What is your favorite violent or scary movie? What well-choreographed fight montage do you observe with keen interest, and at times fantasize about reenacting if only you had the skills of the actor, or his stunt double, and the advantage of quality editing?
What slasher flick have you habitually watched to the point where you’ve become desensitized to the blood splatter and screams? How many times have you caught yourself screaming, “Don’t go that way!” Or heard someone in a theater forewarn, “He’s behind the door!” And I’m sure we’ve all had the friend, boyfriend, whoever who confidently explains how they would handle the situation had they faced off with the psycho killer or zombie.
Have you ever wondered what attracts a viewing audience to bloodshed and violence? Researchers from the University of Augsburg in Germany and the University of Wisconsin-Madison probed that exact query.
The researchers assembled a bi-national group of 482 participants, aged between 18 to 82, with varying levels of education, and invited them to view and review film trailers. Each trailer featured different degrees of gore, violence, and meaningfulness.
The participants were asked to rate the likelihood of watching the full versions of the movie based on the content of the trailer. They were also told to share their perceptions – to indicate how gory, suspenseful, or thought-provoking the previews were.
The submissions were evaluated and researchers found people were more likely to watch the full versions of movies with grisly displays of violence, especially if they felt the film included an intertwined meaning in confronting real life violence.
Simply reveling in the wicked pleasure of carnage and aggression was not the sole reason. Some types of violent portrayals seem to attract audiences because they promise to satisfy truth-seeking motivations, offering meaningful insights into some aspect of the human condition, but demonstrated in a manner some concede to be “harmless entertainment.”
People want thought provoking violence. If that’s the case they should come out with movies like My Student Loan Interest Doubled or The Mortgage is Due. But many of us already live with those realistic horrors, and they are not particularly suspenseful or entertaining.
Other studies have proposed that many people are not necessarily attracted to the violence directly. Audiences are drawn to violent content because they anticipate the benefits of thrills and suspense. People want to be intrigued, on the edge of their seat with each passing moment where anything can happen.
People don’t want to know what it actually feels like to be relentlessly pursued by an axe-wielding maniac, but the suspenseful sensation and calculation of the events as they transpire provides a primal satisfaction. Heart beats rise, visual acuity is focused to any perceived movement, and responses are honed to every little noise and whisper, but in truth we know we are safe, or safer than the poor soul on the screen tripping in heels as they scramble through the woods at night.
The overall research may explain why people have a strong lure and opinionated responses to movies and television, shows like The Walking Dead, where not only are the characters having to battle out survival against hordes of walkers and biters, but demonstrating and examining the root principles of man-versus-man, man-versus-nature, and man-versus-himself in a manner of mass appeal.
Each difficult decision or violent action can provoke empathy, admiration, frustration, scrutiny, and self-reflection with regard to personal impulses. The shows can inspire one to think how would you have handled the situation?
Anne Bartsch, an assistant professor in the Department of Media and Educational Technology of the University of Augsburg, and her research colleague Louise Mares, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will present their findings from, “The Role of Perceived Meaningfulness in Audience Attraction to Violent Media Content: Experimental Results From Germany and the US,” at the 63rd Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA). The 2013 conference will be held in London in June.
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