As Kevin Bacon serial killer drama The Following debuts on Fox, media violence questions persist
I was already beginning to sink under the weight of the initial news reports from the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, watching cable news outlets estimate that up to 18 children had been murdered by a mystery killer, when the box landed on my desk.
Sent by the Fox network to promote its new drama The Following, it was a hat box-sized container with a surprising cargo: A Styrofoam head covered by a rubber, Edgar Allan Poe mask, sitting inside the box as if someone had decapitated the world's oddest Halloween costume.
It was a colossal example of tremendously bad timing aimed at promoting the network's new TV show about a serial killer who convinces acolytes to commit similar crimes.
And guess which new TV show — in a continuing display of awful coincidence that would confound even Wile E. Coyote — debuts at 9 tonight, just days after President Barack Obama released a set of gun violence initiatives that has sparked new questions on America's culture of violence?
Asked whether such shows might also sensitize or desensitize people to violence in real life, even The Following's creator Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson's Creek) hedged.
"I think we all worry about it," he told journalists at a press conference earlier this month. "I mean, who wasn't affected by Sandy Hook or the one that I'm still disturbed (by) … Aurora. I'm writing fiction. I'm just a storyteller. And you think there's this cumulative effect. I don't know. I know it affected me."
Williamson's boss, Fox entertainment head Kevin Reilly, was even more vague when asked about a connection between violent TV content and violence in society.
"We both reflect society and, at times, we try to drive it," he said during a different press conference. "I don't like to trivialize an issue by drawing a direct linkage between anything, but we take everything we do, everything we put on the air, with the utmost responsibility. I have a lot of sleepless nights."
TV executives like Reilly are in a bind for a simple reason. Advertising-supported television has built a $9-billion-per-year business on a straightforward notion: They show viewers something cool — a luscious steak or tricked-out smartphone — and the image can push people into buying it.
So isn't it fair to wonder if TV shows filled with violence might encourage some susceptible people to act on violent fantasies?
"If the media have no effect on people's behavior, why do people pay $3.5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl ad?" asked Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University and a longtime researcher into human aggression and violence.
Bushman has no doubt that exposure to violence in media can teach some people to be more aggressive in real life, diminish their empathy for victims of violence and encourage them to respond to certain situations in real life with violence.
"It's impossible to predict why a tragic event like the shootings in Newtown might happen," Bushman added. "But we do know, based on five decades of research, that violence in media increases forms of aggression."
Not so fast, says Chris Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University. Ferguson, a contributor to TIME magazine, has spent lots of time pushing back against the notion that violent video games or media can lead people to violent acts in real life.
His point: Humans are smart enough to realize TV violence is fictional.
"Criminal violence is down in most industrialized countries, even the U.S.," he said. "The UK has the same level of assaults that we do, but their number of homicides is very low. It's a lot harder to kill someone if you don't have a handgun … (but) people don't like complicated answers. They want to know who is the bad guy and can we fix it tomorrow."
One truth that's tough to admit: Certain acts of onscreen violence are very entertaining.
On The Following, film star Kevin Bacon tackles his first starring role in a TV series playing a psychologically damaged FBI agent trying to stop a serial killer who has inspired his followers to commit murders in his name from behind bars.
The show can be intense. One follower commits suicide in public by stabbing herself in the eye with an ice pick, with mysterious messages scrawed all over her body. Another acolyte is shown setting a man on fire at a hot dog stand.
The tone falls somewhere between Silence of the Lambs and Seven, and it's just one of two dramas starring a serial killer set to debut this year. (The other one, a Silence of the Lambs spin-off dubbed Hannibal, debuts on NBC later this year.)
So it's no wonder that Fox's Reilly uses the ultimate defense: We're just giving people what they want.
"That is the business we're in, of providing things that people like," he said. "Unfortunately, in complex matters, we all like a scapegoat."
Regular readers of this column know I'm one of those viewers addicted to well-made-yet-violent television; endorsing some of the most violent TV shows — Game of Thrones, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy — as among TV's best.
But perhaps it's time to admit that we find this sort of violence so entertaining, we're not willing to look closely at how it may be affecting us as a nation.
At least, not yet.