Ultraviolent atrocities saturate pop culture

Films and TV pump the gore because they can, and it sells

October 30, 2021
Knight Ridder News Service
By David Hiltbrand

Greetings from the slaughterhouse that is pop culture.

Our most popular forms of entertainment -- TV, films and books -- have followed video games into a ferocious new realm of ultraviolence marked by increasingly graphic depictions of brutality.


• In an episode of the Fox TV network's Killer Instinct, a home-surgery victim wakes up on his patio to find his liver cooking on the gas grill.

• In Domino, now in movie theaters, bounty hunters shoot off a man's arm and then carry the severed limb around with them.

• In last year's sadistic film Saw -- whose sequel, Saw II, opened Friday -- a man cuts off his own foot with a dull hacksaw.

• In Stephen J. Cannell's new novel, Cold Hit, someone shoots homeless men in the head, cuts off their fingers, and carves runic symbols in their chests.

You might think that you've already gotten a bellyful of Hollywood violence, from Psycho to Pulp Fiction. But many pop-culture experts agree that the lavish intensity of today's carnage makes previous eras look dainty.

"In the last few years, there's been a steady increase in the amplitude," said Stephen Prince, a professor of communication studies at Virginia Tech and president of the international Society for Cinema and Media Studies. "Characters were beheaded in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance in 1916, but it was shown quickly and in long shot.

"Today you might see it in slow motion, with close-ups from multiple camera set-ups. It'll have an aggressive sound component to make it texturized and sensual. You'll hear the arterial blood splatter. The whole treatment is much more detailed and loving."

Novels are going down the same visceral path.

"I have noticed an increase in gratuitous violence, a desensitizing of violence," Oline Cogdill, the longtime mysteries columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, wrote in an e-mail. "Some writers feel because films and television have gone so far, that they need to do that to attract an audience."

Margaret Cannon, a critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, concurred by e-mail: "In the old days of the thriller-mystery, murder was the ultimate crime but it was usually just murder. Now we have ... sexual crimes, torture, really nasty stuff, along with the murder."

Violence instead of sex?

The ratcheting up of violence is most evident in this season's network TV series.

"With competition from cable, I think, networks have had to go further in graphic representations of violence," said Cynthia Felando, a film-studies lecturer at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "I've had squeamish reactions watching C.S.I."

Television's top-rated show has certainly had its stomach-turning moments, such as last season's buried-alive finale directed by Quentin Tarantino, or the recent episode in which human remains were found grossly decomposed in a steamy car trunk.

But CBS's Vegas crime-scene geeks have plenty of company. In the debut of the network's new drama Criminal Minds, for instance, a woman -- bound, gagged and caged -- frantically struggles as her rapist/ serial-killer captor jabs at her bloody fingertips with pincers.

Why are TV producers suddenly so enamored of hard-core gore? They might be sublimating their frustrated sex drive.

"In the post-Janet Jackson media environment, the networks and TV producers and writers are wary of pushing the content envelope as aggressively as they have with regard to sexual content," said Melissa Caldwell, director of research for the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group. "As the law stands now, the (Federal Communications Commission) has no authority over violent content."

The commission says it doesn't normally track violence complaints.

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has introduced a bill that would give the FCC jurisdiction over egregiously violent displays.

"There's no question that violence in television programming continues to dramatically increase," he wrote in an e-mail. "More and more, broadcasters are looking for ways to increase ratings, and unfortunately, increasing violent content seems to be their answer."

Until now, politicians have focused most of their rhetoric and concern about media violence on video games, because of their youth appeal. In this era of an Xbox in every kid's bedroom, these kill-'em-all games have set a new standard for graphic and casually cruel violence.

Combine that with increasingly cutthroat movies, DVDs and TV shows, and it's clear that today's young people are being exposed to unprecedented levels of violence.

'That scares the hell out of us'

What effect does all this savagery have on the audience?

"It makes all of us fearful," said Scott Poland, a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University. As administrator of a national task force, he has responded to 11 school shooting cases, including Columbine and Paducah. "We'd all like to believe that man is basically good, but with all the crime and violence depicted, it gets harder and harder to hold onto that viewpoint."

One of the popular entertainment media's glaring distortions is a grossly exaggerated incidence of serial killing. If you judge by books, TV and movies, about one out of every three people is a budding Ted Bundy. The fiends figure prominently in prime-time shows from CBS's Cold Case to ABC's Night Stalker, and in a coming two-part crossover episode of the NY and Miami franchises of C.S.I.

"That scares the hell out of us -- the idea of being killed randomly by someone we don't even know," Poland said. "That doesn't fit the real pattern of violence in America, where serial killers are exceedingly rare. But it sells books."

People in the TV industry maintain that this season is merely business is usual.

"When I was a kid there was violence on TV and there's violence now," said Nick Santora, a writer-producer for Fox's Prison Break. "In fact it's less gratuitous now. Physical confrontations are story-driven. They're not there just for shock value."

But he says that TV producers are operating without clear limits for violence. "The standards are so ambiguous as to not give you much of a guideline, so often you go by instinct," he said.

The TV and film industries are self-governed through content-ratings systems. And those classifications tend to be vague and inconsistent.

"It's important for people to realize that ratings have 'crept' over time," said Kimberly Thompson, director of the KidsRisk Project at Harvard University's School of Public Health. "Looking at films over an 11-year period, we showed that ratings crept so much they moved almost a full category. Today's PG-13 movie is like an R-rated film from 10 years ago."

Made for home consumption

Many film historians hold that serious directors are immune to the siren song of violence.

"Look at the box office top 10 last year" in which the only big money-maker that drew an R-rating for its reliance on graphic gore was The Passion of the Christ, wrote Michael Medved, film critic and nationally syndicated radio host, in an e-mail. "This year the most obnoxiously sadistic films -- The Devil's Rejects and the just released Domino -- both opened to lukewarm ... business."

But although obviously lurid movies such as The Devil's Rejects aren't "date films," they enjoy healthy afterlives.

"We are in a cycle ... during which horror films, particularly violent movies like Saw, are selling unusually well on home video," Scott Hettrick, editor of the trade magazine DVD Exclusive, wrote by e-mail.

Saw has earned more than $90 million so far on video, nearly 65 percent more than it took in at the U.S. box office.

And more and more Hollywood projects are based on hard-core source materials. The films Sin City and A History of Violence, both critically lauded, were adapted from gritty graphic novels. The Resident Evil films and the new Doom are re-creations of violent video games. Other movies, such as Dawn of the Dead, with its incessant skull-splattering shots, just look like first-person shooter games.

How far will this trend toward ultraviolence go? The only logical answer is "farther." Once artistic boundaries of taste or restraint have been crossed, they are rarely reinstated.

We might have to resign ourselves to the entertainment climate described by Mandy Patinkin's character in a recent episode of Criminal Minds: "Finding new ways to hurt each other is what we're good at."