23 April 2013

Movies Don't Create Psychos. Movies Make Psychos More Creative


This is a subject that many have argued and debated over the years - that of: do films really have an impact on the way people think and act? Are violent movies to blame for violence that occurs in real life? I know I've looked at this before, through my coursework during my studies but I would like to re-visit it again. My examples will highlight the media's moral panic and will argue for and against as best as possible.

Natural Born Killers
Natural Born...
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My first choice is a film whose whole purpose is to show audiences how violence is heavily influenced by the media. Originally written by Quentin Tarantino (a man often targeted for his violent films being a possible influence), Natural Born Killers was then brought to director Oliver Stone's attention who heavily re-wrote it after seeing how the media played a part in the cases of OJ Simpson and Rodney King. The film follows a couple - Mickey and Mallory Knox (played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, respectively) who decide to go on a killing spree. The film is littered with media references - the journalist (Robert Downey Jr) who follows their case is making a documentary of their lives as he knows the audience wants to see their actions in a glorified sense; the way the couple met is shot as an old tv show in the style of I Love Lucy, contrasting the violence with a laughter track. There are several times when images are projected against the background in scenes, easily representing how movies affect our everyday lives - in the case of Natural Born Killers, the everyday lives are serial killers. The fact that Natural Born Killers is a parody of critics quickly placing the blame onto films for violence, it still came under fire as, ironically, critics slammed the film for being too violent. Real life crimes followed, naturally being blamed on Natural Born Killers - the case of Sarah Edmondson and boyfriend Benjamin Darras, who after watching Natural Born Killers, went out and shot two random people. Though, it has to be mentioned that the fact they were high on LSD may have something to do with it...The media lapped it up, with the author John Grisham, a friend of one of the victims, verbally attacking Oliver Stone for creating a violent film and allowing people to watch it. It was only after getting advice from Grisham, did the survivor of the attacks change her lawsuit to include Oliver Stone and the production company, before she had only taken action against the criminals. Natural Born Killers is not always an easy film to watch, with the frenzied pace and disjointed cuts and editing but this is all to represent the minds of the killers, showing the audience how chaotic their lives are, right up to the very last scene.

Scream 4
Scream 4
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 My next example is the Scream franchise. Or at least the first one in the series. Now, Scream is a slasher film, a typical film showing a serial killer randomly murdering teenagers. Or, so it will first seem. But, in actual fact, Scream is a parody, cleverly sending up other slasher films. It's a different parody compared to Natural Born Killers, in that it is a more subtle attempt at highlighting cliches. Plus, Scream does not intend to drive its opinion down its audiences' throats as Natural Born Killers sometimes feels. Whereas Natural Born Killers' aim to show how media can be played in everyday lives was done visually and symbolically, Scream shows it through characters and their actions. The title of this article is uttered by one of the characters after the main character accuses them of seeing one too many movies, hence why she thinks they are a little bit unstable. The quote highlights a different view - not blaming films for creating violent people but explaining that they may be influenced. The film is littered with previous horror film references, one of the characters giving rules on what should and shouldn't be done in order to avoid the same consequences people in horror films face. This may explain the killers' obsession with all things scary-movie related, hence the phone calls asking each victim what their favourite film is. One can argue that the psychopaths portrayed in the film being easily led by the movies they watch, represent people being influenced and doing the exact same as the killers in the film. Again, like Natural Born Killers before it, Scream came to be heavily criticised and blamed for crimes linked to the film. One case that names Scream as a direct influence is that of Daniel Gill and Robert Fuller, teenagers who stabbed their friend after watching Scream. The drugs and an obsession with knives probably didn't help matters.

It is so easy to place the blame on film. It's the easy way out for the criminals, 'the film made me do it'. And yet, people of a sound mind are never overheard saying to their friends: 'I watched Scream last night, it sent me messages in the guise of a plot and images to maim, torture and kill'. The critics are fast to place the blame, even without seeing the films in question, because surely if they were to watch the same film, then they too will go rushing out in an attempt to recreate images that they have seen. The argument that violent films influence violent behaviour is a flimsy one as it categorises every single person as a zombie willing to absorb all the images that are being fed to them. If this is the case, we'd all be a poor nation after buying everything that adverts tell us to buy. Each example of the cases I've mentioned all include uses of drugs and yet it is the violent films that were the main focus here. There is already something severely wrong with each of the criminals far before they had even watched a violent film, for their brain to even contemplate a crime and yet here they are passing the blame onto everything but themselves. It will be a sad time if the film industry decides to cave and censor their films as the majority of the cinema audience have never contemplated taking up a violent act after watching violent films, nevermind acting up on it. I think it's quite ironic that the two films heavily criticised for encouraging violent behaviour, are themselves a parody of this exact worry. Maybe I'm too defensive here, but I conclude that films are not responsible for peoples' actions. What do you think? Do you agree that films are blameless or do you think they should accept some responsibility?


  1. I find that people tend to look for somewhere to place the blame after a violent incident - whether it be films or that other regular scapegoat video games. Violent films always come in for their fair share of stick when something happens, but as you pointed out the perpetrators usually have something wrong with them in some way to even contemplate these violent acts.
    DO violent films make people violent? No.
    In the same way that violent video games don't turn people into mindless killers.
    After Columbine the (sci-fi) game Doom was held accountable for the killers actions. Manhunt, Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto have equally been blamed for inspiring killers. Even recently a link was made between games and the Sandy Hook shootings. Unfortunately, as with blaming violent films there is a habit of pointing the finger without substantiating evidence - the killer watched/played A so it MADE them do B.
    A game doesn't make a person pick up a gun, and neither does a film.
    The person does it because of a whole range of other reasons; social background, bullying, mental health, drugs and so on.
    Playing Call of Duty doesn't make me want to go out and shoot someone, and neither does watching a violent film like Natural Born Killers. In fact the reverse is more likely among the vast majority of gamers and film goers.
    But it's the few that do commit violent acts and try to place the blame on something other than themselves that get the attention.
    "Ten thousand people watch Scream and don't kill anyone" doesn't sell papers or get the viewing figures of your news show up.
    "Killer watched violent films, says they inspired him" however does.

  2. Yes, I did have computer games in my mind whilst writing this article given recent events. As I said, it is an easy way out to blame it on everything but the perpetrator. Good point about the newspaper headlines.

  3. Interesting question! I like your account of the films, though I haven't seen them.

    I doubt whether anyone could conclude definitively that movies do or don't incite people to mindless or copycat violence. There has been a lot of research on the topic and it seems to conclude that people are not incited or even encouraged to violence by watching violent movies. However, the research has been done with ordinary people. I think that what we need to worry about are the one in a thousand or one in a million people who do seem to have their behaviour affected by observing images such as those you describe. There does seem to be good evidence, both from the incidents you describe and from other well documented cases that some incidents of horrific and gratuitous violence are modelled on movie scenes (eg after 'A clockwork orange', the killing of Jamie Bolger and the recent Colorado cinema shooting).

    The other issue you raise is about parody. I guess here there is the question of whether the film makers are sincere/genuine/honest in their claim to be parodying or offering some kind of comment or critique. There's the unkind comment about Apocalypse Now that it wasn't an anti war film but rather an anti-war war film. Could the same be said about these?