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Let's Sever the Decapitation Scenes

An examination of graphic violence in television and film.

May 20, 2007

In a previous column that I wrote in 2001, entitled “A Call to Eliminate Horror Films”, I suggested that legislators slap an “X” rating on horror films, and cordon them off in restricted areas of video stores. Now, in 2007, the graphic violence that is often a part of horror films and slasher movies seems to have taken root in mainstream television programs. Many movies that are not billed as horror movies have adopted extreme standards in their depictions of graphic violence.

My wife and I have been fans of Patricia Arquette ever since we saw her in the John Boorman film, Beyond Rangoon. Arquette is an accomplished and emotionally powerful actress. In her current television show, Medium, she seems like a genuinely nice person. The relationship of love between her character, Allison Dubois, and her husband, Joe, is an inspiring change from the unstable relationships depicted in many TV shows.

However, watching Medium is such a risky proposition that we don’t allow our children to watch it. The extreme and graphic violence frequently shown on Medium is shocking and disturbing, and devalues a show that is forward thinking in its spirit world themes. Watching the season finale over the last three weeks has been an uncomfortable and disappointing experience. The story line of killers who decapitate their victims and then place the head of a former victim on the neck of the next is disturbing even in it’s verbal description. For a mainstream television program to show the decapitated heads in all their bloody gore is unnecessary, irresponsible and emotionally damaging.

The depiction of graphic violence in mainstream movies has also gone too far. We recently watched the HBO film, Elizabeth, with Helen Mirren. It was very well done, enjoyable, and educational to boot. Yet, the gruesome scenes of the decapitated heads of Mary, Queen of Scots and the Earl of Essex, not to mention the horrific scenes of drawing and quartering, were way too much for me. I remember watching the movie, A Man for All Seasons, about the trial and execution of Sir Thomas Moore. In those days, film directors were merciful, and cut to a black screen when the ax came down on the victim’s neck. Now, directors seem to want to show it all, even to the extent of forcing us to watch the ax blade strike Queen Mary’s neck not just once, but twice. Do we really need to see these things?

“Do we really want to see them?” seems to me to be the real question. Will we slide down a slope made slippery with blood, clutching our television remotes and howling for more flesh to be ripped into shreds by lions? Are we devolving back to virtual Roman coliseums, where we pant for the next shocking thrill and adrenaline rush? I hope not, but I’m profoundly worried about the effect of sustained images of graphic violence on the hearts and sensibilities of our children.

Some might say that watching historical films that contain realistic violence allows us to honor the victims of that violence. There’s a logic to that, to be sure. A better world will certainly be a world of empathy, sensitivity and heartistic awareness of the suffering of others. However, in our efforts to become sensitive to others’ pain, we need to make sure that we do not accomplish the opposite. Watching the first graphic decapitation in a film would hopefully make us feel ill, and make us want to hide our eyes. Will we hide our eyes after the hundredth head rolls to the ground, or will we perhaps think, “there goes another one”?

What damage will be inflicted on us by watching these scenes? Will viewers develop post-traumatic stress syndrome? Will our emotions, unconscious minds and bodily senses be able to discern that scenes of horror are not real, or will they assume that we ourselves are being subjected to the same horrors as the victims in the films? How will all of this affect children and teenagers who are watching? I don’t believe that we can ignore these questions and still be called responsible.

Given the market-driven nature of Hollywood, it’s too much to expect that film directors will limit their depictions of graphic violence to sincere explorations of historical or current suffering. Using violence for the thrill and shock factor is just too attractive and too profitable a prospect to pass up. Thus, viewers will continue to be subjected to more and more hideous scenes until a large groundswell of public opinion puts a stop to it. We need to vote with our feet and with our television remotes.

Being part Dutch, I was interested in the movie, Black Book, by Paul Verhoeven. My wife and I went to see it last week. It was a well done historical film about the Dutch resistance and their fight against the Nazis. The female lead, Carice van Houten, played the courageous character of Rachel Steinn, a Jewish resistance fighter. One wants to empathize with the suffering of all people in history. Suffering should never be trivialized or ignored. Yet, was it really necessary for Verhoeven to show us a large vat of human excrement being dumped over Rachel as she cowered, half nude, in front of her tormentors? I simply couldn’t look.

Legislation, ratings boards and censorship are thorny topics. Over the last forty years we’ve watched ratings become almost meaningless, with movies being rated PG-13 that previously would have been R for sexuality, nudity or the “F” word. Taking children to a PG-13 movie nowadays is fraught with uncertainty. Perhaps new rating systems need to be established, based on numeric values. The website uses such scales. However, even those values can slide. Apocalypto, by Mel Gibson, was given a ten for violence. Thus, I decided to skip it. Will it get a ten, ten years from now? Standards slip as film makers push the envelope, from generation to generation. We can watch it happen as parents tell their children, “Don’t watch that movie! It’s too violent!” and are then countered with the response, “Why? It’s not real. It’s only a movie. It’s not a problem.”

I simply can’t believe that a future world of true love and peace and beauty should be sullied by extreme and graphic violence, even in movies or televison. To revitalize our societies, and bring about a world of unselfish love, let us seriously consider renouncing such depictions of graphic and gratuitous violence. Our children will be the better for it.

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Peter Falkenberg Brown
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