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Screen Violence's Effects: A Dark Knight Indeed

Screen Violence's Effects: A Dark Knight Indeed

By Carl M. Cannon - July 24, 2012

Commercial television was in its infancy when policymakers noticed something disturbing about this new medium: the camera -- or rather, the men behind the camera -- were morbidly attracted to depicting violence and gore.

Could this possibly be good for the mental well-being of viewers, especially children? That’s what several members of Congress wanted to know. In 1950, Sen. Ed Johnson, a Colorado Democrat, asked that a July 16 New York Times column be placed in the Congressional Record. Its headline: “Time for a Halt -- Radio and TV Carnage Defies all Reason.”

“If radio and television aren’t careful, somebody’s going to call the cops,” wrote well-known Times critic Jay Gould in a piece that prefigured the grim scene at a Denver-area multiplex by more than six decades. “The two media have exceeded the bounds of reasonable interest in murder, mayhem and assorted felonies.”

The first congressional hearings were held in the House in 1952 and in the Senate in 1954-1955. Because of a change in control of Congress in the 1954 midterm elections, the latter sessions were chaired by powerful Democratic Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who harbored presidential ambitions and who had made his mark heading a special Senate investigation into organized crime.

Basically, what Kefauver wanted to know was whether all the violence on television contributed to juvenile delinquency. Nearly 60 years later, the answer to that question is not really in doubt -- and hasn’t been for some time. A hundred studies have demonstrated conclusively that viewing violence on the screen increases aggression in those who watch it, particularly children.

The more vexing issue has always been what, if anything, policymakers ought to -- or can -- do about it. This has never been satisfactorily addressed, although last week’s slaughter of innocents at the Cineplex 16 at Colorado’s Aurora Mall underscores this grim truth: Simply ignoring the massive quantities of violent Hollywood-produced fare has not made the problem go away.

It’s difficult to know what mid-century adults would even think about the current Batman series directed and produced by Christopher Nolan. The nihilism and glorified carnage of “The Dark Knight,” which came out in 2008, shocked even seasoned reviewers.

“The greatest surprise of all -- even for me, after eight years spent working as a film critic -- has been the sustained level of intensely sadistic brutality throughout the film,” wrote Jenny McCartney of the London Daily Telegraph. “The film begins with a heist carried out by men in sinister clown masks. As each clown completes a task, another shoots him point-blank in the head. The scene ends with a clown – The Joker – stuffing a bomb into a wounded bank employee’s mouth.”

This role evidently took a heavy toll on the man playing it: Heath Ledger, an uncommonly intelligent 28-year-old method actor, had trouble sleeping after filming ended. In a revealing interview with the New York Times, he noted that his Joker character was “a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.”

“I couldn’t stop thinking,” Ledger added. “My body was exhausted and my mind was still going.” He’d take a sleeping pill, to no effect, and take another -- only to awake an hour later with his “mind still racing.”

The young actor did not live to see “The Dark Knight” make it to the theaters. Today, 12 other young people are gone, slain in a Colorado movie house during the showing of the sequel.

Hollywood has always given short shrift to the body of social science pointing to the carnage its violent programming leaves in its wake. But this one is harder to dismiss: The shooter attended a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” with dyed hair and guns, having left chemical booby traps back in his apartment, which was adorned with Batman posters. He is reported to have told cops he was the Joker.

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

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