I just re-watched Zombieland (I have a strange obsession with Zombies) and for some reason it inspired me to write this post about violence in movies.
I used to hate movie violence — I would get nightmares for weeks if anything even slightly gross happened. I walked out of a cinema showing of Jurassic Park because I couldn’t cope with that tied up goat left to be eaten.
Luckily, since then, I have developed a healthy appreciation for the odd gore-fest or creepy thriller. However, I’ve noticed violence can be used in different ways.
1. Violence as comedy gold
These are your comedy-horrors, your splatter-fests, the movies designed to be watched with a group of you cackling away as someone gets a chainsaw through the windpipe. I’ve thought a lot about this type of movie – why is violence funny? And I eventually came up with two answers:
1. Violence is funny because we’re all secretly a little bit of a bully and fall into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mindset – and enjoy seeing ‘them’ suffer. This, I think, is the reason why people in these types of movies are often entirely unsympathetic. They do stupid things just so that we can distance ourselves from them “I would never go into the dark creepy house by myself!” and then we enjoy what happens because it proves us right.
2. Comedy violence is also, on some level, shocking, and I think laughter is a really common response to shock/extreme situations. We laugh when we accomplish something crazy, we laugh when we’re frightened, it’s a little bit akin to hysteria.
Of course, like all comedy, this is hard to pull off successfully. Funny violence may be the hardest type of violence to write.
2. Violence as punishment or reinforcement of social mores
Very similar to the above, and still playing into that ‘them’ and ‘us’ sensibility, violence can be used to punish transgressive behaviour. Of course, transgressive often just means different. The one man last standing is, in these types of movies, nearly always a white man (with a few notable exceptions). The ones that die? Women, foreigners, homosexuals, the disabled, and anyone who isn’t ‘normal’.
At it’s best this trope might be used to punish selfish behaviour such as putting yourself ahead of the group, or betraying your group in some way.
3. Violence as art
Yes, sometimes violence is purely beautiful. Think skillful martial arts fights, sword play or even hand-to-hand combat. This type of violence is artistic, often slightly surreal, and will celebrate the way blood splatters onto a camera or the way sweat runs over bare skin. The music will often be hypnotic, rather than edgy.
4. Violence to provoke terror
Sometimes violence is just flat out scary, although it’s interesting that the scariest type of violence is the one that happens off-screen. Now fear is a moveable feast – some people are so inured to violence and so good at separating fact from fiction (or so good at identifying with the psychopath instead of the victim) that there probably isn’t any way to scare them other than actually chaining them up and leaving them to saw their own hands off. However, for the normal population, fear exists and is an essential survival mechanism.
So why watch movies that terrify us? It does, perhaps, make us flex our adrenal glands, ensures that in our cozy suburban lives we don’t forget how to be afraid. It helps us explore terror, so those of us who have been in terrifying situations can process them in a relatively safe way. Or maybe it’s just an adrenaline high, addictive as any drug. Who knows?
5. Violence to inspire sympathy
Some violence is not the product of a sick imagination, but rather violence that reflects reality. When we show the horrors of war we’re showing the truth, and hopefully making a larger point about the brutality and the wastage of war. When we show the violence of domestic abuse it makes for uncomfortable viewing, but it also dramatises a bigger point – that this happens to real people. It forces it into people’s minds and makes them confront it. This kind of violence is used often, but sadly it’s often over-used or used for the wrong purpose – to inspire despair or guilt, to sell documentaries, or it comes from a place of anger and blame. Done well, it could inspire behaviour change or social change that makes people’s lives better.
6. Violence as writer’s crutch
Sometimes, when a movie script is sagging and nothing much seems to be happening the writers will jazz it up by sticking in a fight scene, or some other violent conflict. This is the type of fight scene you often end up yawning through, because it serves no purpose other than to try and keep you entertained. These writers have missed the memo that says violence needs to serve some purpose. You don’t care about the outcome, you aren’t rooting for anybody, there’s no real sense of danger, and it isn’t even funny.
7. Non-violent violence
Is non-violent violence even possible? The answer is yes. This is when we take a violent situation and remove the consequences. It’s a bar fight without any broken heads, a lego man game where the enemies collapse into blocks. Since most storytelling revolves around conflict, and violence is a quick-and-easy way to dramatise conflict… non-violent violence finds its way into a lot of media.
What do you think? Have I missed any types of violence? What kind of violence do you find acceptable in your TV/Movies?