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July 21, 2012

While we mourn the “tragedy” this week (it’s a “tragedy” when the suspect’s name is Anglo-Saxon, otherwise “act of terror”) it’s worth rereading this review of the film published before the event.

Why do we consider it acceptable to watch realistic films of horrific events? Aren’t we approaching the “singularity” where the virtual merges with the real?

Virtual simulators of plane flight are getting so real that they are required flight training for pilots of a 747. If virtual simulation of plane flight trains one to fly planes, does virtual simulation of violence train one to commit violence?

  1. July 21, 2012 10:52 am

    Thank you for the astute comment: “Why do we consider it acceptable to watch realistic films of horrific events? Aren’t we approaching the “singularity” where the virtual merges with the real?”

    I couldn’t agree more. We fill our screens (movie and computer) with larger than life characters who glorify violence, martyrdom and war then wonder why some people can’t distinguish between the two realities. Research has shown that the more you identify with a character in a 3D game, for example, the more the brain can’t distinguish between the “real” you and the rendered character (see Scientific American Mind article, “Avatar as Guide”). The incident in Colorado was a horrific tragedy, but not a surprise.

  2. July 21, 2012 11:20 am

    Why do you call this movie “realistic”? I like the review you link to; it points out that the newest Batman movie differs from its comic book predecessors in concluding that one superhero (in this case, one without superpowers, although I’d really like that knee brace that negates the effects of having no cartilage) is not enough to restore justice to such a divided society.

    I have avoided violent movies (for myself, and for my children before the age of about 16) because of the de-sensitizing effect you mention. The exceptions are usually the ones that actually consider the issues of good and evil, power and helplessness.

    The Colorado shooter obviously hadn’t seen the movie (his rampage took place at the beginning of the very first showing). If anything, he was acting out some kind of fantasy of being the bad guy from the last one. There have always been twisted people who are attracted to the fantasy of being bad guys. Why blame this movie for that?

    I liked the movie, and am more likely to listen to someone who has actually seen it.

  3. heteromeles permalink
    July 21, 2012 2:47 pm

    I’m not sure what’s realistic about Batman. Besides, people have been reveling in descriptions of hell for millennia, even though they don’t expect to go there.

    As for what happened in Colorado, there’s a very old term for it: Capt. Cook (1770) “described the affected individuals as behaving violently without apparent cause and indiscriminately killing or maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack. Amok attacks involved an average of 10 victims and ended when the individual was subdued or ‘put down’ by his fellow tribesmen, and frequently killed in the process.” We call it going postal. To continue from an article on the topic ( “Jin-Inn Teoh, a professor of psychiatry reported in 1972 that amok behavior existed in all countries, differing only in the methods and weapons used in the attacks.” Interesting that, even with the 70 victims, so far 12 have died. That’s coincidence of course.

    Was there a reason for Holmes’ rampage? Of course we’ll come up with a reason or two. However, in Malay mythology, running amok was caused by possession by “evil tiger spirits,” and they didn’t consider the individual necessarily responsible. In the US, we don’t give spirits responsibility. However, it’s a little eerie that Mr. Holmes dyed his hair orange before he went on his killing spree. The Joker, of course, had green hair, so Holmes failed if he was imitating the Joker from the second movie..

    That said, I don’t condone what Holmes did in Colorado, and I’m immensely glad that the bigger part of his plot (lacing his apartment with explosives to blow up all his fellow grad students) seems to have failed. While my thoughts may be on Holmes, my heart is with his victims. They did nothing to deserve his actions. That’s the nature of running amok, unfortunately.

  4. Barkeron permalink
    July 21, 2012 5:19 pm

    I don’t think it’s action flicks that normalize violence, but US gun fetishism culture.

  5. July 21, 2012 10:32 pm

    The violence in films is too “real.” Our eyes can’t tell the difference–photons are photons, from real blood or screen gore.

    But worse–the film violence is hyper-real. It’s “convincing,” yet it’s far more attractive than actual violence. The smells and exposed organs are left out. Film violence is thus far worse than the real thing–more attractive.

    A similar thing can happen in books where the violence is made too attractive. That is why I never depict certain kinds of violence, especially “successful” rape scenes.

    Literary and film violence can be “gateway drugs” to the real thing. Sure, it doesn’t happen to everyone. But then, not everyone who tries alcohol, cocaine, or gambling gets “hooked” either. Still, lots of folks do, and it is terrible for them and for society.

    • heteromeles permalink
      July 22, 2012 9:23 am

      Joan, sorry, but I have to disagree. Note that I’m not disagreeing with your refusal to portray certain types of violence, or with your personal response to what portrayals of violence. Rather, I’m pretty sure you have a distorted view of how people respond to movies.

      There’s ample evidence that humans are quite good at distinguishing screen violence from real violence. Here are a couple bits of evidence:
      –The Columbine shooters used video games to train for their rampage. The Marines use the same tactic–recruits could play(ed) first person shooter video games as a way of desensitizing them to violence. While I don’t have the results of any studies, it doesn’t appear that rates of PTSD have gone down, despite this regimen. If you were right, the rates would be significantly down, and the rates of crimes by ex-Marines would be significantly up. This has not happened.
      –Drone pilots suffer from PTSD. They’re effectively playing a video game, sitting by consoles in Nevada and going home every night, while the drones are in Afghanistan or wherever. Instead, many of the pilots are having trouble integrating the battlefield and home life, and some are, in fact, suffering from PTSD. They are neither insulated nor deconditioned by killing people on a screen.

      I have some limited martial arts experience, and while I do get aroused by movie violence, it’s blindingly obvious to me that there’s little realism in most movies, especially in live-action cartoons like Batman (although Mission Impossible was even sillier). It’s spectacle, and people react to it as such. If it was actually realistic (let alone hyper-realistic), I don’t think it would be as popular as it is.

      Contrast that with the problems that militaries have always had with getting people to kill. Strategies have included: threatening them with death if they retreat, getting them drunk or drugging them, using teenagers and young men whose sense of empathy isn’t fully developed, using ritual, music, and mob psychology to get them moving forward, extensive conditioning to kill automatically without thinking (see descriptions by soldiers of actual fights: they “rely on their training” and “don’t think about what’s happening to them”), using volunteers (who presumably know what they’re getting into), rewarding heroism, rewarding people who can kill under command but without remorse, and so on. Regardless, we still have problems with PTSD among veterans, we always have, and we probably always will.

      There have always been psychopaths who can kill without remorse, perhaps even pleasure. Some of these people can be socialized to not become uncontrolled mass murderers. Some even become CEOs and rulers. Still, they’re rare enough to strongly suggest that there’s a strong genetic component to their ability, that it’s nature as much (or more) than nurture.

      I think the idea that movies promote violence is just as fallacious as assuming, based on Colorado and Virginia Tech, that grad school drives you insane, and that all professors should wear bullet proof vests when dealing with grad students. I had a very rough time in grad school (including a close labmate who committed suicide and a troubled relationship with my advisor), but I never seriously considered violence. The reason? Despite how I felt, it was so obvious that it would solve nothing that I didn’t pursue it.

  6. July 22, 2012 9:44 pm

    I’m puzzled by the reasoning. The behavior of the Columbine shooters was in fact linked to their experiences with virtual violence. Some soldiers returning home do get involved in violence, after their experiences. These points are consistent with my point that participation in violence (virtual or “real”) leads some people into more violence.

    No one has answered my point that photons impinge on the retina the same way, whether from “real” violence or “virtual.”

    Virtual simulators of plane flight are getting so real that they are required flight training for pilots of a 747. If virtual simulation of plane flight trains one to fly planes, why can’t virtual simulation of violence train one to commit violence?

    • heteromeles permalink
      July 23, 2012 10:23 am

      Joan, I think Bowling for Columbine made the point that one could as easily link bowling to the Columbine massacre as any of the other factors, including the availability of guns, ammunition, and video games. It’s worth watching. I’d also point out that if you haven’t read about black swan theory (see Wikipedia for references), it does apply. Basically, these massacres are rare events that seem to be difficult to impossible to predict, and we always try to rationalize them post facto by pointing to one factor or another. Given the small number of occurrences and a post facto analysis of limited data collected prior to the act, any conclusion about causes is suspect. That’s why I said (sarcastically) that “evil tiger spirits” are as valid an explanation as video violence, the availability of guns, or even schizophrenia. The fact is that almost all of us experience one or more of these factors during our lives, and even in the population who experience all of the reported trigger factors, most do not commit massacres.

      As for photons being real or virtual, as I understand it, some 90% of vision takes place in the brain. In other words, the light coming in is 10% of vision, and the rest is how we interpret what we’re seeing, based on biology, context, and previous experience, as embedded in our brains. While your retinas do perform some data processing, they neither think, nor do they see. This is the basis for things as diverse as the illusions in magic and the enormous difficulties we’ve had getting machines to see the world the same way we do.

      Basically, if you’re sitting in a movie theater and expecting to be entertained, you will experience something very differently than if it’s destroying your home around you. If you’re a kid playing with toy guns, you don’t get PTSD, even if you’re playing soldier. Your frame of reference is play, not the battlefield. A kid with a toy gun can learn to shoot accurately at targets, but that doesn’t turn the kid into a killer.

      • July 23, 2012 4:08 pm

        The people in the theater actually said they thought the shooting was part of the film effects.

        Sorry, we’ll just have to disagree on this one. IMHO a photon is a photon, and VR is close to overwhelming the limits of our sensory systems.

      • heteromeles permalink
        July 23, 2012 7:44 pm

        I almost used the theater-goers tardy response as a counter example. I can’t speak for everyone’s reaction, but if I see someone wearing what appears to be military gear and/or carrying what appears to be a real gun in normal life, I get the hell out of the way if I can (and I’ve had real guns pointed at me. It’s not fun). However, if I’m watching the opening of a violent movie and assume that the gunman is part of the show, I won’t necessarily duck until he starts shooting. If he’s wearing dark clothing, I might not even see him at first. The point here is that to me, context is everything. It has little to do with photons and everything to do with the way my brain interprets them.

        Now, I use myself as an example not out of egotism, but because I know my response, and I’m pretty sure other people react differently. From what I read about the Aurora attack, it appears that most people did not see the shooter as a threat until the bullets started hitting people. All that means is that the shooter successfully camouflaged himself by putting himself beside a loud, violent film (bright lights), wearing black in the darkness (minimizing his visibility), and throwing out smoke or teargas canisters (decreasing people’s ability to see him).

        The key problem with your idea is that once the shooting started, people quickly stopped treating it as a movie and started taking trying to protect themselves. If, as you claim, photons are the same regardless, they would have simply sat there, assuming it was part of the show until they died. Context is everything.

  7. Rick York permalink
    July 23, 2012 4:24 pm

    Joan et al.

    I tend to agree that this country has a fairly crazy relationship with firearms.

    However, it’s worth noting that there are 270 million firearms in the United States today (see: Or, about 90 guns per 100 people (op cit).

    For better or worse, this makes the whole issue of gun control in the U.S. effectively moot. Unless one is willing to have government authorities search literally every home in this country, guns are now and forever will be uncontrollable. And, even if guns are bad things, the government already has way too much search and seizure power today (Patriot Act anyone?).

    Now, on to violent movies and video games: My best guess is that at least 300 to 400 million people watch very violent movies or play hyper-violent games. The worst case scenario might be that 1,000 to possibly 10,000 of these people commit murder. And, of those, I doubt more than 10 could be mass murderers. If I’m right here then the odds of a viewer or player of such media committing a capital crime are about the same as me winning the lottery.

    Finally, I find the blame assignment for acts like the one in Aurora disingenuous. James Holmes was and is a totally insane, amoral or immoral and extremely violent person. He was not made that way by his culture or even his parents. Behaviors like mass murder are too thoroughly outside any behavioral norms to blame them on parents or society. It’s possible that easy purchase of guns and ammunition abetted his violence but, is there any doubt that a murderous violent person could get his or her hands on firearms anywhere in the world?

    Keep in mind that the largest mass murder in recent history took place in Norway last year (see: Not a country known for its violent culture (pace Henning Mankell and other great Scandinavian writers!). Anders Behring’s violence was blamed on right wing rhetoric. .

    People like Holmes and Behring or Loughner may well cite their political beliefs for their violence. But, loathsome as I find the extreme right wing rhetoric around today, millions hold these repulsive beliefs without becoming, directly or indirectly, mass murderers.

    We need to focus our time and energy first on teaching our children fundamental morals and a deep sense of responsibility. We need to isolate and punish people for their criminal violence. But, we should also find the means to identify people with violent proclivities and develop processes to correct such traits earlier in life.

    Finally, we should never execute such people or any other criminal. That just perpetuates the crimes. The state has no moral right to murder people any more than the individuals it governs have such a right.

  8. Frank Caesar Branchini permalink
    July 24, 2012 5:02 pm

    Amok behavior may be a widespread phenomenon but the incidence of intentional homicide in the US is high by internationals standards. The intentional homicide rate in the US exceeds the homicide rates for Georgia, Latvia, India, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Finland, Israel, Macedonia, the Czech Republic, Canada New Zealand, Morocco, Chile, the United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Norway, Austria, and Japan. We have a huge problem with violence in the US and if we want to fix it we have to acknowledge that we have a very serious problem.

  9. July 25, 2012 6:42 pm

    I think the ‘berserker’ violence is self-containing, with regard to body count–if he wanted to maximize his kills, he would have set the bombs in the theater–but he wanted to ‘personally’ kill one person at a time, which reduces the number of victims and fatalities.
    As for training for violence–we have Tae Kwon Do classes in most towns and cities–the question isn’t ‘does a violent video train for violence?’–it is ‘does a violent video train properly?’ With most of the set-piece fight-scenes in action movies, the techniques are either impossible or rely on incredible luck and timing. If, as some have mentioned, the audience were armed, would they have the presence of mind to use them–or would they forget about their own weapons in the panic of the moment?
    A truly sad topic..

    • heteromeles permalink
      July 26, 2012 10:30 am

      I’ll admit to thinking about whether I’d want to carry a firearm into a theater for self defense against an Aurora-style shooter. The answer was a resounding “NO” for a bunch of reasons:
      –So far, there’s only been one of him. Where I live, it’s rather more sensible to go into a theater prepared for a giant earthquake than a shooter. That involves (at a minimum), gloves, a multitool, a flashlight, and a few hankerchiefs (for dust masks or makeshift bandages). Note that, unlike a gun, these items have multiple uses.
      –I might well cause a panic by bringing a gun in, especially if I kept it where I could get to it fast, thus making it visible. If I hid it, could I get to it fast enough? Probably not.
      –Could I hit the shooter in the dark, and not hit an innocent bystander? This isn’t something you can train for at a shooting range.
      –As XPerDunn pointed out, would I have the guts to kill another human being instantly? I’m not sure, and that hesitation might be fatal.

      Thinking about it, my best idea for an anti-shooter theater weapon came down to two things:
      –a green laser pointer (more powerful than the red ones, and the more powerful, the better), or
      –a “tactical flashlight” that is bright enough to temporarily blind someone.

      In both cases, I’d try to blind the shooter, to spoil his aim and give more people a chance to get away from him. In both cases, I’d be making myself a target, so I’d train to aim the flashlight or laser pointer, from arm’s length out to my side, or I’d get a light that I could turn on, quickly position, and get away from it. The tactical flashlight would also mess up the night vision of everyone else in the theater, especially those between me and the shooter who are running away from the shooter and looking at the light. So while it requires less aiming, a tactical flashlight makes other people more vulnerable. The green laser requires precision aiming, hard to do in a darkened theater. Blinding someone with a laser is a crime in many states, but in this case, I’d be willing to take the chance to save my life and others. Both require some practice for proper use.

      Still, this is such a specialized scenario that I’m not sure I’d invest in any of these things. Personally, I’d rather go to enjoy the movie, and worry more about routine hazards, like car crashes.

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