Observations of a Cultural Shift: Desensitization of Society Over Half a Century!

by John Zajaros on July 10, 2009

I have witnessed a shift in our society, in fact around much of the globe, a transition from what was once considered too much, to the same subject matter now being considered mundane, even comical. The shift has been slow and steady, shaped in large measure by the media at all levels; print and video, books and newspaper, television and the silver screen. As a society we have become used to the horrific and seek constant stimulation, ever pushing the bounds of what is appropriate. This article is simply my look back across half a century, from what was to what is, fearing what may be to come. Violence, horror, titillation, and the grotesque are no longer viewed with they eyes of innocence but with a calloused, almost jaded sense of reality, a perspective shaped by increasing levels of violence. Yet we continue to push the boundaries…to what end?

I was watching the show “Criminal Minds” the other evening. The episode was about the Catholic Church and exorcisms, basically a good versus evil story line, and it made me think. I was taken back to 1974 and the premier of the movie The Exorcist. I began to think about the story line in the television show and how the movie had affected me so many years ago. I was immediately struck by how things have changed over the years, how desensitized we have become, not only to certain subjects but to the level of violence and the horrific nature of some movies today. We’ve become immune in a very real sense to the violence and horror in story lines, both in print and on video. It’s disconcerting and almost sad how as a culture we have changed so much in such a short period of time. What was once unacceptable is now commonplace and what was once frightening is now often comical. The interesting thing about this transition is that it seems to affect and impact virtually everyone, from the smallest child to the oldest adult, everyone in between, and throughout most of the developed world.

There was a time, not too long ago, when movies like Frankenstein and Dracula were about as frightening as you could get, frightening for young and old, alike. The first time I watched an episode of the Twilight Zone, I bribed the babysitter to let me stay up and see it and the story scared me half to death! I remember the episode quite clearly, it was about an airplane that somehow went back in time, at first just a few years, ultimately to the age of the dinosaurs. I had nightmares for weeks. I remember it to this day.

Next, Alfred Hitchcock came along and thrilled and frightened us with movies like Rear Window and so many others. I can still see Jimmy Stewart falling from the window at the end of the movie, broken leg and all. Hitchcock then moved from the silver screen to the television and thrilled us weekly for years, is still in syndication to this day. A few years later, Rod Serling took us into the Night Gallery with even more frightening stories of the paranormal and the macabre. Millions sat on the edge of their seats while the master storyteller, a professor at Rutgers and author extraordinaire, prepared us for another journey into the Night Gallery. I can still remember the story of “The Sin Eater,” it has remained with me for decades.

Then came 1974 and the movie The Exorcist. The exorcist was very controversial, a major media event. People were lined up around the block to get into the Colony Theater, Shaker Heights, Ohio, for The Exorcist’s premier. The movie scared me half-to-death! The Exorcist, based on “true story” that occurred in the Washington, D.C. area some years before the movie, is a peak into a deep and dark secret the Catholic Church would have been just as happy to have remained secret. The real controversy was in how truly frightening the movie was, at the time anyway. Now the movie has been done to death, a ridiculous sequel with Richard Burton, and a mediocre film to make at trilogy with George C. Scott. Additionally, several movie and television parodies even poked fun at it, everyone from Saturday Night Live to Linda Blair herself included. But at the time, The Exorcist frightened people in a new and very profound way, it was truly a watershed for pictures, socially and culturally.

There has been a definite shift in what was acceptable and what was frightening, the limit being pushed with every new film. As time progressed we witnessed movies like Poltergeist, Amityville Horror, all the more frightening for being another “true story,” and a myriad of others, all made to scare us even more. The progression has been toward ever more frightening, more intense and graphic movies, each stretching and pulling at the fabric of our minds, desensitizing us at every juncture. Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the whole slasher genre took this progression to the limits of what our minds, and the critics, could and would bear.

It was in about 1992-1993 when my kids and I began the ritual of popping popcorn and watching American Movie Classics (AMC) on Saturday afternoons, every Saturday at 3pm. They always had a “horror” movie on like the old Frankenstein, Wolfman, and Dracula movies, every week and we never missed! My girls love them and we would eat popcorn and laugh. Even then, in the bright daylight of a Saturday afternoon with the girls giggling and laughing, I would think back to that first Twilight Zone episode and marvel at how much things had changed.

My reasoning here, the main point I guess I am trying to make in all of this reminiscing? We have become so desensitized to the suffering and the tragedy, and even the horror, around us every day. We have gone from Frankenstein and Dracula scaring us to Saw IV and more gore to follow. I guess my question is where does it all end? More than that, I wonder what happened to take us down this path to begin with. Isn’t there enough real evil and suffering in the world or is this possibly a deflection, a dog and pony show engineered to draw our attention away from the very real horror that exists in the world today? I wonder. More than that, I wonder, as we all do, if this sort of desensitization isn’t the root cause of much of the violence we see in our society today. I am not a prude and I am not some nut screaming censorship at every turn, I am simply raising a question, one I hope is food for thought. To what end? Where does this lead and is it healthy, not only personally, but socially and culturally? I wonder?

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