Posted by on July 5th, 2010

“(Violence) corrupts people because if they see it they get used to it and, sadly, they expect it.”

Ruth Rendell talks about TV violence here

Here’s the thing: as a crime writer, if you’ve got anything about you at all, you think about the relationship between fictional violence and real world violence.

You might think about it quite a lot (as I do – it’s pathetic, honestly), or you might have thought about it once – twice even – and worked out very quickly where you stand on the issue. You might have split the argument up and considered the issue of violence against women – to pluck a media-friendly star from the void – and then looked at the apparent gender of the name written down the spine to decide whether the author must have been being visceral for entertainment or out of a deep sense of empathy with the victims. And so, tediously, on. Christ! I nearly forgot. You might even have looked beyond the field to deal with other forms of art. Music, for example, or film.

Whatever – you’ve thought about it in some capacity or other. You’re writing and reading (or hearing, or watching) violence, after all, and violence is horrible. What justifies you in enjoying fake suffering that’s all too real for all too many? While you read about someone being crucified by a serial killer, after all, someone really is being.

1. Violence as Social Commentary

Except, for the most part, obviously people aren’t being crucified by serial killers. This is the first thing to note, even though it’s unfortunate and slightly embarrassing to need to. The crime genre goes through loops, and the serial killer sub-genre did very well after The Silence of the Lambs, bolstered by a big border-crossing from disenfranchised horror folk needing new shelves to live in. But in the era of The Wire and the crime-is-good-because-it’s-social-commentary arguments, it seems like many crime authors are leaping aboard a bandwagon ill-fitted to them.

Q: “Your book is about a child abused at a carnival who then goes on to murder people in the style of fairground rides while dressed as a clown. Why is it so violent?”

A: “Well … real-life violence is so horrible, and I felt a duty to real-life victims to represent that realistically…”

Sorry, but no. Just no. Your novel blatantly isn’t social commentary. You have a killer clown in it. That’s the first clue, okay? You’re not Dostoyevsky – we can all see that.

And people who don’t write about killer clowns: I’m sorry, but you’re probably not off the hook on this one. “Drugs lead to crime” and “Poverty leads to crime” might be social commentary in the most vague and ball-numbingly useless sense, but – brace yourselves – you’re most likely not saying anything important enough to justify any violence you’ve included on the journey. “Violence is bad”. Yeah, I knew that already. You know it too. And we both know you’re not including it to teach me anything, because that would be patronising. I know bad guys have reasons. I know they’re not ‘born bad’ in a Biblical sense, because that’s just fucking dumb.

This, incidentally, is one of the more interesting things about the crime genre, especially in terms of single books. At heart, it’s a very conservative narrative form. Evil occurs; evil is punished. Good guys and bad guys. And yet an intelligent (dare I say liberal) view of the world demands shades of grey, and levels of understanding, that don’t fit that form. We want the bad guy to explode in pain at the end, not get understanding, a suspended sentence and rehabilitation into the community. It’s a fundamental problem for the genre in terms of ‘satisfying narrative’ versus ‘social commentary’. Good And Evil as narrative necessities don’t fit a well-adjusted adult’s view of the real world.

But I digress. The thing is, you don’t need to justify fictional violence at all – any more than you need to justify a character’s hair colour – unless fictional violence has a negative effect on the real world.

2. Does fictional violence have a negative effect on the real world?


I say that with the confidence of a young man not required to prove a negative – that an effect doesn’t exist. If there are studies that show watching, reading or listening to violent art makes people more violent, then present them. (Seriously – do. Comments are open). But I’ve not seen any. Some do seem to show a temporary effect in terms of increased aggression (not crime), but, overall, a causal link has not been established.

This, if we’re honest, is what you’d expect. And by that I literally mean you. You. Right there. Because, most likely, you’ve seen violent films, listened to violent music, read violent books, whatever, and yet – miraculously – have never felt in any major danger of offending as a result. Much as you don’t need books to tell you violence is bad, a book telling you violence is good is equally inconsequential.

You find this at the base of most of these arguments.

For example, this is something you will never hear anyone say:

“I can’t listen to some Jamaican dancehall music. It’s homophobic, and I’m too susceptible. I’m worried that if I listen to it I’ll be influenced to go out and beat up a gay person.”

Or, for that matter:

“Stop me watching this! Save yourselves!”

No, the argument is always from the other way round. It’s always predicated on the notion of some other – someone more susceptible (and therefore less intelligent and autonomous) than the commentator, and who, crucially, the commentator is already afraid of. Be it hoodies or ethnic minorities or right-wing Nazis, listening to Nick Griffin or Beenie Man, the argument is usually the same: well, you know, I can take it, but other people aren’t as smart as I am, and it will affect them. (Incidentally, the ‘them’ in this case is indistinguishable from the ‘them’ in lots of arguments you despise without thinking about it).

Look. As a general rule of thumb: if you can cope with it without turning into a psycho, chances are pretty much everyone else can too. If a tiny minority can’t, it’s probably not the fault of the music (or whatever); the music is most likely an effect for that minority, rather than a cause. And if it turns out that a majority can’t listen to the music without going apeshit, well … we have bigger fucking problems, don’t we.

Is there a drip-drip effect, though? Are we gradually becoming desensitised?

3. The ‘Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs’

In 2009, two teenagers (Viktor Sayenko and Igor Suprunyuck) were found guilty of the murder of 21 people in June and July of 2007 in Ukraine. Most of the victims were bludgeoned to death, and some were tortured and mutilated before they were killed. The two defendants received life sentences; a third man was sentenced to nine years over connected charges of robbery. The judge in the case summed up the motive of the two killers as “morbid self-affirmation”. According to Wikipedia (yeah, I know, but good enough in this instance):

Detective Bogdan Vlasenko stated: “We think they were doing it as a hobby, to have a collection of memories when they get old.” (more)

I first became aware of them at the end of 2008 when I was finishing up Still Bleeding, which is a novel about online footage of death and murder and the people who are interested in that kind of material. While writing it, I did a certain amount of research on forums dedicated to this footage. None of them are illegal or remotely hard to find, and, due to various social and technological advances, they are horribly full of content: beheadings and executions; accidents caught on camera; crime scene photos; CCTV footage of killings. There is, in fact, pretty much everything you could ever ‘want’ to watch: tens of thousands of images and videos. And thousands of users looking at them, all with different motives for being there and viewing these things.

Some of those clips ended up ‘appearing’ in Still Bleeding. The book is partly about representations of death, in memory and on film, and so I thought about it and figured it was appropriate. There’s a blurred line between fiction and reality here, and I wanted to look at it. Here’s the thing: if you watch one of these videos online, it is real in one sense, but, at the same time, you are not watching an actual event. You’re watching zeroes and ones – data that’s been stored on a camera, translated by software, and recreated as a visual image. Sight is fairly primary, of course – we’re used to seeing things happen – and video is a technological illusion that plays on that.  But, actually, what you’re watching isn’t real at all. It’s no different from a person seeing something and describing it to you very vividly in words.

So: some ‘real’ footage of death appears in Still Bleeding – but as words describing it for your head, rather than zeroes and ones describing it for your flash-player. The point is that the reader, ultimately, isn’t too far removed from the characters in the book who are watching those clips, and perhaps no reader of crime fiction is. Like the people on those websites, they may be doing so for different reasons – to challenge themselves; to think about violence; for simple entertainment – but they’re still interested enough, in some capacity, to be there, experiencing that kind of thing. Do you want to see? is one of the ideas in the book. And, if so, why?


One of the most infamous aspects of the Dnepropetrovsk murders was that two of the murders were recorded on a mobile-phone camera. Late in 2008, one of those films was shown in court and leaked on the internet. It’s about nine minutes long, and shows the torture and murder of a man at a rubbish tip, using a hammer and screwdriver. The translation of the audio is as follows, as stolen from a site I’m not going to link to. (Feel free to skip, obviously).

“Hold on, hold on. Be neater, fuck!”
“Hold on, hold on, hold on, don’t hit him, don’t hit him. Watch him…” The rest of the sentence is indistinct, but he’s likely telling the guy to watch the blood as he’s zooming in.
The following audio is unclear.
[After the screwdriver stabbing]
“What? With what?” The cameraman responding to the boy who stabs the victim.
“What, he’s still alive?” says the guy stabbing the victim.
“He’s still moving his arms after I ripped up his intestines,” the cameraman says.
“He’s having a fucked up day.” The boy stands on the man’s stomach.
More muffled talk as he proceeds to stab him in the eyes with the screwdriver.
“Get over here fast. Kill him already.”
“Kill him already.”
“I already put the hammer back. He’s already dead.”
“I poked out his eyes and he’s still not dead,” says the cameraman.
“Get the knife.”
Proceeds to bludgeon him with hammer then interrupts by saying something indistinct.
“More, more.”
“Hold on, hold on.”
They start walking back to the car.
More muffled talk from the blond killer.
“Wash your hands,” the cameraman says. He tells him to spray cleaning chemical on the hammer.
“I’ll hold it.”
Muffled talk from the guy washing the hammer.
More muffled talk from the guy washing his face and walking back from his car.
“I stuck the screwdriver in his brain” says the camera man.
Muffled talk from the guy washing his hands.
“I got him in the nose from his eye.”
“I don’t understand how he was alive? I felt his brain.”
“I was holding the screw driver like this…”
“Alright, let’s get a picture.”

I have seen that video. This article by Caitlin Moran sums up my reaction to the clip, and to others like it. I relate to feeling “very very high – in a bad way”. On a well-known site dedicated to this sort of material, one seasoned user referred to his blood-pressure shooting through the roof. Certain clips, amongst the thousands, become infamous and get nicknames, and this clip is one.

There is a vague point to all this, and it’s not to bum you out. Chances are, if you read that transcript, you thought: fucking hell, I can’t even imagine seeing that on film. And you’re quite right. It is horrific and vile, and every bit as awful as you imagine from the description. And that is kind of my point.

Here’s what I think. The idea of becoming desensitised to violence through art, whether that be film, writing or whatever, is bullshit. Or rather, it’s true  – but only in an absolutely trivial sense. I mean, it’s obvious that by watching ‘violence you know is fake’ you become desensitised to ‘violence you know is fake’, but that doesn’t matter at all. Who cares about that? The leap to the real world is what matters. And yet, as far as I can tell, you could watch as many people die in Hollywood films as you wanted – and you probably have watched a few – but something like the Dnepropetrovsk video will still make you go white. It’s entirely different. Because you’re normal, and because it’s real.

I don’t recommend you watch it to prove this to yourself. You don’t have to. Instead, think of all those slickly choreographed movie fistfights you’ve appreciated, and then contrast them with a real, messy, violent one you’ve seen in real life outside a bar. It’s not remotely the same. It’s not in the same ballpark. Real violence is hideous, ugly and not remotely glamorous or exciting, except in the most horrible way.

And this ultimately is what I think about the issue. If you can watch that kind of real-life violence, and especially if you can perpetrate it, then it’s not because you’re desensitised to fictional violence. It’s because you’ve become desensitised to real-life people. It’s a matter of empathy.

I’m not saying that, in itself, isn’t a problem. But it doesn’t come from watching, reading or listening to anything. It really doesn’t.

And you know the other reason it’s rubbish? It would be too fucking easy.

This entry was posted on Monday, July 5th, 2010 at 6:10 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


8 Responses to “violence!”

  1. Tweets that mention the left room» Blog Archive » violence! -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Vincent Holland-Keen. Vincent Holland-Keen said: RT @stevemosby: Ruth Rendell made me blog at stupid length about violence: #fb […]

  2. Neliza Drew Says:

    I work with mini criminals, some quite violent. I agree with you, on most points. Some of my students, though, do seem to have trouble separating real violence from fake violence, but it seems to have less to do with the fiction than their realities. They live in violent neighborhoods with violent peers and violent families. (They also aren’t very good at logic or reasoning, so a lot of the car chase, choreographed stuff that the rest of us can tell is Hollywood magic seems only too plausible to them.) Fictional violence is not a cause of their violence, though. That grows out of their environments — and to a lesser degree, their mental instabilities.

  3. Twitted by keithbwalters Says:

    […] This post was Twitted by keithbwalters […]

  4. stevemosby Says:

    Neliza – thank you for your comment. And I think we agree, more or less, as I think your point is basically what I’m getting at, or at least a part of what I’m trying to say. “They live in violent neighborhoods with violent peers and violent families”. Totally. There are far more important and intractable reasons for this kind of behaviour than fictional violence, but they’re not as easy to solve (or perhaps as comforting to hear about) as something that can be fitted into a quick soundbite. For me, the “violent films made them do it” argument has a whiff of convenience about it. “There are no deeper problems here,” it seems to say. “You don’t need to do anything. Simple cause and effect. Everything is okay because we can blame something that’s easy to attack.”

  5. John Mosby Says:

    I agree with almost everything above, though I think there’s a degree of truth to some aspects of the desensitising argument.

    Reading a book or watching a film/tv show that features violence would probably do little to compare with experiencing the event in real life (and I wholly take your point about the lack of sensitivity to REAL people being more prominent). Blood on the screen or page, however vividly portrayed at the time, simply doesn’t match up to seeing the real thing, particularly your own. Nothing can desensitise you to that extreme. However repeated exposure to the more subtle myths we do experience surrounding violence and crime in fiction can quite possibly cloud our perceptions of events in the real world IF we haven’t yet experienced first hand.

    The subtle myths are things that if you stop and think about them, don’t quite make sense, but that you might come to apathetically accept in a regular suspension of disbelief. Once it was just wondering if The Dukes of Hazzard’s car really could have such an impossible suspension as it cleared the broken bridge for the Nth time. Nowadays, with fiction’s emphasis on *cough*’real’*cough*, the myths/realities are sometimes a little harder to discern: CSI:Acrington Stanley’s’s inevitable cracking of the case through finding an incriminating atom wedged in the sneaker of the left-handed murderer (reality: forensics have come an amazing long way and are useful, but most cases remain unsolved); a police-officer shooting to wound in a seige situation (reality: all armed officers are trained for the kill-shot, wounding is just usually just too damned difficult and risky); serial killers being enigmatic, genius level sociopaths (reality: the very few serial killers out there are more likely to be dysfunctional ‘troubled’ and ‘opportunistic’ and rely on sneakiness of the non-super-human variety and the sheer lack of police manpower, to exist for too long without notice).

    And while I seriously wonder what *any* sane person could ‘enjoy’ a film like The Devil’s Rejects, I don’t think I’d claim that sort of fiction caused violence as much as simply revelled in it like a steroidal pig in shit for the sake of people who DO like to see humiliation to get their jollies. Same for some books.

    Fictional violence doesn’t turn right-minded people into serial-killers (indeed, it’s probably unlikely to turn ‘wrong’-minded ones to it either), but I could easily see that myths played out in the mind’s eye many times could give that person a incorrect default view on what the consequences in real-life can be. In murderers, that disconnect is a wide chasm, in the average person it’s more like a crack that you don’t really notice until it’s right in front of you and you have to do something about it – and crap, you’re right out of cerebral polyfilla.

    Then again, sanity nothwithstanding, I’m not sure I’d ever want to go to Oxford (blame Morse) or hang out with Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) for any friends and family event.

    You know. Just in case.

  6. JKTrowling Says:

    Caitlin’s immediate reactions to seeing the clip are interesting, I think. Covering the monitor and looking for an explanation in terms of retribution. Calming superstition and knee-jerk rationalisation.

  7. stevemosby Says:

    John –

    Well, there’s a lot there, but I’d concentrate on the idea of desensitisation. It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, without much in the way of clarification, but I suppose I’d look at it on two scales: desensitisation to violence you know is fictional and desensitisation to violence you know is real. Showing an increase on the former is meaningless and irrelevant: I don’t care if somebody winces less at Martyrs or Irreversible as a result of watching Saw beforehand. It just seems a) likely to be true and b) irrelevant. The important thing is whether it raises the threshold on the other scale.

    The Dukes example is interesting, because it’s fake fictional education, easily displaced by one real life example. The only way you’ll end up thinking you can jump a canyon in a car is by watching fiction but never doing it in reality. One real life attempt will quickly dispel your illusions. Watching it won’t desensitise you to the real world effects, which are entirely different to the fictional ones. The same, I would say, is true with a lot of violence. Fistfights in movies can be very romantically and dramatically staged, but you won’t go on thinking that’s the way they really are unless you never encounter a real one. And, if you do and you do, I’d say it’s not the movie that’s desensitised you to real-world suffering (which is, by definition, not shown as part of the romantically-framed violence), but something else altogether.

    The Devil’s Rejects – Meh. There are things you can say in its favour. It’s an honest attempt to recreate the aesthetic of the exploitation films of the 70s/80s – far more honest than, say, Grindhouse – and probably gives the modern viewer a similar effect to an older one watching, say, Last House on the Left for the first time, which is just laughably fake now. Unfortunately, for me, it’s too much of a (stupid) fantasy to support its nihilism, has a dull narrative, and the deliberately cheap look is too calculated. Watched it once. Won’t watch it again. Although, in the scheme of things, it’s fairly tame.

    Ken –

    I can’t believe she covered the monitor, because that would just be dumb, but looking for an explanation – I guess it makes a degree of sense in a “must make this less bad” way. Interestingly, many of the people on forums into this stuff did exactly the same. To some degree, there’s always a bit of dehumanising goes on, whether it’s “well, he was a soldier” or just jokes like “someone go and check – I think they might be all right”. Most people were like “he must have been a rapist”, “he must have been a paedophile”, because that would, in some way, make the world slightly more comprehensible.

    It is especially awful on that level. Not that it could ever be justified, but there is literally no rationale for it, none whatsoever. That guy is you, me, anyone.

  8. JKTrowling Says:

    I’ve seen people reacting quite strongly to fictional violence and horror as well as the real stuff. Some people are really easy to perturb in this way. Covering the monitor seems a rather quaint response, but I wouldn’t classify it immediately as dumb.

    I agree with you largely about the effect of fictional violence (or the lack of effect), but I do wonder how discerning we ought to be about what we let into our heads via the eye and ear. Everything we see changes our brains in some way. Often the effect is transitory, but not always. A good book or film can stay in the mind for months or years and people are perfectly willing to say a book changed their life for the better. They are less ready I imagine to say it changed them for the worse.

    I think there’s a myth wrapped up in all this that says there’s some part of your mind that makes decisions about these things, but is unaffected by them. I don’t think this is true. People tend to overrate their own personal autonomy, self-control and a whole host of other things.

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