Richard Kyte: A steady diet of horror is bad for society
Why do so many people insist on exaggerating the bad things in our society and dismissing the good things?
A father with two young children told me his son didn’t want to go outside to ride his bike. When asked why, the boy said he heard on TV that the governor had released all the criminals from prison. Then the boy asked, “Dad, what’s a rapist?” The dad’s response was to turn off the TV, at least until the elections are over.
I’m not convinced anything our elected politicians do while in office is as bad as what their advertisements do to society while they are campaigning. But it’s not just political ads that are responsible for the negativity pervading our culture right now.
A friend who recently moved to a home in the country mentioned she was having trouble sleeping. “I keep hearing strange noises,” she said, “and I think somebody is trying to get into the house.”
When I talked to her a few weeks later, she was sleeping fine. “I just had to quit listening to those true-crime podcasts,” she laughed. “They were playing with my mind.”
That’s it exactly. The stories we consume play with our minds, and if we aren’t careful, they can make us lose our minds altogether.
Fascination with crime, especially sensational, monstrous crime, is nothing new. In Great Britain in the 19th century, publishers of penny dreadfuls were selling more than 1 million copies a week. They featured violent exploits of characters such as Sweeney Todd and Spring-heeled Jack. In this country, many dime novels of the same era told lurid stories about outlaws including Billy the Kid and Jesse James.
The difference today is not so much in the nature of the storytelling as the sheer volume of it. In the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Brothers was making three or four highly popular gangster movies such as “Public Enemy” and “Scarface” each year. Universal Studios was thrilling audiences with horror films including “Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man” at about the same pace. A devoted fan of frightening entertainment could maybe watch a movie every month and then listen to radio programs like “The Shadow” or “The Whistler” a few times a week.
Today, the entertainment industry feeds us a steady diet of the horrific. True crime is especially popular, featured in podcasts, audiobooks, movies, documentaries and TV series. The miniseries “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” set viewing records this fall for Netflix. Three of the top 10 podcasts in the country right now are devoted to true crime. Bingeing on programs that depict the worst of humanity is today not just possible, it is a way of life for many.
Well, some might say, what’s wrong with that? After all, stories are just stories. Watching crime shows doesn’t turn one into a criminal any more than watching monster movies turns one into a monster.
That’s true enough. But stories do affect us. They enter into our imagination, and the more we spend time with certain kinds of stories, the more they shape the way we see the world around us. They subtly influence whether we are more inclined to see a stranger as a potential threat or a potential friend. They can influence our decisions about where to live, what legislation to support and which politicians to vote for.
In the “Republic,” a book in which Plato imagines the construction of an ideal society, he argues that storytellers should be banned. He does so not because there is anything wrong with stories as such, but because the stories that tend to appeal to us most are sensational ones depicting the worst behavior. Stories of murder, rape and torture have an immediate, visceral appeal. Stories about goodness, on the other hand, seem boring by comparison. Who wants to see a movie about somebody helping their neighbor rake the leaves or baking a cake for a community fundraiser?
Yet, the quality of our lives depends on most people spending most of their time doing just such things — quietly going about the business of working hard, raising children, helping neighbors, participating in the life of their community.
Besides, it is simply not true that goodness is boring, it’s just that the most interesting aspects of goodness are mostly internal. They do not lend themselves to spectacle. It is not very exciting to watch corn grow, but the inner life of the farmer who plants, tends and harvests crops can be richly rewarding.
The reason so many people today tend to exaggerate the worst while disregarding the good is that we have become addicted to spectacle. The more time we spend entertaining ourselves with fantastic diversions instead of nurturing our minds along the many paths of meaningful experience, the worse we get.
In Mary Shelley’s novel, Viktor Frankenstein observes, “If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”