Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Media Violence, Stephen King, and You!; or, The Schwarzenegger/Spielberg Connection

Over the The King Cast, Bob LeDrew recently did a couple of very interesting podcasts on the subject of media violence.  If you haven't heard them yet, you should go to iTunes and check 'em out, but the short-short version of the story goes something like this:

A child psychotherapist in New Zealand recently made a bit of controversy by coming out and stating that she had treated no fewer than five patients -- all between the ages of 12 and 18 -- who had been traumatized by having read books by Stephen King.

LeDrew initially attempted to get the psychotherapist to come onto his show and do an interview; she politely declined, and he decided instead to delve into the general topic of media violence by talking to a couple of experts, one a media psychiatrist and the other a lecturer who specializes in pop cultural studies.  He got two entertaining podcasts out of the topic, and they got me to thinking about where I stand on the issue of violence in the media and the effects it might potentially have on individuals and on society as a whole.

Then I remembered that I'm not qualified to speak to such topics ... but decided to go ahead and do it anyway.
Here's the thing: I'm not an expert on any subject.  The sole exception to that is that I consider myself to be an expert on the subject of ... myself.  So, what I'd like to do here is take a bit of an autobiographical sojourn, peering back through the shimmering veils of time at the ancient time of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Through that misty murk, we might be able to see a young mahfah named Bryant Burnette, trying to learn how to live in a world that sometimes frightened him.  Can we extrapolate anything from the lessons we might learn by peering into those long-gone times?  Can we use those extrapolations to come to any sort of determination as to what extent individuals and society can be affected by media violence?  

Probably not; but it's worth a try.


I definitely remember being scared of Santa Claus when I was a little child.  That's not me in that photo, but it may as well have been.  I grew out of being scared of Santa, and grew right into other fears.  I remember being scared a lot in church, for example.  I can distinctly recall some picture book I was shown in church at some point, and being terrified of a bloody picture inside it.  You might expect that this was a depiction of the crucifixion; instead, it was -- and I can't be sure of this to a 100% accuracy, but I feel pretty confident about it nonetheless -- a depiction of the beaten traveler in the road, the one who will eventually be aided by a good Samaritan.  I don't recall how old I was when this happened; best guess is that I was maybe three.

I don't know if anything else happened in church that traumatized me ... and actually, let's just pause right here for a moment.  "Traumatized" is clearly the wrong word for me to have used.  There was no trauma in my childhood.  (Trauma is one of those words that gets overused; it ought to be reserved for people who survive crime or accidents, and yet here I am, obliquely hinting that I was traumatized by a drawing in a book, one which was illustrating a valuable and useful parable.)  No, it didn't traumatize me in the slightest; it made an impression upon me.  I think there is a significant difference in those two concepts.  Applied to, say, an arm, a trauma would result from an incident in which the arm was broken; in this analogy, my childhood didn't suffer a break, not by any means.

And yet ... one could argue that that metaphorical arm was at the very least bruised, and that I wear the bruise -- along with many others -- even to this very day.  Returning to the concept of being frightened in/of church, I don't recall there being anything else specific that made the same sort of negative impression upon me that seeing that drawing of the bloodied traveler made.  However, I do remember being frightened of going to church in a very low-key way, one which did not result in me crying or begging not to be taken, or anything like that, but one which led to me seeking my own interior form of escape from the experience.  I can recall somehow discovering that if I took the knuckles of my index fingers and pressed them firmly enough against my eyeballs through my eyelids, I would begin seeing interesting shapes and colors and patterns.  I would do that obsessively in church, seeing what I imagined to be some sort of space travel, or travel through -- what? innerspace? -- some other type of existence.  I do not, however, recall ever doing it anyplace outside of church.  As an adult I find that to be a curious sidenote.

I just paused in my blogging for a few moments, long enough to remove my glasses and press the knuckles of my index finger against my eyeballs through my closed eyelids.  Almost immediately, the patterns and swirling colors began to appear.  It has undoubtedly been well over thirty years since I last performed that action.  As an adult it reminds me a bit of certain moments from the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even more strongly of moments from the journey inside the core of V'Ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Those remain two of my absolute favorite films, and I wonder to what extent I might have, as a child seeing the scenes for the first time, made an unconscious connection between those scenes and my own inner journey of escape from church.  This is probably not the venue for that sort of contemplation, but clearly, more contemplation may be required; for now, it'll be of the interior kind, and it'll happen some other time.

My point is that as a small child, I was already prone to fear, and that the expression of that fear did not necessarily always take the form of displaying it outwardly.  Sure, sometimes I cried and shouted in Santa's lap; and other times, I became physically violent when a nurse attempted to give me a shot.  But other times, I just found my own way out of the dark, by finding my way into a different type of dark.

At some point, I saw some things on television that I ought not to have seen.  I crept into the hallway once and peered around the corner at a movie my parents were watching with an uncle and aunt who had helped us move into a new house.  It was a Western of some sort.  An Indian had beheaded a cowboy -- or at least, this is how I remember it -- and was holding the head aloft.  There were stringy bits of flesh hanging down from the severed head.  At some point, I also saw a couple of random scenes of violence on (presumably) HBO: one involved a corpse hanging somewhere outside, someone discovering it, and the head -- which was apparently fixed to something -- slowly coming detached from the rest of the body, which tore its way free and slumped to the ground; the other involved a woman being raped in a laundry room.  What these movies were, and how I came to see bits of them while my parents weren't around, I do not know.

I think you might be able to make an argument that seeing these things did traumatize me, in a way.  For years -- decades, even -- afterward, I had a difficult time watching anything in a movie that I even thought might contain gore of that nature. I also developed a severe aversion to being scared (in the sense of being startled) by movies.  This, I think, came primarily from being taken to see Poltergeist; I was eight when it came out, and I remember spending a great deal of the movie turned around in my seat, looking at the back of the auditorium, at other moviegoers, at anything other than the screen, where are the bad things were happening.  This must have gotten on my father's nerves pretty badly, but he -- and we -- stuck the whole movie out regardless.

The trauma -- if you want to call it that -- was severe enough that I'm still working my way through it.  It mostly vanished around the middle of the 1990s, but there are still times when the idea of sitting in a dark room, being scared by bits of phantom image and by bits of artificial sound still defeats me; for that reason, I have yet to be able to force myself to watch either of the Paranormal Activity films.

What, you might ask, am I afraid of?  Simple: I'm afraid of being afraid.


True enough, President Roosevelt.  (By the by, yes, I'm definitely terrified of spiders.  If I saw a tarantula crawling up my wall right now, I suspect I might literally faint from fear.  And even a much smaller spider, glimpsed without warning, would cause me to jerk back physically, and probably to yelp in an unmannish fashion.  I have know idea where that particular fear comes from, but it's deeply ingrained, it's not going anywhere, and it's utterly crippling.  Do me a favor: don't tell my enemies.  Thanks!)

There is simply no doubt that, in my case, seeing the scenes I mentioned above had a deep effect upon me.  Was it necessarily a negative effect?  I don't know.  I've certainly, as an adult, got my neuroses; I've got things I'm not good at in terms of relating to people, both in the specified sense and in the generalized one.  However, I wouldn't say I'm crippled by those neuroses to any significant degree; not like I am by spiders.  That might have been true once -- ask the older version of me who, as late as 1997, was unable to watch certain scenes from Scream because they scared him so -- but as of 2011, I'd say it's way more false than it is true ... Paranormal Activity being a notable exception.

On the other hand, though I think it might be fair to say that I was traumatized by seeing that severed head, and especially the stringy bits of flesh hanging off of it, I don't seem to have developed any violent tendencies because of it.  I was deeply disturbed by that scene of the lady getting raped in the laundry room, but I don't seem to have developed any inclination toward sexual assault as a result.  So I pose the question: did seeing those things damage me in any meaningful way?  I think the only answer to that question is "no."  I will add a caveat, however: at some point in life, around the age of maybe ten (so probably five or six years after seeing the severed head in the western film), I developed an aversion to eating bananas.  Why?  Because I hate the strings that come off the sides.  As I typed this, that sprang to mind, and I wonder if there might not be some sort of psychological connection between the western film and my turning my back on bananas.  It's at least a possibility, if for no other reason than that my mind made the connection as I was typing.

And if that's true ... then what else might there be that I'm not taking into consideration?



The same year that Poltergeist was in theatres, Creepshow came out.  (Finally, he gets to Stephen King!)  At some point, I was in the grocery store -- or, perhaps, a drugstore or a convenience store -- with my mother, and I stumbled across the comic-book version of Creepshow.  The panel in which old Nathan Grantham finally gets his cake revolted me.  I can recall running away from the comic books, although I don't think I was crying or anything like that; once again, I somehow internalized it.  At some point, I got somebody to buy me a horror comic.  I've still got it: #316 of The House of Mystery, from May 1983.

I don't recall that I was ever scared by that issue, and flipping through it now, it's easy to see why: there's a few vampires in it, fangs bared, but nothing truly oogy.  At the same time, though, I can remember being quite revolted by an issue of some Spider-Man comic in which someone who has been gunned down is lying in a pool of blood on the floor.  That one bothered me; the supposed horror comic didn't.

That panel from Creepshow, though ... that one haunted me.  So far as I know, it was my first exposure of any kind to Stephen King.  I can also remember seeing stills from The Shining, and being a little creeped out my Jack Nicholson's face; it's possible that that came first, but I think it was later, in an issue of Starlog magazine, possibly as an advertisement of some sort.


Here's where things get a little thornier.  In maybe 1984, or '85, or possibly as late as '86, I ran across a copy of the paperback you see pictured above.  The circumstances are nothing to be proud of, but I'm committed to being honest in this post, so here goes.

I had a couple of friends in the neighborhood I lived in from 1983 until 1991.  We used to pal around like boys do, just sorta assing around in the woods that were around the neighborhood.  There was one spot in particular that we used to like to visit because it was a smallish (ten feet or so) cliff; it was shaped interestingly, almost like a crescent moon, and at one point we tunneled into it and made a small cave.  We even spent the night inside it once, just the say we had done it.

At some point, though, a developer built a new house on that plot, and we weren't able to spend as much time there anymore.  Feeling peeved by that, once the house was occupied, we used to sneak around its back yard (of which the cliff was now a part), pretending that the occupants were villains who would interrogate us for information if they caught us.  As I recall, we pretended it was the Death Star on other occasions, and would go streaking through the back yard pretending that we were X-wing pilots.

On one of these occasions, I decided to be extra brave: I streaked through the carport, the back wall of which had an open-air section leading straight into the back yard.  As I did so, I noticed a bookcase filled with books, and was drawn as steel to a magnet.  Quietly, desperate not to get caught, I began looking through the books, curious as to what they might be.

One of them was that paperback version of Carrie.  I was so disgusted with it that, instinctively, I flung it into the back yard.  I paused for a moment, horrified at what I had done, and also horrified by what I had seen.  The horror over what I'd seen won out, and the rage that built up inside me at having been startled in that way led me to chase the book into the back yard, and then fling it over the fence and down the small cliff where we'd once played so much.  I then ran back into the garage and started gathering up armfuls of the other books, and flung them all over the fence, over the cliff.  My friends had long since run away, afraid of being caught.  Once I'd finished, I ran away, too, and never went back.  The Death Star had finally been destroyed.

I suppose nobody was home.  I've occasionally wondered what the owners of those books must have thought when they found them all missing; I've wondered whether they ever found the books.  It's not one of the memories I'm proud of, that much is certain, and in this particular case, I think it has to be acknowledged that seeing that image directly led me to commit what is at best an act of vandalism and at worst is an outright crime.  Were there any repetitions of that sort of behavior?  No; it was an isolated incident.  But it did happen, and it happened as a direct result of the cover of that novel being glimpsed by eyes that were not ready to glimpse it.

In addition to my other wonderings, I've occasionally wondered to what extent this moment in time -- and, for that matter, the one in which I leafed through Creepshow -- might have later influenced me to become as big a Stephen King fan as I am.  I didn't become a major King fan until 1990, but rest assured that both incidents -- the Creepshow one and the Carrie one -- were still fresh enough in my memory that I remembered them once I became savvy enough to realize that Stephen King had written them.  At that point, I had to actually confront those moments in some way.

I should backtrack a bit and explain how it is that a child who was petrified of watching anything scary in a movie ended up becoming a Stephen King fan in the first place.  It's an interesting story, to me if to nobody else, and this seems as logical a place as any to tell it.  It requires some backtracking to 1982; bear with me, though, and we'll get where we're going.

*****

In 1982, Conan the Barbarian was released into theatres, and Arnold Schwarzenegger became something of a star; his wouldn’t necessarily become a household name for a few more years, but the blood-soaked Conan certainly put Schwarzenegger solidly on the map.

1982 was, in general, an important year for fantasy filmmaking of all kinds: Steven Spielberg released E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist, both big hits (the former an astronomical smash), and other sci-fi or fantasy films released that year that are still notable to this day include Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, and TRON.  (One might also make a case for Creepshow, of course.)

As I alluded earlier in this ramble, whenever my mother went to the grocery store, I’d spend the whole time at the magazine and comics aisle, reading Spider-Man or Batman or Superman comics, and occasionally thumbing through the odd movie adaptation, or whatever else caught my eye.  One of these was the comic version of Creepshow, but another was the adaptation of Conan the Barbarian, and yet another was the adaptation of Blade Runner.  The latter two were, obviously, R-rated films that my mother would not have allowed me to see; reading the comics, though, would instill in me a keen desire to see both of those films.

At some point in the next couple of years, I managed to see both Blade Runner and Conan the Barbarian on television, in edited-for-content form.  It is here that Blade Runner exits from this particular history, but Conan immediately became one of my favorite films.  I was captivated by Schwarzenegger’s charisma (which, yes, is very much in evidence), and by the glorious musical score, and by the comfortably creepy atmosphere. 

To say the least, I immediately became a Schwarzenegger fan ... but only from a distance, as he did not make very many kid-friendly films at that point in his career.  Nevertheless, as soon as edited versions of The Terminator and Commando and the like appeared on television, I’d watch them, and loved them all.

This brings us to 1987.  I was practically in a frenzy to see Predator, despite its horror-movie trappings, and my father probably would have taken me if my mother had let him.  She wouldn’t, so he bought me the novelization instead.  I was a voracious reader, and plowed through it probably half a dozen times, learning quite a lot of salty language along the way; I had no idea what a cunt was, but I at least knew, thanks to that book, that there was such a thing, and that one man sometimes called another man it.

When The Running Man came out later that year, my dad bought me that novelization, too.  Except ... that one wasn’t a novelization, was it?  No, it was a novel, one that the movie had been based on, and it was by someone named Stephen King; whether I was aware of the name or not, I cannot recall, but when I got to the end of the novel and read of Ben Richards’ grimly heroic fate, I knew without having to be told that the book was vastly different from the movie. 

For some reason, this stuck with me.

When on vacation in Gulf Shores with my family during the summer of 1990, I was talking with my father – who, it seems, plays as large a role in this history as does anyone else – about a book he’d recently heard about.  It was a novel called The Stand, which was about an epic battle between good and evil; it was written, he said, by Steven Spielberg.

“Really?” I asked, immediately interested.  Despite the woeful Poltergeist incident of 1982 (and a similar one involving Twilight Zone: The Movie the next year), I was a devoted Spielberg fan, and counted Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and the Indiana Jones films as being among my favorite movies.  I’d even enjoyed The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, which my parents had taken me to see, and Always, which I’d taken my brother to see; I’d watched every episode of Amazing Stories; I’d loved Spielberg productions like The Goonies and Gremlins and Back to the Future; and I’d read and loved the sequel to E.T. which William Kotzwinkle wrote from a story by Spielberg.

So the news that Spielberg had written an epic novel about the battle between good and evil made it a foregone conclusion that I was going to be tracking that novel down, capturing it, and consuming it.  I was on the hunt for The Stand as soon as the trip to the beach was over.

One of my favorite places to go in those days was The Book Rack, a used bookshop near the office where my mother worked.  I spent that summer going to work with my mother, hanging around the office doing odd jobs and reading and pestering her co-workers, and once or twice a week, I’d walk the mile or so to The Book Rack.  As soon as we got back from vacation, I set off for The Book Rack to see if they might have a used copy of The Stand.  I asked one of the old ladies who ran the shop about it, and she informed me that The Stand was a novel by Stephen King, not Steven Spielberg.  She then, very open-mindedly, pointed me in the right direction, and what I found was not the uncut version my father had undoubtedly read a review of, but the original paperback, with the faces of a bird and the Man In Black joined at the eye.  I picked it up, disappointed that it wasn’t a book by Spielberg, but nonetheless intrigued.

The book had weight to it; it felt like a real book, not unlike Frank Herbert’s Dune (another novel I’d read in lieu of seeing the movie), and there were so many pages ... and I remembered that Stephen King had written The Running Man, which I had not liked, not really ... but I’d remembered it, and that remembrance was enough to get me to set aside the James Bond novels which were my favored flavors at the time.  I took The Stand home with me, and began reading it ... and entered a whole new world.

I don’t know how long it took me to read that novel, but I was fifteen – or maybe just turned sixteen – and about to start the eleventh grade.  Before summer ended, I’d started football practice again, and this year I was second string on the varsity squad.  It was oppressive, painful work that, in some ways, I feared and detested just as much as I’d feared and detested that severed-head birthday cake eight years previously.  Except this was a real-world type of fear, not so much of physical pain – I actually enjoyed the smash-mouth aspects of football – but of emotional and social pain.  I simply did not fit in on the football team, which is not to say that I fit in anywhere else; I didn’t.  Nor is it to imply that I had no friends; I had them both on and off the field.  What I didn’t have was what everyone else in the entire world seemed to have: a way of relating to and interacting with the opposite sex.  I had the desire to do so, but I did not have the necessary skills, nor, apparently, did I have anyone to coach me through it.

What I had was confusion, heartache, and loneliness.  I also had a recently-acquired obsession: Stephen King novels.  (I've still got all of those things, incidentally, and yes, I do sometimes wonder if the one isn't related, still, to the other.) 

I hadn’t stopped with The Stand, oh no; I’d bought as many as my slight allowance could permit me, and read them all as quickly as possible.  I remember having a moment of startled apprehension when I found that Carrie -- which I definitely still remembered -- was a Stephen King novel.  But it was only a moment; I bought it (another tie-in paperback edition, this one with the artwork for the ill-advised musical on the cover), read it, and was disgusted and thrilled by it. 

When I had no money to buy a "new" King novel for myself, or couldn't find one, I’d check one out of the library, and if I couldn’t find one I hadn’t read yet, I’d either re-read one or read something by a similar author like Peter Straub or Clive Barker or Dean Koontz.  I enjoyed those, but they weren’t satisfying to me in the way that, say, It was.  And if I felt miserable about not having the willpower or the skills that I needed to ask out a girl I liked, well, Ben Hanscom felt my pain, and Carrie White and Arnie Cunningham did, too ... and Roland the gunslinger distracted me from it.  Cujo made me forget that there was anything to fear other than rabid dogs, and Church the cat reminded me to be afraid of death above all things; compared to death, what was social rejection?  And if that realization could not persist once the book was set aside, well, the book could always be picked back up, couldn’t it?

*****

It was in this fashion that fear, for me, began to become cathartic.  And, maybe, a little detrimental: I never outgrew Stephen King, but I never outgrew the social awkwardness, either.  I’ve got a King-laden bookcase in my bedroom where a lover ought to lie, but in the end, I don’t know that I’d try to make a trade: after all, King was never a cause of the awkwardness, he was only an effective salve for it.

And my love of King's books eventually led me to become a bit more steely in terms of watching scary movies, because eventually, I wanted to see The Shining and Pet Sematary and Cujo and Misery and Maximum Overdrive and, yes, even Creepshow and Carrie.  My new hobby demanded that I see them, and in order to pursue that hobby further, I had to grow up a bit and become less afraid of being afraid.

In that sense, there is no way on Earth that Stephen King's books have been anything but good for me.  Sure, the Creepshow comic scared me; but I was already prone to being scared by things, so this was not a cause, it was an effect.  And sure, the paperback of Carrie had pushed me into a moment of vandalism; but it was one that I ran away from, not towards, and it is entirely possible that it was that moment which caused me to bow out of other juvenile pranks that I might have gotten caught up in a few years later.  Maybe the fear of repeating that incident kept me away from sneaking out at night and going to parties where I might have started smoking, or drinking, or doing who knows what else; it's impossible to say for sure, but that means that the flinging of that paperback is at least possibly still a positive influence on my life.  And if I might have learned other things at some of those parties, certain social skills which I wish I had today ... well, everything comes with a price, doesn't it?

*****

My point in all of this is to state outright that in my own life, I've had moments in which violence in the media has had an ill effect on me.  It began with a drawing of a bloody man in need of a good Samaritan; it continued with severed cowboy heads and hanging bits of flesh, with laundry room rapes, with severed heads that had lit birthday candles sticking out of them.  It kept me from being able, for years and years and years, to watch certain scenes in movies I otherwise loved.  On one occasion, it caused me to destroy -- or at least temporarily relocate -- someone else's property.

But it also provided me with an outlet in which to safely begin to learn to conquer my fears, some of which seem to have been instilled within me prior to encountering all that media violence, rather than somehow being an outgrowth of them.  And on the whole, I think the influence of those images upon me has been overwhelmingly more positive than negative.  Others might disagree.

That said ... I did fling those books over a cliff.  Not just the one that disturbed me, but all the rest as well; they were retaliation, they were punishments delivered by me to people I never saw who I felt had hurt me.  It was a bad thing to do, and if that book had had a less graphic cover, it probably never would have happened.

That, too, is the truth.  What might similar incidents have caused in people a bit more prone to violence than I am?  Rocks through a window, perhaps?  Take it a step further, and a step further than that, and another step further, and perhaps you end up with someone setting fire to a house in the middle of the night.  Someone who would do that -- and I am very, very thankful to be at a remove of numerous steps downward in severity from being that person -- would already be dangerously unbalanced, and so that book cover would have been merely a trigger, not a cause.

But, still, if a different, more psychotic version of me -- on some other level of the Tower, let's say -- had done something even crazier than what this version of me did, that cover would have a part in the story.

I think that's worth remembering.

Well, I pronounce this particular ramble to be at an end.  I'm not sure I said all of what I wanted to say; future revisions may be necessary.  I hope to be back in the next few days with a look back at The Dark Half, a novel which is very much concerned with the ramifications of make-believe violence.  Until then, just remember: they're all gonna laugh at you!

2 comments:

  1. Dude, your blog constantly impresses. Great stuff here. I can relate 100% - rather than go through point by point with "Oh wow, something similar happened to me" for just about everything, I'll just tip my cap from afar. Definitely going to send this to a few people and link to it...

    One quick thing - for some reason, seeing Firestarter as a kid gave me night terrors for a month. It's not even a particularly scary film (especially nowadays, where it seems more like an episode of The A-Team or something, albeit a pretty boring one) and I watched it recently to see if i could figure out what it was that freaked me out so. No idea. But my 10 year old self was just petrified as s**t. The image of the screaming guy with the bloody eyeballs from the Lot 6 experiment is the image that's stayed with me, though. That's my particular severed-head moment.

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    1. I can see how that Lot 6 scene would do it, no doubt.

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