WASHINGTON—How many murders have you witnessed? If you're like most Americans, it's too many to count. Casual, capital crime is everywhere, from the television to the movie screen, the beach novel to the video game console.
While the nation may pause to decry its culture of violence when the latest deranged shooter makes the news, an unblinking orgy of human slaughter inevitably continues in its entertainment media.
What accounts for the billions American consumers spend, over and over, on various depictions of murder? Just what is so enthralling about one person taking the life of another?
The question goes beyond the murderous flavor of the month, whether that's "The Silence of the Lambs" or "Walker, Texas Ranger." The market for violent entertainment has been healthy for millennia.
From before 2000 B.C. to about the year 400, the ancient Egyptians put on an annual play about the slaying of the god Osiris. It's said to have inspired a number of copycat killings. Of course, if audiences didn't embrace murder stories from era to era, we'd have long since forgotten "Macbeth" and "Crime and Punishment."
"We are all aesthetic beings, we respond to sensation, and we are all dealing with questions of mortality and death," says Joel Black, an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Georgia.
Black's 1991 book, "The Aesthetics of Murder," examines the art behind depictions of violence. In developing that idea, he and other critics have built on a groundbreaking 1827 essay by British writer Thomas De Quincey called, "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts."
"The issue does go back in time," Black says, "and of course you have scenes of murderous violence that appear in the oldest literature we have, graphic scenes of butchery and death when you look at Homer, for instance."
Yet, history seems to have taught Americans little about how utterly ordinary their grisly tastes are. As consumers they continue to buy violent media, yet continue to blame it when real violence erupts.
—Movie director Oliver Stone gets sued over the shooting of a Louisiana convenience store clerk, with plaintiffs blaming his film, "Natural Born Killers."
—The parents of three girls shot by a schoolmate in Paducah, Ky., sue the makers of the "Quake" and "Doom" video games and the makers and distributors of the movie, "The Basketball Diaries." Their allegations: negligence and product liability.
—When the Chamber of Commerce in Mercer County, Pa., sponsored a murder-mystery dinner theater at a local inn last year, area members of the group Parents of Murdered Children protested.
"We were there to say ‘murder isn't entertainment,' " said Christy Anderson, whose boyfriend beat her 2-year-old daughter, Lisa Marie, to death in 1994.
In response to the protest, the chamber dropped the word "murder" from the name of the event.
After she lost her child, Anderson, 26, said she began to see violence in the entertainment media through different eyes.
"Before all this happened to me and affected me, I did watch movies that had violence and murders in it," she said, "A lot of people think, ‘It won't happen to my family,' and I felt the same way."
Now, Anderson rejects such fare, except reality-based stories such as "America's Most Wanted."
Sissela Bok, a Harvard ethicist who wrote the 1998 book, "Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment," worries about the consequences of a recent American trend to aim so much violent content at children. To her, it's one thing that distinguishes today's violent entertainment from that of the past.
"No child is born to enjoy violence," she said. "People can come to enjoy it if they are acculturated to it, trained in a way to it, drawn to it....It's quite unfair to expose children to it before they can deal with it."
Both Black and Bok encourage what could be the emerging American response to depictions of violence: not censorship, but greater media literacy and a more critical perspective on violence in the arts.
Says Bok: "We do need to learn about violence and we need to deal with it, intellectually, culturally and emotionally, in works of art, novels, films."
Classical depictions of violence often aimed to make moral, religious or political statements. Today's critics say Americans should think about the reasons for violence in their own media, distinguishing the graphic killing in the film "Schindler's List," for example, from that in "Pulp Fiction."
As Bok put it, "We really should be careful to ask why we're watching it, and are we starting to enjoy cruelty for the sake of cruelty."One man's solution to media violence is to present alternative ways of solving problems.
Rob Schmidt, a 41-year-old free-lance writer in Culver City, Calif., publishes Peace Party, a comic book whose characters use nonviolent American Indian ethics and mysticism to deal with conflict.
In one story line, two characters are on the run from a bloodthirsty gang, yet reject an offer of guns to defend themselves. "It's not our way," says one of the story's heroes. "Our beliefs are what make us who we are."
If the popularity of violent entertainment is an old story, so is outrage over it.
An anecdote Bok relates in her book could describe some teen-ager flexing his thumbs on a Sony Playstation: A man worries about his friend's addiction to violent entertainment. He laments that his friend, "drunk with the fascination of bloodshed," was losing his soul to the spectacle.
But the year was 380, and the entertainment in question was the Roman gladiator games, whose participants killed each other for sport for centuries. The man condemning the violence: the Christian theologian Augustine.
Violence in America
America's cultural mindset
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