01/05/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
pub: Prometheus Books. 310 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61614-228-5.
check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com
No, this book ‘The Lust For Blood’ is nothing to do with vampires. Well, not exactly although the horror genre does come up a lot. The sub-title, ‘Why We Are Fascinated By Death, Murder, Horror And Violence’, should clue you a bit more. Psychologist Jeffrey A. Kottler uses himself as the example in his introduction that although he saw a horror film at far too young as age and had nightmares afterwards got fascinated by how much death and watching it permeates through American society even if he is a declared pacifist. It’s a shame that he only limits this to his home country because I’m sure the situation he depicts where someone collapses to the ground and is ignored isn’t true of the rest of the world. I’ve been the recipient of being helped a few times and helped someone who collapsed in the street this year but maybe that’s a British thing.
Kottler goes on to point out that people watch sports to see the potential damage or injuries as much as the game/activity itself. Considering how a large amount of sport is boringly repetitive, maybe it’s when it goes wrong that wakes the fans up. It’s probably the same thing that gets them to debate the referee’s decisions and probably shows their brains are functioning. When it comes to films and TV series, I do agree that we see a lot of death but then there isn’t much alternative without having boring material. Whether it’s a fascination with death or learning lessons to avoid such things in real life is debatable, mostly cos people still die by violence. Stephen King is quoted that horror and death is the means to hit readers where they are most vulnerable, our mortality. We want to know what it’s like without necessarily going there ourselves. To watch it time and again reminds me that it’s akin to how we remember the good times better than the bad times, we need a reminder what violence and death is than forget about it. Whether it is, as Kottler deems, taking pleasure from violence is debatable and depends on the individual. Certainly, those who do so in real life are those who take it to extreme and probably needs to be explored in another book.
The desire to see death being displayed isn’t a modern day thing. Kottler points back to Roman times where short of television sets, they had gladiator fights and various animal exhibitions used to kill slaves, prisoners and whoever else was available to please the audience and keep their own violent urges in check. In a later chapter, he points out little has changed today, other than not killing, which is why things like cage fighting is rising in popularity. If it wasn’t that, then with the Incas, a rapid heart removal to appease the gods was another popular occupation and occupation. For those who remember their Bible, blood sacrifice there wasn’t always restricted to animals and even ritual sacrifice is still carried out today.
What I found rather disturbing in the chapter on ‘True Crime’ is where siblings imitating the observed killing of a pig, has one recreating it on his brother and killing him. Their mother kills the survivor before hanging herself. Granted this is only one example but it is a demonstration why the young should not be encouraged to see death close up.
I do agree with Kottler that computer combat games do channel violent urges away from the real thing. Kids have always played combat games when young, be it cowboys and indians to soldier games. Computer games are just an extension of that. If we accept that Man is basically a violent species, using other safer outlets as a release valve isn’t a bad idea. It’s certainly a lot safer. Whether or not what is learnt from such games is brought over to physical reality us debatable. After all, in all the computer games I’ve played, I’ve been ‘killed’ as many times as the pixel creatures that attack me. If anything, that should teach anyone that you wouldn’t really win in real life. Those who have done that were probably unstable in the first place. The fact that the vast majority don’t probably supports the former. If it can remove pent-up violence by bumping off a few pixels, then I think that’s got to be a lot safer.
Increasingly through this book, I get the feeling that Kottler has a suppressed personality. I mean, in one chapter, he describes how he goes to watch a horror film with disinterest and when he concentrates on gets caught into its reality. The whole point of watching a film or even a TV show is to step away from your reality into someone else’s. It works with books as well. If you can’t get engaged into it when everyone else can shows an odd deficiency to the norm. The ability to switch away from your own worries for relaxation has to be seen as part of the human psyche. When he looks at the horror film genre, Kottler discovers that the people involved are almost clinical in how they dispense the violence through their films. Roger Corman’s instruction to then scriptwriter Clark Peterson was to ensure that there was an act of violence every eight pages should tell you something. Kottler also points out that there is more violence against innocent men than women in films. I think at heart, humans are all essentially savages and pacifism is largely by conviction but even that must have limits depending on the circumstances presented.
What is of special interest here at the end of chapter nine comparing beliefs and the reality of the odds of attack and accident and they are really distant cousins. There is also a list comparing the types of entertainment violence in the media. If anything, the common denominator from my perspective is that the attraction is the things that are out of the ordinary than the mundane that attracts people but that would be true of real life. I mean, which do you have the best memory of, a routine day at work or a special event? After all, fiction itself is a form of life with all the boring bits taken out.
Where this book gets very disturbing is when it comes to how people have a fascination with real death. I’m sure everyone here reading this is aware of when the ladies knit when watching the nobility being sent to the guillotine in France but it extends right across the world and still happens today. Then there are the groupies for notorious murderers on death row in the USA and their marriages to same where it appears the attraction is literally kept at arm’s length. No wonder this extends to the TV series ‘Dexter’ although I don’t really think that a serial killer, albeit of other killers, is a particularly good role model. Then again, how different is it for those who kill in the line of duty? I wish Kottler had examined the effect on the likes of the military and how killing affects them later in life.
The examination of how bystanders appear at murder scenes tends to feel more like an American than British thing but we’re also less bloodthirsty and if someone is roaming around with a gun, we’re more prone to run the other way. A word of warning for anyone n America, tourist or otherwise, if a police officer stops you, keep your hands in plain sight than risk being shot.
Kottler spends some time on how people have fascination for the displays of executions as shown on the Internet. Maybe I’m not particularly blood-thirsty and I’m hardly a pacifist but such things just don’t appeal to me before or after reading this book. Maybe I have a fine dividing line between what I would use in fiction and seeing the real thing and not want to get my kicks that way. Understanding what motivates other people to feel that way affirms the belief how the distance between civilised and savage is still pretty wavery. However, I do agree with Kottler that TV series or films let alone violent computer games are mostly a release valve for aggression for most folk and it’s only a very tiny minority who take it out on the streets.
Most fairy tales depict situations to children of dangers ranging from beware of strangers (Hansel and Gretel) to avoid being raped (Little Red Riding Hood) although I do wonder why they aren’t explained to kids afterwards as to their meaning.
Kottler says that mass murder has dropped in recent years but compared to previous centuries. Whether that’s purely down to police enforcement, aversion, television, computer games or other factors he doesn’t overall say.
I should point out that there are some disturbing pictures in this book that you should keep out of the way of young hands. I do wish Kottler had gone further on some aspects, especially on whether mankind is capable of being tamer, but he does get the message across clearly. The biggest lesson I learnt from this is how much people like being bystanders to violence which probably explains why violent films and TV shows are so avidly watched. Computer games take this up a level to participation but not all people play them but not all people need somewhere to express their inner savage neither. This is a fascinating book and if you’re interested in what makes you tick and how bloodthirsty you are, let alone other people, then you will get something from this book.
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