Violence in movies has always been a contentious topic. Some critics are convinced that graphically violent scenes in films are linked to acts of aggression by individuals in our society. Others argue that violent acts are committed by people who are already mentally unstable, regardless of what movies portray. 

Which perspective is correct? 

Does violence in movies cause violence in real life?

Politicians are notorious in their assault on the film industry’s use of violence. During Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, he declared, “Pornography and violence poison our music and movies and TV and video games. The Virginia Tech shooter, like the Columbine shooters before him, had drunk from this cesspool.” 

More recently Florida Congressman Brian Mast maintained a similar stance in an interview with NPR saying, “What do we do with the biggest pusher of violence? The biggest pusher of violence is, hands down, Hollywood movies [and] hands down, the video game market. When you look at Call of Duty — when you look at movies like John Wick — the societal impact of people being desensitized to killing in ways that are different than how someone on the battlefield is desensitized is troubling and very different.”

They are not alone in their dissent from mainstream media; In 2012 the National Rifle Association (NRA) released a statement blaming violent movies and video games as the principal causes of mass violence. They used the movies American Psycho and Natural Born Killers as prime examples. It may be of interest to note that Congressman Mast has received donations from the NRA in the past.

So, what is Hollywood’s response to these blatant accusations?

Last year Oliver Stone addressed critic’s attack on his movie Natural Born Killers. Stone explained, “[Natural Born Killers] violence was satiric. I had a history of making films with realistic violence, and I thought it was clearly not literal, but metaphoric, over-the-top, not even close to real.”

Quentin Tarantino, the writer of Natural Born Killers, has been a primary focus on the topic of violence in films throughout his career. He has been questioned repeatedly on whether he believes his movies incite violence in our society. In an interview with the Observer in 1994 he explains in detail the difference between on-screen violence and that of real life, “To say that I get a big kick out of violence in movies and can enjoy violence in movies but find it totally abhorrent in real life – I can feel totally justified and totally comfortable with that statement. I do not think that one is a contradiction of the other. Real-life violence is real-life violence. Movies are movies. I can watch a movie about the Hindenberg disaster and get into it as a movie but still feel it’s a horrible real-life tragedy. It’s not the same thing at all.” He still takes the same stance and continues to make critically acclaimed and award-winning films.

Tarantino is not alone in his enjoyment of violent films. Over the years, with every generation, movies have become more and more violent. “A 2013 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, and gun violence in PG-13-rated films has more than tripled since 1985. The Harvard School of Public Health warned that “ratings creep” has allowed more violent and sexually explicit content into films.”

If violence in films has increased over time, has violence in our society spiked as well?

According to psychologist Steven Pinker the world has become less violent over time. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined he goes so far as to say that we are living in history’s most peaceful time. He explains how he has come to this conclusion, “I looked at homicide, looked at war, looked at genocide, looked at terrorism. And in all cases, the long-term historical trend, though there are ups and downs and wiggles and spikes, is absolutely downward. The rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by more than half in just a decade. The rate of death in war fell by a factor of 100 over a span of 25 years.” 

It would seem almost logical to assume that the brutality we see on the news is influenced by that which we see on the big screen. When we take a closer look, however, that is actually not the case. In fact, based on Pinker’s evidence, it could even be argued that the rise in violent movies has served as a cathartic release for audiences, quelling the need for people to commit violent acts as they had more often in the past. Ultimately, it is the audience who dictates the kind of movies that are made. There would not be surge in aggressive films if people did not go to see them.