Why do movies like “American Psycho,” “Scarface” or “Joker” scare us? A combination of media hype and our own fears make the vile characters at the center of these movies seem like real people and real threats.
Though movies and television with evil protagonists may have a basis in reality, it is the news media and our own projection of those evil traits onto real people that creates tangible fear.
This kind of projection can have serious consequences. Recently, the release of the movie “Joker” has stirred up controversy and fear. The movie centers on an ostracized, mentally ill white male: the perfect profile of a mass shooter.
The discussion about why people commit this kind of violence is hurt by this projection because it enables us to point at one specific demographic as the villains rather than addressing the actual issue of mental health and isolation.
There is a culture of white men who are resentful of society because they feel neglected, and in some cases they do lash out, but categorizing people in this way only leads to further alienation and anger.
A report published by the Journal of Social and Political Psychology analyzed the effect media has on public opinion and found that repeated media messages and the absence of a presented alternative affect public opinion and individual behavior. This shows that the effects of media on public opinion are so strong that they have already been documented, and yet we seem unable to shake their impact.
The same phenomenon was discussed by sociologist Stanley Cohen in a study he published in 1972 titled Folk Devils and Moral Panic. Cohen theorized that when media reports on supposed deviant behavior, they simplify reality to create a distinct evil.
This is exactly where the danger lies. Forming an opinion based on a fictional story leads to prejudice and a simplified vision of certain groups of people.
Even though we consume movies and TV with knowledge that they are fictional, it is hard to separate fantasy from reality when we see themes from entertainment mirrored in real life.
The Vox media network The Verge published a review of the “Joker” movie in which journalist Tasha Robinson writes:
“But to viewers who feel as abused and overlooked as Arthur Fleck, or even who harbor smaller, more rational resentments about society, Joker is a deliberate and fine-tuned provocation and promise: you aren’t alone, the people you hate really are awful, and it would be okay to act against them in any way you want.”
News organizations need to take responsibility for the potential impact they have on public opinion.
Films are art that may reflect aspects of the real world, but that is all they should be: art. No movie or TV show is giving you the go-ahead to be violent, no matter how much it may seem that way. No character in a movie or TV show is a fully accurate representation of a real person.
When we demonize a certain demographic or individual, we take away their ability to be anything but what we think, and we slow social progress.
I ask that we all reflect on the things we watch and read and listen to so we can be critical consumers of entertainment not so easily swayed.