Hi, I am a Swedish student working on a project in English concerning violence, and the
psychological aspect of this topic. My work is based upon the question why people find violence
entertaining or fascinating.
Many films include scenes with the purpose to make the spectator feel disgust or fear, and many films
even have got violence as their main theme. A considerable part of the spectators want to watch
horror and repulsive scenes. What makes us thrilled by violence? Do we actually enjoy being scared
and feel disgust, or why do we voluntarily watch repulsive and horrifying scenes?
I need as much information and opinions as possible to be able to develop and answer the question
what it is within fictitious violence that makes it entertaining; why it seems to be a fascinating theme
and why people are interested in watching violent movies at all.
You ought to read the introduction to Violence and American Cinemaedited by J David Slocum to get
some background on the place of violence in society and the meaning or representational nature of
violence in film. For instance, film is a new medium in an increasingly impersonal society and perhaps
provides a new outlet for aggressive feelings. As far as representation goes, are we simply watching
violence, or something more deeply historical and ritualistic such as sacrifice and massacre, actions
which have their roots in man's search for social cohesion? This approach might go some way to
explaining our fascination with violence.
Of course, man is a violent creature and his aggressive instinct is no less strong than his instinct for
love, as the Freudians have told us, so it is not surprising that violence should be entertaining or
cathartic and you might look at Hollywood: The Dream Factoryby Hortense Powdermaker who found
violence to be a main theme in cinema.
While the Freudian analysis focuses on the notions of aggression and catharsis, the existential
account of our enjoyment of frightening scenes is that they in some way legitimise the fear and dread
that is part of everyone's life. Terror provides some relief from our constant unease. I find this less
plausible than the Freudian account of aggression and catharsis, but you might want to find out more
from G Leonard's Reading "Dubliners" Again: A Freudian Perspectiveand a paper by him in P.
Vorderer's Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses and Empirical Explorations.As you
will notice, these writings belong to film theory, but film theory draws heavily on philosophical and
For a look at the specific nature of the psychological state of enjoying violence, rather than the more
general psychological requirement for it, an excellent book is Kendall Walton's Mimesis as
Make-Believe.Walton wonders how psychological enjoyment of violence actually is. While we might
feel scared and disgusted, these are not the same psychological states we have towards to
non-fictional scenes, since they don't cause us to run away. Perhaps we experience physical
sensations associated with being scared or disgusted, but do not really experience these emotions. It
would be absurd to experience these emotions properly when we know that what we are seeing is not
true, but simply acted. Walton argues that we are "fictionally" disgusted and that when we engage
with fiction we are participating in a game of make-believe. This line of thought leads again to
psychoanalytical notions, such as the instructive and cathartic functions of play.
If you take up the idea that engagement in fiction is a game, or play, you can hardly fail to notice that
in general girls don't play violent games but boys do and violent films may be enjoyed more by men
than women. Personally, I find it difficult to see anything enjoyable in violence itself but there is a
brilliant scene in Reservoir Dogswhere one of the one of the gangsters is dancing around to "Stuck in
the Middle with You" and then suddenly stops and cuts off the ear of another gangster who is
strapped to a chair. It is not the violence in itself that makes the scene amazing, but the contrast
between the expectations which are set up by this particular song, its rhythm and the tone of the
singer's voice, and the lazy bopping around with the sudden reality of the situation. This contrast does
make the violence quite thrilling but I don't think it is distasteful. The scene arouses a very particular
response to the artistic nature of the film itself and the psychological nature of this response is better
described in terms of expectation and appreciation, rather than relief and catharsis.
So you might want to distinguish two types of attitude: Firstly, there is the aesthetic response where
the psychological states of expectation, suspense and relief are fully determined by the artistry of the
film-maker and, secondly, the more general response, which is fascination with violence in itself and
this may have its roots in man's existential nature or modern society, or it might be reliant on gender
Good luck with you project: I'm sure it'll be really interesting.
My view is that you are (as you hint) asking a psychological question rather than a philosophical one,
so that to find an answer would require empirical research rather than asking philosophers. Of
course, there is some overlap with philosophy. One might ask what we ought to do about violence
and violent films if we believe that finding violence entertaining is morally (and practically) a bad thing.
On this one, my view is that it is a bad thing that we find violence entertaining, and that therefore we
ought not to support the industries that cash in on it by going to see violent films, no matter how good
they might be said to be in other ways. This raises another interesting question for me: can art be
good (aesthetically) if it is not good (morally) — or at least morally neutral. That one really puzzles