When I first saw the movie Saving Private Ryan, I experienced something I had never experienced before. Throughout the first scene of the movie, which was the most realistic war scene that had ever hit movie screens at the time, my entire body was literally shaking. There were soldiers being shot, blown up and set on fire; bullets shooting through the ocean water killing everything in their path; and men crying out for their moms and picking up their own limbs. It was horrifying, yet I could not stop watching it. My friends and I left the theater in silence, both terrified and moved by what we had seen, a glimpse of what war is really like. Like many others, we loved the movie but we were in no hurry to see it again.
Five years later, I saw the movie Kill Bill. Although the violence and gore still caused me to cringe, and occasionally close my eyes or peak through my fingers, my body was not shaking. I saw sword fights with limbs getting cut off and blood spewing everywhere. It was a bit uncomfortable but, again, I could not stop watching it. This time, as my friends and I left the theater, we were not silent. Instead, we excitedly talked about our favorite parts and our reactions with one another, and mutually shared an eagerness to see the sequel. Why is it that my reaction to Kill Bill was not the same as Saving Private Ryan? Why do my friends and I keep coming back for more? Increased tolerance and attraction to violent movies is often attributed to the desensitization to violence over time, but the context of the movie and in which the movie is being viewed has also been found to impact ones tolerance and attraction to violent movies.
Desensitization occurs when repeated exposure to something that initially caused a certain effect, such as a heightened emotion like anxiety, reduces or even eliminates that effect. An abundance of research has shown that increased exposure to media violence increases one’s tolerance of violence (Ewoldsen & Roskos, 2012). This would explain why my body shook in response to the violence in Saving Private Ryan and not to the violence in Kill Bill or any other violent movies I have seen since. My first exposure to an extreme level of violence in a movie was somewhat traumatic. I was so sensitive to it that my body began to shake. Now, after watching several movies with the same level of violence, it still makes me uncomfortable but not nearly to the same degree as the first time. That being said, the contextual difference between the two movies could also have impacted my response to the violence in them.
According to Goldstein (1999), in order for violence in a movie to be appealing, there must be cues to its unreality. Based on the findings of McCauley, Goldstein (1999) explains, “within a dramatic or protective frame, violent imagery becomes exciting rather than anxiety provoking” (p. 280). Kill Bill would fall within a dramatic frame. It is a fictional movie, with fictional characters and has plenty of cues to its unreality including music playing in the background, the most violent scene shown in black and white, unrealistic amounts of blood spraying out severed limbs and even some animation. This may explain why my friends and I experienced more excitement while watching this movie and left with the desire to see more.
In contrast, Saving Private Ryan is set during the Invasion of Normandy in World War II. Although the storyline is fictional, the warlike setting and violence in the movie is very realistic in its depiction of soldiers’ experiences during war. There is no music playing in the background, only the sounds of bullets flying, bombs dropping, tanks rolling, soldiers crying and ocean waves crashing during the first scene. There is even some time spent in silence, where the audience views the violence from the perspective of the captain whose hearing has been momentarily lost from the blast of a nearby bomb. The fight scenes are not of a hero whose talent supersedes all of the villains’ talent as in Kill Bill. Instead, many of the soldiers, who represent our fathers and grandfathers, die before even having a chance to fight. Goldstein (1999) addresses this more realistic portrayal in his explanation that “emotions experienced in drama are qualitatively different from their real-life counterparts” (p. 280). Therefore, the emotions I experienced while watching Saving Private Ryan were close to the real thing, as was the violence depicted, resulting in a more drastic response, but because it was not the real thing my distress did not ruin my enjoyment of the movie.
One thing that both of these movies and all other violent movies have in common, to make them attractive and tolerable, is the “protective frame” mentioned by Goldstein (1999). As we watch a movie, we are constantly aware of the context in which we are watching it. Goldstein (1999) describes the safety and security of our environment, be it our home, a movie theater or in the arms of a loved one, as allowing us to experience the excitement and emotions of violent situations in movies without concern of being harmed. Having a sense of control, such as holding a remote control, also provides a protective context, which results in less distress and a more pleasurable experience while watching a violent movie. A sense of protection exists when we watch violent movies with others, a practice common amongst violent movie viewers. Finally, we protect ourselves from the violence by emotionally distancing ourselves from it, such as teenage girls looking away and talking about unrelated subjects with their girlfriends and teenage boys not looking away but commenting on the quality of the special effects (Goldstein, 1999).
Like me, many people who watch movies with violence have experienced desensitization to the violence in movies. However, desensitization is not the only explanation for the continuing attraction and tolerance of violent movies. Research reveals that the context of the movie and in which the movie is being viewed also impacts the experience of the viewers and their ability to cope with the violence they see.
Ewoldsen, D. R., & Roskos, B. (2012). Applying social psychology to the media. In F. W. Schneider, J. A. Gruman, & L. M. Coutts (Authors), Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (Second ed., pp. 135-163). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Goldstein, J. (1999). The attractions of violent entertainment. Media Psychology, 1(3), 271-282. doi:10.1207/s1532785xmep0103_5