Written by Harold Schechter, whose body of work consists mostly of books about serial killers, Savage Pastimes looks at the issue of whether modern violent media (i.e. video games and movies) are corrupting influences.
He approaches the question by looking at popular culture down through history, from the festival atmosphere of public executions in the middle ages, to Grimm’s fairy tales, to the horror comics of the 1940’s, to TV westerns in more recent decades.
His conclusion is interesting, but not altogether surprising. I’ll get to that shortly, but before I do, I need to throw out some anecdotes.
I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s. The first TV show other than Sesame Street that I can solidly anchor in time1 is an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker that aired in the fall of 1974 – I would have been 5. The episode in question involved an alien that sucked the bone marrow out of its victims – wholesome family entertainment indeed. Mom and Dad had no particular problem with my little brother and I watching Kolchak. However, we were shielded from cartoons like Spider-Man, because they were too violent. Also banned at various points were Speed Racer and Ultraman. Mixed messages, much?
Even while we were kept from watching the cool shows, we were allowed, even encouraged, to run around the yard with cap guns. To this day, I have scars from accidentally self-inflicted cuts from hunting knives I was probably way too young to safely handle. These knives came from a local flea market, where my brother and I purchased quite a few copies of the old EC horror comics.
When I was around 12, and we finally got cable TV, the main screening criteria for the movies that we could watch were how much nudity and sex were depicted, not how much violence. When we were lobbying to watch The Howling, a werewolf film with a dizzying amount of gore for a mainstream film in 1981, the issue my folks had wasn’t with Robert Picardo’s2 character digging a bullet out of his head, it was with about 20 seconds worth of Elisabeth Brooks’ full frontal nudity – breasts being more damaging than dripping brain matter, apparently.
When my closest brother and I were in high school, and my youngest brother was around 5 (the same age when I was watching Kolchack), we’d rent all manner of films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and watch them together. We all turned out more or less OK.
More recently, my son (13 as of this writing) is quite an accomplished player of pretty much the entire Call of Duty series. He’s also enjoyed such fine films as Predator and The Expendables with me. Nevertheless, he’s one of the most compassionate and gentle kids that I know.
So, considering my personal experiences, I wasn’t surprised when Schechter declared that violence in popular culture really doesn’t drive the crime rate up, or turn young consumers of such media into depraved killers. I was surprised, when I thought back about it, how much violence there was in media that I ravenously consumed as a child. (Schechter points out numerous instances of this – we as people tend to view our own experiences through a lens of nostalgia.)
What Schechter does well in Savage Pastimes is to clear off that lens, and remind the reader that there has been violence in media for as long as there has been media. The book is worth reading for this alone.
What Schechter doesn’t do as well3, in my view, is dig into why popular culture is such an easy target for the sanctimonious to attack. There are a lot of possible answers, I think, ranging from a sincere, but possibly misinformed, desire to make things “better”, to a purely financial interest. It would have been interesting to look at different groups to see where they were coming from. Perhaps in another book.
Overall, I think Savage Pastimes is an interesting and fairly quick read that gives the reader relevant historical background and demonstrates the need for a clear and objective assessment of modern media rather than taking the easy route of knee-jerk reactionism.
3Schechter also veers dangerously close to sexism a few times with the implication that socially constructed gender roles are the natural, default behaviors of boys and girls. He’d have been better not to go there and stick with the general argument.