The Movies Made Me Do It

How much are 'Natural Born' Killers affected by film violence?

Legally, it may be impossible to prove intent on behalf of a filmmaker or a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt cause-and-effect affiliation between specific movies and specific violence. How do you account for the millions of unaffected consumers? What's equally at issue is the common cultural presupposition that the entertainment media bear no culpability for those who wreak havoc in imitation of it. Movies are movies, homicidal nuts are homicidal nuts, the crimes would occur with or without a movie's sensationalized prodding. So the wisdom goes. But is our relationship with movies so simple, or is there in fact something deeper, darker, going on? Could it be that visual media aren't merely a harmless, ephemeral diversion from reality, but a powerful factor in that reality bearing consequences we haven't foreseen?

Since most of the incidents we're aware of have children at their centers, this may prove to be true. According to University of Michigan professor L. Rowell Huesmann, an expert researcher on the relationship between violent media and violent behavior, "It's been well established that media violence makes kids behave more aggressively. Of course, there's no scientific way to evaluate how media violence may have or may have not caused real violence, but there's definitely a relationship, a 'priming' or 'cuing' of behavior for certain individuals. The reasons are well understood in psychology: even as toddlers, if we see other kids push and hit to get what they want, we imitate it, we begin to learn scripts for that behavior. In addition, there have been studies: you show images of gore to young children, they have a universally negative reaction: their heartbeat goes up, their palms sweat, and so on. You show it to them again and again, and those indications go away. They adapt, they become desensitized."

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills­ based "media psychiatrist," blames parental patterns of consumerism. "There's no question that parents see it happen. The Ninja Turtleswere a significant sign: everyone could see how specific violent behaviors were derived directly from that show. But they still buy the kids the computer, the violent CD games. It's cognitive dissonance— they know, but they don't want their kids to be left out, to be unarmed."

It seems the entertainment complex knows, too: Last week, MGM announced they'd like to recall every copy of The Basketball Diariesfrom store shelves but can't thanks to a prohibitive rights agreement that lasts until June 30. Even within the Hollywood chambers, the cattle can get spooked: Money Trainscriptwriter Doug Richardson was voted down for membership in the Academy thanks to the subway-booth torching. "Nobody would say it was because of that incident," Richardson says, "but no one would deny it. So, as a writer, am I supposed to wonder if what I'm doing is drama or pornography? Science is going to have to get in up to its elbows in this, I think. It's a very complicated issue, and doesn't deserve sound-bite answers. Especially since there's so much suffering."

And the suffering, not of Hollywood filmmakers told they shouldn't make ultraviolent movies but of families with murdered children, may be what the debate should be about. "We could make a great step forward by simply restricting the amount of violence to which children are exposed," Huesmann says. "That's no great constitutional dilemma. I wouldn't be surprised if at this point Oliver Stone came forth and said, 'Yes, the film obviously affects some people in a certain way,' and if he did, that would be a significant first step." (Oliver Stone declined to comment.)

"Every study indicates a relationship," Huesmann concludes. "Here's a not greatly known fact: that the statistical correlation between childhood exposure to violence in media and aggressive behavior is about the same as that between smoking and lung cancer."

Research assistance: Yael Schacher

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