Why do we like to watch such brutal violence on TV?

Psychologist Barrie Gunter explains that it’s protective, not perverse…

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In the past few weeks we’ve watched human beings get bludgeoned, strangled, drilled, and stabbed to death on primetime television – and we’re all completely hooked.

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Popular TV dramas like The Fall, The Missing, Paranoid and The Walking Dead are all pushing the boundaries by showing scenes of brutal violence, but why do we find them so entertaining? And what does this attraction to danger say about our society?

We spoke to leading psychologist Professor Barrie Gunter about why we seem to love watching bloody murder, and discovered that it’s all to do with confronting our fears and taking control of our demons…

Facing our fears

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The opening sequence in the first episode of Paranoid featured a mother being stabbed to death in a playground

It’s part of human nature to slow down and look at a car crash, a signal of a deep-rooted curiosity about death. And as recently as the 19th Century, public hangings still took place in the UK, where whole towns would turn out to witness a killing. While on the surface this may seem perverse, Professor Gunter explains that our fascination with death can be related to our attempts to cope with our own mortality.

“If you’ve seen a car accident where someone has been killed, and you stare to see whether a body is being pulled out, it’s because you want to witness what death looks like.” Why? “Because of that curiosity, because eventually we’re all going to be confronted with our own death,” he says. “Therefore this is one way in which one might be able to cope with the idea of death and understand what it looks like, under what are relatively safe conditions.”

Testing ourselves

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There was an incredibly brutal murder scene at the beginning of this series of The Walking Dead

A lot of us will watch something even if it frightens us, as a kind of personal challenge. Gunter explains that while fear can be an “unpleasant experience… at the same time it’s addictive, it pulls you in, it’s something where you want to test yourself by sticking it out and watching it.” But not to worry, because “there’s nothing abnormal or devious about that, it’s just a natural reaction.” Phew.

The idea of controlled danger

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Many viewers of The Fall developed a crush on Jamie Dornan as Spector, despite his character being a murderous rapist

Often, viewers will watch scenes of violence in order to take back control when they have experienced threat in real life. Gunter says: “It is about taking back control… there are opportunities, through popular entertainment, to get exposure to stories which have violent themes. In some cases these may resonate with real sources of threat, and by being exposed to something similar and under safe conditions, you can experience that fear – but then you can learn how to cope with it, and how to control it.”

Gunter cites an interesting piece of research wherein people at an American university were drawn to violent entertainment after hearing reports of an attack on a female student on campus. The students, he says, “were more inclined to choose a movie with themes that resonated with the report of the attack, than if they hadn’t been exposed to it.” He describes this confrontation as a “coping mechanism”.

A more extreme example of this is when people have rape fantasies. These are often borne out of a desire to experience a kind of domination that they usually might have feared, but in a controlled way where they feel they have the power to stop it whenever they wish.

So watching brutal violence on TV isn’t completely perverse?

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The sudden and graphic drilling scene in The Missing shocked viewers 

No, it’s not usually perverse. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Gunter says that while there are people with “particular personality profiles” who like violent entertainment and “will seek it out wherever they can find it”, on television and in movies – and increasingly in video games – they are “not in the mainstream”.

Average television viewers are “likely to seek it out for a range of other reasons, to do with the nature of the story or the skill with which the story is put together”. And the violence is an addition to that, “which adds a degree of suspense and drama, which tweaks the emotions.

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“People feel better if they’ve confronted something which has been very frightening to them, and they’ve managed to continue watching without running away.”