The Bloodiest Shows: Why We Watch Violent Television and How it Affects Us

We might be living in the heyday of television. The streaming options have generated higher quality
more complex, and less formulaic programing than existed in the eras of scheduled network platforms.  However, many of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows in recent years are extremely violent. Think about the frequency and graphic intensity of the viciousness displayed in shows like Game of Thrones on HBO, American Horror Story on FX, and Squid Game on Netflix, just to name a few.

Should we be concerned about violence on TV?

Concerns about violence in television are nothing new. Communications researchers have been examining violence in television since the late 1960s, and as early as 1972 an advisory committee to the U.S. Surgeon General began to express worries about the possible negative impacts of televised violence on viewers.

For years, pundits have speculated about television’s role in contributing to real world aggression, suggesting that the prevalence of violent media signals a decadent and declining civilization that craves gratuitous violence as a vicarious satisfaction of base impulses. Social science research has associated exposure to violent media with an increase in hostile thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

However, the strongest evidence for a connection comes from laboratory simulations of aggressive behavior rather than actual aggression. Such studies typically show that there are many extenuating environmental and personality factors that determine how exposure to television violence affects a person.

Although, there are a few cases where violent perpetrators claimed to be inspired by mass media, these would seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Many people watch violent television and relatively few of them behave violently.

So, why is violent television so popular? 

I would like to suggest that the prevalence of violent media need not be taken as a sign of a sick society full of bloodlust. Watching violent television isn’t so much about scratching a sadistic itch, but rather it might be a way for people to grapple with a fundamental existential issue that is typically repressed in our society – namely the fear of death.

I realize this claim may sound counterintuitive. If death is a potential source of anxiety, why seek out images of violent death on television? Wouldn’t it be a better strategy to just ignore it altogether? In their book Beyond Death Anxiety, Robert W. Firestone and Joyce Catlett point out that efforts to repress and deny the reality of one’s own death are never fully effective because death anxiety is still present in the subconscious. It frequently acts as an unconscious motive for many defensive behaviors.

One of the common defenses people employ to manage death anxiety is adopting a sense of vanity and specialness. Thinking of one’s self as unique and superior to others helps to facilitate a sense of safety in which death is conceptualized as something that only happens to other people. It is the violent nature of most television deaths that bolsters the illusion of omnipotence by focusing on death as something that is avoidable.

Developmental psychologists have established that a mature cognitive understanding of death occurs around the age of 9-10, but prior to that children do not recognize that death is inevitable. Young children think of death as only occurring due to accidental or violent causes and therefore as something that can be avoided through proper vigilance (look both ways before crossings the street, don’t take candy from strangers, don’t run with scissors).

As adults, we can logically understand the inevitability of death through the syllogism: all living things die, I am a living thing, therefore I will die. But at an intuitive level it still doesn’t seem real. We are incapable of simulating death because even when we do experience a potentially analogous state like dreamless sleep, our consciousness is not there to report back on what it was like.

So, wherever we go, our consciousness is always with us giving rise to the perception that it must be permanent and cannot be extinguished by death. Television can facilitate this sense of immortality by suggesting that it is only the losers of violent encounters who perish; the winners (who we, of course, identify with) endure on screen and in viewers’ imaginations.

Additionally, television perpetuates death denial through the presentation of exceptionally resilient characters who prove impossible to kill. The protagonists in action and superhero genres survive repeated attempts on their lives against seemingly insurmountable odds, helping propagate in the mind of viewers the notion that personal death can be avoided.

In his book Challenging the Fantasy Bond, Robert W. Firestone describes another pervasive strategy that people use to avoid facing the painful reality of death. This strategy involves shrinking back from an individuated and autonomous view of life and seeking to fuse one’s identity with some larger entity (a romantic partner, a sports team, a political party, a nation, or a religion organization) that will offer a sense of security.

A large number of studies conducted by psychologists testing an approach known as Terror Management Theory have supported this notion. These studies find that asking people to think about death increases nationalism, interest in having children, and desire for fame and legacy.

Further, increasing people’s confidence that they are a part of something bigger and more enduring than they are reduces thoughts and worries about death. Television shows often present violence as a heroic means of protecting identity and legacy. Consequently, watching such shows makes thoughts of death less troubling to viewer’s by helping them to imagine the possibility of leaving a meaningful impact on the world.

One of the most powerful ways to feel a sense of immortality is by imagining living on through the legacy of one’s children, a defense Firestone calls gene survival. In American culture, the importance of providing for, protecting, and nurturing the nuclear family is prominently lauded as essential for creating a meaningful existence.

It is not surprising therefore, that many shows present the protection of the family as the justification for violence. For example, the Byrdes in the Netflix series Ozark and the Jennings family in the FX series The Americans must commit increasingly ruthless and vicious acts to protect their children and keep their families intact. The hope for legacy is most comforting when people are worried about death. Therefore, messages about the power of the family to offer immortality are most appealing to viewers when presented in violent shows.

This idea is consistent with a principle called excitation transfer developed by media researcher Dolf Zillman to explain why people would intentionally subject themselves to unpleasant stimuli like horror movies. According to excitation transfer theory, people do not like watching scenes of gore, horror, and violence but rather they enjoy the sense of relief experienced once those scenes are over.

The more uncomfortable audiences feel while the violence is happening on screen the more relief they will feel once it is over. It is this sense of relief that is rewarding and keeps viewers tuning back in for more. If we apply this principle to existential anxiety, the more violence a show contains the more concerns about death viewers will have, which will increase the sense of relief they feel when the plot of the show offers them hope of overcoming death through the legacy of children and family.

Television as meaningful storytelling

Previously much maligned as a boob-tube beaming sensationalized content to mindless recipients, television has now become an engaging medium with fans binging and re-binging show for hours on end and interacting with material in complex and labor intensive ways on all types of platforms (for example, online chatrooms and fan fiction).

Humans crave meaning, and we have always turned to storytelling to make sense of the world and our place in it. I believe that some of the best storytelling is now happening in the medium of television. Violence on television should not be dismissed as lowbrow pandering, as much of the great storytelling over human history has been ultra-violent. Think, for example, of the Gilgamesh epic, Greek and Norse mythology, the epic poetry of Homer, and the plays of Sophocles.

But just because violent television might speak to fundamental existential issues does not mean that watching it is without potentially harmful consequences. Firestone’s Separation Theory reveals how attempts to maintain a fantasy bond by merging identity with larger social institutions promote animosity towards those perceived as different from or threatening to that identity. Consequently, viewing violent television has the same possible negative impacts.

While most viewers will not be driven to mimic depictions of fictional aggression, there is the danger of becoming desensitized to violence, less critical of its consequences, and more hostile and callous toward people who are different from us.

In the real world, violence is often senseless and misguided. And even when it is justified and necessary, it is always unfortunate and has difficult consequences. In contrast, television tends to celebrate violence as enacted precisely against monolithically evil antagonists to restore justice and order with little focus on collateral damage or on the physical, emotional, and spiritual repercussions to its perpetrators.

So, is it OK to watch or not?

Like most things in life, the key is moderation. Just as it is healthy to pay attention to eating a balanced diet, we should be mindful of our television viewing habits. We should strive to watch violence in moderation and make sure we are watching other types of non-violent and dramatic shows that depict more realistic portrayals of death from natural causes. Analogous to the dietary fact that there are good and bad kinds of fats, not all violent content is equally problematic. Media scholars differentiate between two different responses to watching violence. Enjoyment (akin to transfat) is an immediate and favorable emotional reaction; whereas, appreciation (akin to polyunsaturated fat) is a slower cognitive process resulting in some newfound meaning or insight.

Enjoyment is more likely to occur in response to programs that fail to offer a full sense of conflict between competing moral agents and neglect the consequences of aggression in favor of promoting audience revelry in the spectacle of violence. Appreciation is more likely to occur in response to programs depicting characters in nuanced rather than one dimensional ways and fully highlighting the negative consequences of violence enacted by villains and heroes alike in such a way that violence is tragic.

When we do watch violent shows, we should monitor our reactions and try to avoid enjoyment and strive for appreciation. Let’s thoughtfully reflect on the moral, ethical, and social issues raised by the violence and think critically about the validity of the cultural narratives presented as justification for the violence.

The most important issue might not be how much violent television a culture produces but rather how people consume it. There seems a hopeful possibility that even if fictional violence remains prevalent, its possible harmful effects can be lessened by an awareness of the ways in which the motive to manage existential anxiety underlies its appeal. Fostering a sense of self-awareness, the capacity to tolerate some level of anxiety, an ability to live with the awareness of mortality, and a deliberate and rational mindset can be factors that protect viewers against accepting a culture of violence.

How Do People Become Violent and How Do They Get Better?
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About the Author

Jonathan F. Bassett, Ph.D. Jonathan F. Bassett, PhD is a professor of psychology at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina, where he teaches courses on death and dying. His research focuses on empirical investigations of attitudes about death and how reminders of mortality influence social behavior, as well as on the application of existential psychology, especially Terror Management Theory, to the analysis of popular culture in the areas of literature, television, and movies. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and of the recent book Death on the Small Screen: The Psychology of Viewing Violent Television (McFarland Books, 2022). Follow him on Twitter @DrJBassett

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