Has violence been vanquished? Not in the film industry

Since I posted my deadliest actors and deadliest films lists last week, I’ve been bombarded with questions about violence in the film industry.

“Has the film industry become more violent over time?” (My answer: yes!)

“Why do you think the film industry portrays so much violence?”

“Is it sad or depressing that the film industry portrays so much violence?” (scroll down to the bottom)

Even a renowned public news station recorded an interview with me this week to talk about it on the radio. Unfortunately, the producers decided against running the story, but that interview convinced me that I need to write my thoughts on the subject down somewhere. So, what better to do with a dropped interview than turn it into a blog post?

If this sounds like a news story you’d like to run, send me an email and let’s set up an interview.

What motivated you to create the deadliest actor list?

Short answer: I did it for fun.

I’m an AI researcher at Michigan State University, and every weekend I’ve been practicing my data visualization skills. Instead of playing video games or going to the movie theater, I scour the internet for an interesting data set and try to visualize it in a way that makes us look at the world a little differently — and maybe even understand it a little better.

On the weekend I made this visualization, I ran across MovieBodyCounts.com, which has a community of several dedicated film fanatics who have been systematically counting body and kill counts in films for over 5 years. I found their work incredibly interesting, so I decided to bring their work to life in a series of data visualizations.

Is there anything surprising to you about the deadliest actor list?

I was surprised by the utter lack of John Wayne. John is well-known for killing hordes of bad guys in his pre-1960s Western flicks, but he doesn’t show up anywhere on this list. Sadly, John’s movie kill counts are missing from the kill count database. I’ve been trying to recruit film-watching heroes to do those counts so we can see how John Wayne stacks up.

John Wayne needs YOU to count how many people he's killed on film!

John Wayne needs YOU to count how many people he’s killed on film!

Any fun facts about the deadliest actor list?

Uma Thurman ranks in as the deadliest woman with 77 on-screen kills.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s highest single-film kill count comes from Commando (1985), where in the final island scene he racked up 74 kills: 2 throats slit, 51 people shot, 1 person stabbed, 2 people stabbed by circular blades, 5 people blown up by grenades, 5 people blown up by rocket launcher, 7 people blown up by planted explosives, and 1 unfortunate person impaled.

The highest kill count by any one person in a film was attained by Tomisaburo Wakayama, who scored a shocking 150 kills in Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974).

My favorite fact? While preparing for the interview, I found out that Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying to run for President in 2016. Does that remind you of a particular movie with a bad ass, machine gun-wielding action hero as President?

President Camacho from Idiocracy

President Camacho from Idiocracy

Is it sad or depressing that the film industry portrays so much violence?

What does this say about modern society?

Societies have always had some form of violent entertainment.

In the days of the Roman Empire, Gladiator battles — where real people fought and died — were extremely popular. In the Medieval age, there were tournaments where knights battled each other for glory and entertainment. Even during the Renaissance — touted as one of the most enlightened periods of European history — some of the most famous plays (e.g., Hamlet) portrayed violent scenes where several people were killed.

It’s actually an improvement that society has moved from real people dying for entertainment to entirely fake deaths on film.

If you follow Steven Pinker, you’ve likely heard about his recent work showing that violence has been vanquished: “We believe our world is riddled with terror and war, but we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence.” Given the data below, it’s hard to argue against Pinker.

Worldwide violence is going down

Worldwide violence is going down

Could one consequence of declining real world violence be that we turn to artificial violence — such as film and video games — to satisfy our innate need for violent entertainment?

Possibly. I’ve even found that violence in film has been on the rise at the same time that real-world violence has been declining.

All things considered? I don’t think it’s depressing at all that our film industry portrays so much violence.

Dr. Randy Olson is a Senior Data Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he develops state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms with a focus on biomedical applications.

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  • I’d be interested in your (re-)analysis of the data presented in the papers cited by http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/opinion/sunday/does-media-violence-lead-to-the-real-thing.html – from what I’ve read, the causative correlation between media violence and violent/anti-social behavior is just as strong as that between smoking tobacco and lung cancer.

    • Fantastic idea, Greg! I’ll have to take a deeper look at these studies, especially because the article mentions, “… some question whether the correlations are significant enough to justify considering media violence a substantial public health issue …” That tells me researchers are questioning the statistics of these studies. I will keep you posted.

  • Violence has been present in movies since the beginning of filmmaking. However, though violence in media is not new, the increasing availability of consumable media through items like iPods, iPads, Xbox consoles, computers, and movies has resulted in more people watching violent movies than ever before. As the daily headlines are filled with violence, including incidents that are disturbing and upsetting, it is natural to wonder if film violence leads to real-life violence. Perhaps people who are predisposed to violence already are more likely to be violent than others, or perhaps violent movies can encourage violence in otherwise peaceful people. Though there is a significant amount of violence, some of which is graphic or gory, in movies, it is more likely that they only reflect reality, rather than influence it. After all, the world is not more violent now than it was 200 or 1000 years ago. In many places, it is significantly less violent. This suggests that violent films mirror culture, rather than influence it.