I am scared of zombies, more specifically, the zombie apocalypse. Of course it sounds silly/insane/inane, but if there’s anything to be believed from the truth box in our living rooms we call television, nearly anything could happen, nowadays.
The gore, violence, and screaming in shows with zombies – and monster clowns and smoke monsters and alien lizards who look human (references to American Horror Story, Lost, and V, respectively, the latter of which is a throwback to the 1980s) – are too much for me and so I don’t watch them. But as a kid I was particularly weird about things that scared me, especially in the video store: Whenever we went on Friday nights to the local video rental place (they had VHS tapes back then, and no Netflix), I would make a quiet beeline to the horror section while my family scanned the New Releases and proceeded to turn the video boxes over, one by one. To this day, I don’t have a good reason for why this is the case, except that I found it thrilling, alarming, exciting and terrifying all at once.
I don’t do that anymore, but I did just watch the trailer for season 5 of American Horror Story. I haven’t seen the first four seasons. I honestly wanted that same video store thrill, a thrill that comes from a bloody hand smacked suddenly against the glass pane of a shabby front door, startling the protagonist in his/her blood-stained tank top into yet another chapter of violence in a zombie hell that will never end.
Or I could just do what friends of mine have done, and which I could never do: watch the video of a beheading. I say this with a false casualness because I think there’s serious in our consumption of horrific, thrilling darkness on our laptops and TVs. It has long been contended by psychologists that exposure to violence in television, movies, and video games can cause desensitization in viewers, contributing to raised tolerance to violence in real life. In fact, it just popped up today in a story published by the Huffington Post and other news sources that parents who are exposed to violence and sex in movies become more permissive of their children’s consumption of the same images after watching the movies themselves.
The reason why I refer to the atrocious executions of people in Saudi Arabia and those conducted by ISIS now in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq in this context is that I wonder whether our massive consumption of violence on TV now contributes not only to desensitization, but also to our slowness to react (as well as to act in local, national, and global ways) in the face of such terrible events. And I did find something that may indeed support the argument that we move more slowly to respond to the suffering of others when we become used to violence through visual exposure. In a study out of University of Michigan and other universities entitled “Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others,” researchers used two separate studies to conclude “that violent media exposure can reduce helping behavior in precisely the way predicted by major models of helping and desensitization theory. People exposed to media violence become ‘comfortably numb’ to the pain and suffering of others and are consequently less helpful.” (277) (emphasis added)
Is part of our slowness to respond to real-life terror a product of our consumption of bloody-mouthed zombie gore and killer clown stories? Are we slow as Americans to identify the very real destruction of human dignity, community, and life not only because it’s not our people (which is most often the case in the world, at least in cases of massive losses of human life), but because we are anaesthetized, weakened in our ability to react cognitively and emotionally by our powerful entertainment industry? Our government is just now helping the Kurdish people in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, thousands of whom have been butchered, kidnapped, mutilated, raped, and displaced by ISIS with more facing a similar fate…though this has been happening for months now (and this is leaving out a much, much longer history of oppression in that region).
Rather than respond with a well-organized argument as to the geopolitical complexity of taking steps in a region where we have allies and enemies on the same soil, I ask you: did you feel anything when you saw the faces of the Kurdish people suffering? Did you ask what could be done about these horrible, horrible crimes that have been committed? Or did you look up the term “beheading,” get a thrill, and then turn on FX at 10 pm?