james carroll

Dark fantasy in action

Does hyper-realism break down the mental barriers to violence?


There was a widely read book in the 1950s called “Seduction of the Innocent,” which argued that the lewd violence of comic books was turning America’s youth into juvenile delinquents. The connection between comics and behavior was never proven, but the argument goes on. The recent Aurora shooting, explicitly tied to the Batman comic book spin-off “The Dark Knight Rises,” inevitably prompts questions about the link between big-screen mass violence and acts of mayhem by crazed individuals. The Colorado shooting suspect, who made himself up as “the Joker,” inserted himself into a fantasy world that was conjured as light escapism — forcing us to measure the true weight of such entertainment.

Apocalyptic fantasies have been a staple of creative expression at least since the Book of Revelation, which, in the West, defines much of the language of the genre: salvation through destruction, cities under attack, angels versus devils, the end of history, and so on. “The Dark Knight Rises,” with a plot hanging on the detonation of a nuclear bomb, efficiently follows the ancient form, with a 21st Century resonance. We bring our real-life anxieties into darkened theaters, so why shouldn’t movies pluck dissonant chords tied, consciously or not, to nuclear dread or 9/11? Perhaps bringing such doomsday anxieties into movie houses is a way of not unleashing them on the world.

Indeed, such apocalyptic visions may be a way of sublimating violence, rather than a cause of it. Beginning with our hunter forebears, the human condition takes violence as a given. Images of violence — perhaps beginning with cave drawings of hunted animals — may have been created as alternatives to acts of violence.


Civilization, for all of its social and cultural complexities, can be understood as the slow and varied erection of psychological barriers to behavior which destroys human community. The evolution of taboos is part of this — the built-in psychic block, for example, against the slaughter of children. If massacre stories are told — Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, say — they are intended to reinforce the taboo, not undercut it. Oral tradition and, eventually, literature are rife with such taboo-reinforcing narratives.

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But what happens when a new and ever more vivid form of narrative alters the delicate balance between the image and the act? The screen experience of mass-violence-as-entertainment stimulates the imagination in ways entirely unlike the stimulation offered by text, including illustrated text. That is especially so when apocalyptic fantasies are jointly indulged in the effervescent setting of large theaters. The whole point of “virtual” violence is to blur the crucial distinction between fantasy and reality.

The cinematic suspension of disbelief can, for 90 minutes or so, make Gotham as real as New York, which is why we like going to the movies in the first place. But high-action films today flash past like video games, in which the even more crucial distinction between witness and agent is blurred. Instead of merely watching violence, video gamers enact it. That the video-game imagination now defines the cutting edge of war-making (those joystick-wielding drone pilots) only underscores the new fungibility of fantasy and reality.

And it is in this context that unbridled access to guns in America should be considered. What macho fantasy is being indulged by the casual possession of lethal firearms? And what taboo is being weakened when they become ubiquitous?

If civilization’s great achievement has been the construction of a psychological barrier to mass violence, that does not mean the barrier cannot be brought down. Do vivid screen images of taboos being violated — those slaughtered children — make the behavior less repugnant by making it mundane? Hyper-images can spawn imitation.


It seems clear that, across the globe today, barriers to inhuman behavior that was once unthinkable have been weakened. Mass shootings are a sign of this — children expressly targeted in Norway last year. So is the plague of suicide bombing that has befallen the Middle East, the self turned into an indiscriminate weapon. Innocents not seduced but destroyed. Blurred distinctions between fantasy and reality, between watching and doing, between war and detached manipulation of technology: These are marks of a precious psychological barrier being lowered. A dark night falling.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.