There’s a headline in today’s New York Times, “Big TV Kill-Offs May Be Losing Their Punch,” that points to the fact that “deaths” on violent shows are no longer as sensational as they once were. The producers of video gore are running out of ideas to keep the audience fresh for new horrors. The trouble is, the average viewer doesn’t believe the dead are really all that dead. Some ruse or miracle will bring them back to life and provide more episodes of the show. I’m fine with that kind of thinking. It tells me that irony is not dead, no matter how jaded the audience has become in what the Times reporter calls “the dark-drama revolution of the ‘00s.”
Gone are the days when bladders of sheep’s blood were squirted out under the clothes of an actor in gory spectacles like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, especially when poor Titus comes on stage with the stumps of his newly amputated forearms and calls them “fountains” to the horrified audience staring up from the pit at the Globe stage. Nowadays, filmmakers provide computer-enhanced scenes of mutilation and gaping wounds to supply the necessary shock and awe that sells tickets.
Contemporary audiences are starved for experience. The average person doesn’t really see much blood or gore on American streets. We view it on TV and on Internet through the lens of a cell phone, and the shaky images make the scene real enough. But the reality of any such moment is denatured by the sense that someone else was there, taking the pictures, and then a police station released the images to a TV network for public consumption. We weren’t there at all. Nor were we present as a policeman stops a car and asks for identification using his body-cam; if he is shot by the driver or a passenger, the camera abruptly points up at the night sky and the scene is over. We may believe what we saw, or feel cheated by the absence of any more authenticating detail to make us cringe. We may know violence occurs in our midst but we hardly ever encounter it.
Our experience is traffic, looking for a parking place, shopping at the supermarket, wandering the aisles of Best Buy, stopping at a food court to buy a slice of pizza and a Coke. Our experience is almost without incident. It leaves us tired and bored, and when supper is done and the evening runs out its final hours, we have the TV to turn to, hoping to find some unnerving vein of reality to shake us awake, to make us sit up with dread. Now the surprises are beginning to occur too often and the formulas are beginning to show through the plot lines. If we can see through the make-believe of chaos and anarchy, we are left to suspect that reality is contrived even at these extremes.
Everyone wants to believe there is a boundary around socially controlled existence, that beyond a certain faint edge begins the unadulterated terror of actual life. There is a tacit assumption that what lies beyond our streetlights and freeways is something we can’t control, some momentous power that could easily devour us and swallow our whole civilization. The Japanese could translate this Atomic-Age paranoia into creatures like Godzilla who could come up out of the sea and kick over skyscrapers, toss cars and buses, and level every aspect of order and meaning. This sense that something buried in the wild, untouched peripheries of human existence could awake, like “The Thing,” and destroy us may be as old as culture itself.
But in our time, when hardly anyone has ever seen a bear in the woods or even a coyote wandering through a prairie, it is harder to imagine the revolt of nature in any direct sense. It has to be made up for us. It’s hard for us to imagine that there’s anything left in nature that could harm us. That’s why, when in April, 1912, the “unsinkable” Titanic sunk in a few hours after having its side ripped open by an iceberg, the terrors of the unknown reasserted themselves. Suddenly, chaos wore a new face in the world. It wasn’t long before King Kong materialized out of the depths of a tropical jungle and tore asunder the skyscrapers of New York. Even the Empire State Building was a mere tree in the woods that the ape could scale without effort, and with Fay Wray in his right palm. The symbol of delicate, perishable humanity lay in that creased palm and would destroy the ape in the end. But the real story, the one we always go back to, is not that the ape died for love of a woman, but that he existed at all, and could break his shackles in a nightclub and terrorize the most powerful city in the world. Michael Crichton was our shock-meister in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and with Jurassic Park, he trumped the genre. The game of commercial terror was now wide open, and the market was flooded with images of extraterrestrials hiding in space ships, rogue forces operating Death Stars, etc.
TV turned to the cop shows to provide the same exhilarating high by portraying bloodless killers working for shadowy bosses. It was necessary to provide these images because without them the claustrophobic reality of American middle class life would become unbearable. There had to be some part of life that was unconquered by capitalism, by corporate culture, by the soft fascism of the State, by the drudgery of work and suburban life. There was no consoling narrative for living within the boundaries of ordinary life; the only freedom was in the anarchic wilderness around or beyond us, but which existed with us in an intimate parallel world. We required this sense of horror to be close enough that we could see the blood splatter, the bones snap, the flesh to erupt around a bullet hole. The need is so great for slaughter that we relish the unthinkable horrors of ISIS and Al Qaeda; we have an arch villain in these enemies of Christianity, and hold our breath at the news that the great treasures of Palmyra are being detonated, that prisoners are having their throats slit by masked men in a public square.
But this portrayal of gore has no ultimate meaning. It doesn’t lead us to act or to think differently. We absorb the images and lament our sorry age, and go on hitting the remote for more screams and clangorous orchestral mayhem. We are addicted to this sense of imaginary freedom, this manufactured consciousness that we are not safe, even when we sit in the gloom of a living room lit by a TV screen, cocooned in an air-conditioned house, safe from the outside world by a myriad of locks and electronic alarms.
Gore doesn’t tell us anything, doesn’t inspire us to widen our responsibilities, or to change our routines. We are prevented from trying to imagine improving the reality we have. It could be made so much richer, more rewarding, more culturally profound and mysterious. We have genius all about us willing to invoke the depths of human nature in imaginative literature and plays, but we assume that the flood-lit urban stage in which our lives are scripted can not be altered, that we are prisoners of an electronic utopia no one can question. Instead, we sit down each night and gaze into a primordial world of monsters and plagues out of a sense that there’s nothing we can do to make our lives more interesting. We crave whatever else is out there, even if it means some implausible threat to our lives whose dialog and plot creak with disturbing sameness.