if exposure to violent media influences violence in real life, why isn’t Comic-Con a bloodbath?

Thor’s hammer would not pass Comic-Con’s weapons check
Thor’s hammer would not pass Comic-Con’s weapons check

As San Diego Comic-Con, that annual celebration of people with superpowers beating the crap outta one another, winds down for another year, The New York Times presents an interesting conundrum:

SAN DIEGO — Bursts of machine-gun noise sputtered in a hall where prop assault weapons, slightly used by professional killers in “The Expendables 3,” were for sale. The Suicide Girls, a tribe of tattooed models, were promoting the film “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” Among the panel discussions: “101 Ways to Kill a Man.”

Welcome to Comic-Con International, the annual pop entertainment convention here where film, television, comic book and video game producers exhibit their offerings to passionate fans in outrageous costumes.

Many of the 130,000 attendees are dressed to kill, with fake axes, machetes, grenade launchers, hunting bows and real-looking guns. Organizers run a “weapons check” to make sure the arms are not deadly.

Nowhere is violence in entertainment more prominently on display than at Comic-Con. And yet, historically, all of the attendees have been strikingly well behaved.

“They are rule followers,” Lt. Marshall White, a San Diego police officer, said of the Comic-Con masses. Lieutenant White, who oversees patrols at the convention, added, “To them, the police are superheroes.”

This is the Comic-Con mystery — and it highlights the question at the heart of a prickly debate over violence in entertainment: Is violent behavior in real life influenced by the mayhem that viewers consume on screens big and small?

The piece then goes on to discuss the various studies that have, and have not, found causal connections between exposure to violent entertainment — movies, videogames, and the like — and tendency to get violent in reality. And also the incredible intricacy with which fictional violence figures into Comic-Con and the entertainment it embraces.

And as all that is going on:

As for Lieutenant White and his crew, they remained on guard for real trouble — some of them operating undercover. (Though not in costume, he later explained.) But, he said, they were expecting nothing worse than the handful of petty incidents that marred last year’s gathering.

“We caught two ticket scalpers,” he noted of the incident reports from last year.

To me, this speaks to the matter being one of culture, or in this case, subculture. As I know I have said in real life, and probably elsewhere on this site, the entire planet enjoys Hollywood’s violent fare (as well as plenty of its own homegrown violent fare), yet no industrialized or postindustrial nation has levels of interpersonal violence like the United States has. Part of that is access to weapons, but some other nations have relatively high levels of gun ownership per capita (though nowhere near the level of the U.S., which is far and away the highest on Earth) yet don’t have commensurate levels of violence. (Switzerland, for example has about half as many guns per capita as the U.S., and that number may actually be much higher — ie, closer to the U.S. figure — but its murder rate is far, far less than half the U.S. rate.)

But part of it has got to be cultural. Something about living in the U.S. makes people want to hurt other people more than in other nations. Not all people, obviously, or else things would be even worse than they are. Is there something about fandom that attracts the people who are less likely to want to hurt other people? (Maybe they’re all channeling their desire to do violence into sexual harassment?) Maybe it’s a difference between being able to see entertainment violence as fantasy that doesn’t actually connect to real life, and seeing entertainment violence as a guidebook to how to behave in reality? Maybe it’s a difference between entertainment violence serving as a satisfying outlet for whatever violent impulses one might have, and entertainment violence failing to be satisfactory on that level?

I don’t know.

I do know that Lieutenant White calling geeks “rule followers” is unfair: It suggests that geeks would like to engage in violent behavior and hold back only because they don’t want to get into trouble. Masses of fans can be creepy — sexual harassment at cons is no joke — but, at least in my experience, never in a dangerous way, just an annoying one. (Also, Lieutenant White, I can certainly see plenty of geeks engaging in a lively conversation about all the real-life ways in which cops can fail to be superheroes. We’re not stupid.)

Whatever the reason, we might expect that any event that draws well over 100,000 people would be scene to more than just a handful of petty crimes. And that doesn’t seem to happen. Any ideas why?

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Sun, Jul 27, 2014 10:10pm

I keep going back and forth on the notion that what we see in the media influences what we think and do in real life. I’m inclined to favor the argument that violent entertainment doesn’t translate into violent real-world acts, because most of us are smart enough to distinguish between fantasy and reality; I don’t want to rape or murder anyone (even if I could get away with it) just because I’m a fan of Game of Thrones. But then I also favor the argument that we should be better about telling stories that are not racist or sexist, because racist and sexist stories reinforce and perpetuate racist and sexist attitudes in the culture at large. I favor the argument that we should have better nonwhite/nonmale representation in our stories, to help people like my daughter grow up to feel visible and respected and empowered. I favor the argument that (good) science fiction matters because it challenges prevailing assumptions, posits possible futures, and inspires us to build a real future that’s better.

So does the media affect real life, or doesn’t it? I’m not sure that I have the same answer for every situation, or that I should.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Sun, Jul 27, 2014 11:15pm

Perhaps the people who are (apparently) influenced by media to commit violence are not reacting to the violence per se but to matters of racism and sexism surrounding the violence or inherent in the violent stories.

Mon, Jul 28, 2014 10:23am

The “rule followers” sounds a bit like the American-Christian explanation of morality: the only reason anyone ever does good is because they’re scared of punishment, so people who aren’t ultimately scared of being punished by God can have no morality at all. The disproof is obvious.

But when the same people who come up with “fake geek girls” can be let out in public and act like reasonable human beings, I’d say the larger community must be getting something right. Dilution and lack of echo chamber, so it’s harder to believe that one’s own attitude is representative of everyone else there?

Mon, Jul 28, 2014 2:33pm

Mom and Dad said, “Any wrong doing, Buster, and we rent out your room in the basement!”

Mon, Jul 28, 2014 7:22pm

Every time this comes up (have been hearing it in one way or another most of my life), the first thought that comes to mind is “What did people blame the violence on before mass media? It’s not like there’s been an age without some kind of violence.”

I mean, the horrors in the Carthaginian Wars? The annihilation of the Cathars? Pre-historic slaughters? Really? So it is all the fault of {choose one} miracle plays/ballads/theatre/novels/tabloids/vaudeville/kinescopes/burlesque/Grande Guignol/pulp novels/comic books/cartoons/R-rated movies/television/arcade games/Call of Duty?

Not to mention … REEFER!

Or something else.