The Psychology Behind Violence on TV

Anne Marie Yerks | Mar 20, 2013

Guns, gangs, horror, and violence are not only prevalent on television but are the backbone of some of TV’s most popular shows. Today, we don’t just accept violence on TV, but we actually anticipate and look forward to shows featuring violent, ruthless characters. Watching a young boy shoot his mother square in the face on The Walking Dead is just a typical Sunday night. Witnessing Klaus gruesomely rip the hearts out of his 12 hybrids on The Vampire Diaries during their Christmas episode? That’s just Thursday night entertainment. Like the Romans, we savor the savagery that — in the words of ABC anchorman Jim McKay — brings “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Every year, the website Funeralwise.com records and counts depictions of death on TV. The most deadly TV show, the report claims, is The Walking Dead, which knocks off about 38 zombies in every episode. Second place goes to Strike Back, a Cinemax series that plays out real-life news headlines with its cast of spies and intelligence agents. It averages 26 deaths per episode, all human. The dystopian NBC show Revolution drops about 11 humans per episode. And this count of the dead is growing: Funeralwise.com reports that televised deaths rose 12 percent between 2011 and 2012.

But there’s more to violence than death alone. Guns, knives, and bombs thrill us just as much as witnessing a zombie’s fall, and some claim that televised gore leads us astray. In fact, the Parents Television Council reports that shootouts, street fights, and violence on TV cause aggressive behavior in children. So why do we keep watching with an insatiable thirst for more? “We are an innately violent species,” claims Harold Schechter, author of Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment. Schechter continues, “So, for moral law-abiding people who are well-raised and properly raised, particularly little boys, there has to be some sort of socially approved outlet for those aggressive energies.” So, in a sense, violence on TV is the panacea for real violence.

I’m not sure I agree. Take Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza and other young men who lashed out on society and on themselves. A lifetime — even a short one — of exposure to fictionalized violence on TV and video games affects the brain in ways we are just beginning to understand. When someone already has a predisposition to mental illness, autism, depression, or any number of conditions, violence — especially when associated with heroism as it is in many shows and video games — more easily becomes behavior to replicate in real life. The division between the fantasy worlds of TV and the fantasy worlds of personal psychosis begin to blur. By the time the rest of us know, it’s too late.

But the majority of us are not mentally ill in that way, so there must be another reason we like destruction. Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, author of the classic tome “The Savage Mind,” would likely point to narrative structure. Every story has a crisis, a conflict, and a resolution. This trinity is embedded in us so deeply that we can never tear away. It’s who we are and how we live. The stories we watch, so saturated with crisis and conflict, are just the way we achieve the satisfying feeling of closure and resolution. What was once a ghost story around a campfire has become an episode of The Walking Dead. Neither are better or worse, but both are us.

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