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Why do we love violence in movies?

Drew Turney

BY Drew Turney

16th Jun 2023 Film & TV

Why do we love violence in movies?

Violence in entertainment is as old as entertainment itself, but it might teach us more about our relationship to real violence than we realise

From the time we can crawl, play with toys or sit up and watch TV, we get conflicting messages about violence. 

Voices of caring authority from teachers and parents tell us violence is wrong. But movies, TV and other media tell us violence isn't just okay but necessary. You only have to look at entertainment trends from the 1980s action genre to prestigious TV like Game of Thrones or The Last of Us to realise violence is endlessly cool and occasionally pretty sexy. 

Quentin Tarantino has talked about violence in movies (including his own) plenty of times, but he erased any doubt during an interview when he answered a question about violence by shouting gleefully, "Because it's so much fun!"

After one of his earliest hits, My Name Is, Eminem faced a backlash when he asked the uncomfortable question, "Hey kids, do you like violence?"

What happens when you confuse violence in entertainment and real life? According to US talk show host Bill Maher, the results—especially when mixed with social media and the easy availability of guns in the US—aren't good.

But this isn't a call to end movie violence. Most well-adjusted adults (and adequately-parented kids) can watch John Wick or play Call of Duty without turning into murderers. 

"We're pretty inured to violent entertainment at this point in history"

Why? We have the capacity to suspend disbelief, and even while we react to stories emotionally with fear, excitement or romantic longing we inherently know nobody's really being shot dead or falling in love

In fact, we're pretty inured to violent entertainment at this point in history. The American Psychiatric Association said back in 1998 that the average 18-year-old American has seen 200,000 acts of simulated violence in entertainment, including 16,000 killings. 

More recent research from the University of Pennsylvania said parents and frequent moviegoers are increasingly desensitised to—and accepting of—sex and violence. 

Are we accepting of violence in real life?

Here's a critical point: we react to real violence very differently. Few of us have seen murders or violent deaths in real life, but those who have know how extremely traumatic it can be. People still have nightmares about 9/11, and with good reason. 

Because despite how fun or cool violence is in film or prose, we actually have an in-built mechanism against committing or seeing violence in real life. 

"We actually have an in-built mechanism against committing or seeing violence in real life"

Proto-humans within a community who indiscriminately bashed enemies for every sleight or laughed as peers were dragged to their deaths by sabre tooth cats wouldn't have survived in an environment where the collective protection of the group was your only chance. 

Sabre tooth tiger - why do we love movie violence?

Proto-humans wouldn't have survived various threats such as sabre tooth tigers if not for a mechanism against violence. Image: Charles R Knight, public domain.

Of course, the history of the human race is also incredibly bloodthirsty. Along with a survival instinct about ourselves and our nearest and dearest, intertribal warfare became just as much a part of our nature as we grew in numbers and competed for resources, and our pursuit of tools and technology gave us the devastating machinery of industrial killing in the 20th century. 

There's a similar dichotomy in our approach to violence. While we work hard to keep things peaceful in our own lives, writers and directors in fiction, movies and TV know just as much as ancient campfire storytellers how exciting danger and violence are. 

A love of storytelling

Humans are uniquely story driven creatures. Our lives are made up of them, we thrive on them, and we're psychologically primed to tell them and digest them. It's no accident being a storyteller in the major media is one of the most sought after, competitive and prestigious occupations in the modern economy. 

People at the cinema - why we love violence in movies

Humans are a storytelling species

Media technology today is unique in that it can show us the most realistic-looking violence through elaborately staged illusion, and because of our constant hunger to be told a story, we give ourselves over to those illusions willingly, knowing we're safe in a dark cinema or curled up in bed with a rollicking novel

"Because of our constant hunger to be told a story, we give ourselves over to those illusions willingly"

And maybe that's the key to our relationship to violence. Maybe as we debate how saturated with violence the media is and how overexposed we all are, we should have faith that a balanced mind will find real-life violence emotionally scarring while still enjoying the choreographed spectacle of an action hero blowing away a room full of bad guys. 

When we brought down a rampaging wildebeest on the plains to feed the tribe, it became the prehistoric equivalent of a comic book movie blockbuster. An epic war novel, slasher movie or even a roller coaster today is the modern equivalent of gleefully recounting the thrust of a spear, the slashing of dangerous horns or the enraged tramping of the huge animal later that night, safely back at camp. 

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