We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Kill
The stories we tell about violence determine who we see as a real person.
A few months ago, I realized that I couldn’t watch on-screen violence any more. This was an odd development. I write a newsletter about horror movies; I’ve scripted two horror comics. Violent imagery is part of how I make a living. I also have no objection to violence as subject matter — saying “I don’t like violent movies,” as some people do, sounds to me like saying “I don’t like paintings with red in them.” Conflict is a basic plot element, present in every story, and lots of stories, from lots of genres, resolve their conflicts violently. You can’t get away from violence, in art or in life; you can only take issue with how it’s done.
Yet somehow, I got re-sensitized. Scenes that wouldn’t normally have bothered me made me jumpy and nauseous. It was a brief phase, and it’s long since passed, but now, I think it happened because I had been watching too much bad violence — lazy violence, unearned violence, violence that expected the splatter to sell the story instead of the other way around. I’d been streaming a pretty mid Netflix show, Alice in Borderland, one more Squid Game/Battle Royale rip-off where people compete in children’s games that lead to gory death. Like all such entertainment since Battle Royale, Alice in Borderland is obsessed with electronic bomb collars that blow people’s heads off. Collar bombs went off constantly, whenever the plot was dragging. The first time was horrific. The second and third times were gross. The twentieth time was boring, and I didn’t want to be the sort of person who got bored by a human being’s head being violently severed from their body.
Becoming inured to that violence, feeling nothing except a vague sick tickle in my stomach when it happened, told me something unpleasant about the kind of person I might become. I wasn’t revolted by death or pain, but by my own apathy. To be indifferent to another person’s pain, to regard it as mere entertainment, is where all real evil begins — and this is true even when that person is fictional. If I was going to watch violence, I wanted it to matter.
To tell you how violence works, I need to tell you about the time I buried a cat. I was in fourth or fifth grade, at an…