pulse and a surge of stress hormones — but long after, often experiencing nightmares or feeling uncomfortable in situations that remind them of the scene.
Anyone who has ever thought of Jaws while wading in the ocean or Psycho while taking a shower can relate to the indelibility of certain filmed images. But for some people the pictures pose real and lasting problems.
After seeing the 1967 Audrey Hepburn thriller Wait Until Dark, Joanne Cantor couldn’t sleep for days. Cantor, an expert on the psychological effects of media and a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was in her 20s and had just moved to Paris. Like Hepburn’s character, who is blind and being pursued by criminals, she was a vulnerable young woman in an unfamiliar setting.
Repercussions from media violence, as Cantor found, are more acute when we’re young. Imagery we see when we’re younger than 13 leaves a particularly lasting imprint, she said, and children under 5 are almost completely unable to differentiate fiction from reality.
In surveys of 530 of Cantor’s undergraduate students, 86% reported having some fright symptoms after viewing certain kinds of media when they were under age 13. Some said they couldn’t sleep for days, while others reported ongoing discomfort around normally non-threatening objects or beings, such as clowns or animals.
“Our brains are made to respond negatively to depictions of violence,” said Cantor, who also wrote the book Mommy, I’m Scared. “The fear response is designed to keep us alive. Some people say, ‘Why am I such a baby? What’s wrong with me? This gives me nightmares, but this is what my boyfriend wants me to watch.’ I tell them, ‘You’re human, there’s nothing wrong with you.’ Our brains evolved to respond this way before there were movies.”
Some of what determines whether an audience enjoys a violent movie is in the genes, but some of it is in personal histories, according to Michael Pluess, a psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London who studies why some people are more influenced by their environment than others.
“If someone has a very strong reaction to specific things they see, it might be that it reminds them of a trauma,” Pluess said. “It might be more than sensitivity, it might be a fear response — a blood phobia, a dog phobia.”
For those who do feel the reverberations of media violence more thoroughly, these can be trying times to go to the movies, Pluess said. Consider recent offerings such as the horror film Texas Chainsaw 3D, in which a man is dragged into a meat grinder or the Sylvester Stallone action film Bullet to the Head, in which a bullet speeds toward the audience in the opening credits.
“As a society we’ve got habituated to special effects, 3-D — the filmmakers are trying everything possible to help us forget this is a film,” Pluess said. “For people who are more affected by what they can see, they might struggle to realise they are not part of the film.”
Hollywood studios are aware of different peoples’ sensitivity to violence, according to Vincent Bruzzese, president of the motion picture group at the market research firm Ipsos, and they try not to blindside audiences with misleading marketing — sending someone expecting a cerebral thriller to a gory horror film, for instance. But ultimately the studios’ decisions are governed by the marketplace.
“If (violence) didn’t make money, studios wouldn’t make these movies,” Bruzzese said. “It comes down to what’s the biggest audience we can get for the best film we can make. The studios would put out a four-hour documentary about how to garden tulips if they thought they’d have a $100mn opening weekend. But it doesn’t work that way.”
Pluess does see a potential upside for the sensitive among us. He recently conducted a pilot experiment in which he showed two film clips to a group of 90 people — one was a humorous scene from the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, the other a scene in which a character died in the boxing drama The Champ. After watching the clips, the group had to rate their feelings.
Some were unaffected, some deeply so. The people who had the strongest negative response to The Champ were often the same ones who had the strongest positive response to When Harry Met Sally.
“It’s not just that some people are more affected by violence — those same people enjoy more the benefit of a film,” Pluess said. “When there’s a romantic moment or a funny moment, they feel it more too.” — Los Angeles Times/MCT
A timeline of violence
By Susan King
Violence in movies has been a source of controversy since cinema was in its infancy.
From the black and white gunplay of the gangster movies of the ‘30s, to the slow-motion shootouts of Arthur Penn’s landmark 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, to the rivers of blood flowing in Quentin Tarantino movies, the depiction of violence in film has long polarised critics and audiences. And that debate continues today.
Here’s a look at some of the seminal moments that shaped the conversation about violence in movies over the years:
The Great Train Robbery (1903) Edwin S Porter’s famous western features several shootouts, a man being bludgeoned to death by a piece of coal and a close-up of a gun being fired at the camera. Audiences found the gun sequence so realistic they believed they were going to be shot.
The Big Parade (1925) King Vidor’s World War I epic was notable for its brutal scenes of German snipers gunning down US soldiers, while another wounded soldier is shown with blood running down his head. Star John Gilbert’s character loses his leg when his character is hit by German mortar fire — an unusually graphic scene for its time.
Scarface (1932) After the brutal violence in the pre-Code 1930 gangster film Little Caesar and 1931’s The Public Enemy, director Howard Hawks upped the body quotient in this vivid drama. But this time censors in various governmental bodies clamped down on the film. A new ending was filmed and the subtitle The Shame of a Nation was added to let audiences know the film was meant to condemn, not glorify, gangsters. (Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake with Al Pacino also was criticised for its use of over-the-top violence, notably the buzz-saw sequence.)
Blackboard Jungle (1955) Richard Brooks directed this drama about teachers and antisocial, violent students in an inner-city New York school — a far cry from the peaceful and prosperous worldwide vision of post-World War II America. Its frank portrayal of teen anger and conflict in schools led to it being banned in some cities. Even after it was heavily cut in England, riots broke out among teenagers wherever it was shown.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) The legendary bank robbers, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, are gunned down in a blaze of slow-motion bullet fire in Arthur Penn’s game-changing gangster film. “It was a time,” Penn later said, “where it seemed to me that if we were going to depict violence, then we would be obliged to really depict it accurately — the kind of terrible, frightening volume that one sees when one genuinely is confronted by violence.”
The Wild Bunch (1969) Director Sam Peckinpah turned up the volume even more to underscore the physical and psychological toll of violence. The ultra-graphic gunfights — especially the finale involving the Wild Bunch and Mexican soldiers — and scenes of torture set a new standard for savagery in films.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) Stanley Kubrick’s X-rated best-picture Oscar nominee featured extreme violence and a graphic rape. Its deeply disturbing images and message made it a cause celebre around the world. Kubrick would eventually withdraw the film from distribution in the United Kingdom because of copycat crimes.
The Godfather (1972) Francis Ford Coppola took an operatic approach to the unforgettable scenes of violence in the film, including Sonny’s death at a toll booth and the ruthless demise of Michael’s enemies during his daughter’s baptism. It paved the way for a new era of gangster films from such directors as Martin Scorsese that amplified the violence quotient.
Death Wish (1974) A brutal mugging and murder, a heinous rape sequence and several scenes of vigilante murders caused one critic to call this box office hit with Charles Bronson an “immoral threat to society.” Other movies such as the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry series played on the pervasive fear of crime during this era.
Reservoir Dogs (1992) With a slash of an ear by a razor in his 1992 directorial debut, Quentin Tarantino announced that graphic violence would be a hallmark of his films. His use of blood and brutality in his follow-up films (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill I and II) and especially in his biggest hit, Django Unchained, has made him the poster boy for violent cinema.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) Mel Gibson’s blockbuster about the final 12 hours in the life of Christ features such a detailed and graphically brutal depiction of his crucifixion that Roger Ebert declared it the most violent film he had ever seen.
Hostel (2005) Director Eli Roth told the Los Angeles Times that paramedics were called twice to treat audience members during the screening at the Toronto International Film Festival of his sadistic horror-thriller about a torture ring where rich people pay to kill and mutilate humans. It paved the way for dozens of copycat horror flicks that emphasised gore and guts over suspense and subtlety. — Los Angeles Times/MCT