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Screen Violence's Effects: A Dark Knight Indeed

By Carl M. Cannon - July 24, 2012

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Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood executives who were keelhauled before various congressional committees and parents’ groups would cite their protection under the First Amendment, point to their various non-violent programming, and assert blithely that nothing on the screen could directly influence the actions of viewers.

This last claim struck nearly everyone as disingenuous. A very partial list of the human behaviors that programmers tried to influence, often successfully, with ads, serials, infomercials -- and sometimes only a fleeting scene in a movie -- include: what kind of cigarette to smoke; how to shave; what kind of undergarments to wear; the best music to listen to; how to score with the opposite sex; which sports to watch; where to vacation; what make of car to buy (and whether to use a seatbelt while driving it); and whom to support for president of the United States.

So the studios quickly changed their story. Make-believe mayhem on the screen, they said in their revised strategy, doesn’t encourage real-world violence. It may actually decrease it, they added, due to a “cathartic” effect on the audience.

Now this was a fascinating theory. Counterintuitive, surely, but intriguing. And so legions of social scientists lined up to test it. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be true. No matter how they sliced it, no one could find any such effect. What they discovered was the opposite. Violent programming desensitized young people to violence, made them more likely to hit other children, and often engendered copy-cat behavior.

“There is more research on this topic than on almost any other social issue of our time," a University of Kansas professor, Aletha C. Huston, told me in 1989. “Virtually all independent scholars . . . agree. We keep pumping children with the messages that violence is the way to solve their problems -- and some of it takes hold.”

By the time I started writing about this issue in the late 1980s, most of the studies were winding down: There was so little variance in any of the findings that it ceased to be interesting as a matter of scientific inquiry. In the meantime, as Hollywood violence became more and more graphic, homicide detectives in big cities and small towns alike began having disturbing encounters.

Some three dozen American boys and men committed suicide by playing Russian roulette after seeing a similar scene in “The Deer Hunter.”

In Greenfield, Mass., 19-year-old Mark Branch stabbed an 18-year-old coed to death and then took his own life. Investigating officers unearthed a stash of 90 horror movies, as well as a machete and a goalie mask like those used by Jason, the grisly star of the “Friday the 13th” series. In Los Angeles, a teenage robber who killed at least once sported a blue bandana and fedora -- and told victims he was Freddy Krueger.

The most disturbing interview I did was with a small-town California police detective named Jeff Boyd about his questioning of a 13-year-old boy, apprehended after accompanying another teenager to a neighbor’s home where they broke in, stabbed him, beat him with a fireplace poker, and then choked him to death with a dog chain.

But why, the police officer asked, had they poured salt in the victim’s wounds?

“Oh, I don’t know,” the kid replied with a shrug. “I just seen it on TV.”

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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