Harsh Reality is No Reason to Cut Back on Fictional Horror

Posted on April 26, 2013


Ultimately, we may be doing ourselves a disservice by avoiding troubling themes in fiction.

As a fan of the movie Silence of the Lambs, I was curious to see what the TV series Hannibal would be like.  The series explores the developing relationship between  fictional serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter and his patient, colleague, and eventual nemesis, the rather unconventional FBI profiler Will Graham.  In case you missed it, I say again:  Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer who eats his victims.  Fiction like this is not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

So why did series creator Bryan Fuller and NBC decide to skip Episode 4?  Because the episode was to feature the case of a woman who brainwashes children into murdering their families, and – as A.J. Marechal quotes Fuller in Variety –  “…given the cultural climate right now in the U.S., I think we shouldn’t air the episode in its entirety.”  In other words, the episode has been eliminated  out of sensitivity concerns for the public, which has been hammered by everything from Sandy Hook to the Boston bombing in recent months.

Fuller and NBC create and produce the series; it’s theirs to air or cancel as they choose.  What bothers me is their motivation, and what it says about their impression of the viewing public:  that we are a bunch of wilting flowers, already traumatized by various real-life horrors in the news, apparently incapable of making our own sensible choices in entertainment, and likely to be scarred for life by viewing a fictional episode which bears little resemblance to any of the recent real-life events, save for the fact that children are included.

Is the horror of Episode 4 different just because it involves children?  I say no.  First, horror should not somehow be less just because its victims are adults; a human being is a human being.  Second, child characters in horrible situations are nothing new.   Isn’t The Hunger Games about children being forced to fight to the death?  Then there is Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, about a bunch of kids who kill everyone over 18.  Pan’s Labyrinth ends with the death of the child protagonist.  Eden Lake features a bunch of delinquent kids murdering and being murdered.  And don’t even get me started on Lord of the Flies, a novel in which a group of stranded boys soon turns into savages murdering each other… and which was required reading in my high school.

I understand the hesitation in airing fictional TV content too soon after similar real-life events.  Following the death of my father, I had zero appetite for fictional hospital death scenes.  I also am a bit too aware of certain horrific real-life events and have no wish to see anything similar on screen.  There is a solution for that:  don’t watch.  There are hundreds of cable channels and countless movies out there; we can always pick something else.    I don’t think it’s a horror-genre producer’s expertise to determine that the public – all of it, apparently – is too weepy and wimpy to handle the fare he previously planned to serve up.

Believe it or not, frightening fiction serves a purpose.  There is good reason why people seem to seek out and enjoy horror movies or other scary experiences, and theories abound: learning to master one’s fear in a safe setting, learning to explore one’s environment, examining “the dark side” of human nature, and helping to process one’s feelings about troubling real-life events, to name but a few.

Not everyone wants to get scared out of their wits, even in a safe setting, but there are plenty of people who do.  Our choice in the matter should be exercised by our thumbs on the TV remote or our ticket purchases, not by well-meaning strangers who decide, on our behalf, to protect our fragile psyches from the hard, cruel world of fiction.  The hard, cruel world of reality is much worse, and there is no “off” button for that.