BROOKE GLADSTONE: One recurring concern expressed about the broadcast of executions is the brutalizing effect it may have on a culture already awash in media violence. We wondered how we got where we are and where the broadcast of executions might lead. Joining us now is Thomas Doherty. He's the head of the film studies program at Brandeis University. Welcome to On the Media.
THOMAS DOHERTY: It's a pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Today death plays a major role in a lot of feature films, but death didn't play so big a role in early Hollywood did it?
THOMAS DOHERTY: Well although death has always been the life's blood of drama under classical cinema the Production Code which was the Hollywood censorship agency really regulated exactly what you could show if a person expired on screen. In fact usually, unless it was the most sort of melodramatic, quiet death, a death wouldn't be shown on screen at all but you know a classic example of this would be when like James Cagney is dragged off to the electric chair -- you see the lights dim and you see maybe the shadow of the guard throwing the switch, but you certainly never see Cagney in the chair sizzling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's in the movie Angels with Dirty Faces. [MAN CRYING IN TERROR]
MAN: Please don't kill me-- ohhhhh!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did the viewing public agree generally with the code?
THOMAS DOHERTY:Generally they seemed to, because after the code is enforced in 1934, box office attendance after going down in the early 1930s goes up. Now there might be other reasons for this, but by and large I think it's probably fair to say that the Production Code from about, you know, the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s when it starts waning was a pretty good reflection of popular attitudes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it's fair to say that the public in general does not feel the same way today as it did back in the '40s.
THOMAS DOHERTY:It, it certainly does not, and one of the reasons I think for this-- comes about with the Second World War which is the time that you really first start seeing explicit, grim, grotesque images of death and violence on the American screen in a documentary context with combat newsreels and combat reports which bring some of the horror of the battlefield to the homefront. Now of course to our eyes these things were censored quite rigorously, but in the context of the time, during the Second World War, audiences really were seeing images they had never seen before on screen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What about television in the post war era? Were images of death, real or fictional, as common on the small screen as they were on the big screen?
THOMAS DOHERTY: Oh, not at all! When television becomes the consensus medium in the 1950s, it really adopts a very Victorian attitude to any depictions of violence or death and doesn't really start changing of course until the Vietnam War in which you have, you know, combat footage of, of death on the battlefield. The other key moment of course with death and television is the, the live killing of Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24th, 1963 at the hands of Jack Ruby which most Americans remember seeing live although it was only broadcast by NBC live.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Many of us think we saw the Zapruder film back then too.
THOMAS DOHERTY:That's correct. The Zapruder film was not shown publicly until the mid-1970s through the offices of Geraldo Rivera, and when he showed it on his late night show you can actually hear the audience gasping in horror because they had never seen images like that before, and I think the response of that audience as early as the mid-1970s to a, a scene that although I don't think any of us take any, you know, pleasure in certainly, but certainly I don't think we gasp the way we used to in the 1970s when we see an image of horrific violence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're still talking about reality-based programming though for the most part. When did death become popular entertainment?
THOMAS DOHERTY:Well death has always been popular entertainment! But if you're talking about something like our contemplating showing a love execution on screen, that's a very recent phenomenon, and when television now has basically broken down any barrier between public and private, and the kind of events that used to be private now are deemed fit for public broadcast everywhere, and so it seems almost a natural extension of this tendency to have executions be broadcast on television.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What in your opinion is the impact of this endless parade of grisly images?
THOMAS DOHERTY:Well what it does is it normalizes grisly images and it normalizes executions, and that of course is what television does to most anything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Could you talk about the fascination - what I - what I call - what a lot of people call the, the "train wreck syndrome" -- you just can't drive by?
THOMAS DOHERTY: Yeah. In Plato's Republic there is this wonderful moment as it were in which, you know, some guy's walking by a battlefield, and next to him are all the - you know the carnage of battle - the dead bodies. And he knows -he knows he shouldn't look; you know? That he - he'll be repulsed by it. But he can't not look. And finally he gives up and he gazes over at the battlefield and he says to his eyes -- look, eyes -- get your fill of this scene. I think that we've had that tendency for, you know, 2000 years! Think of yourself in a horror movie - the, the - the typical horror movie spectator gesture is to put your hands over your face but to have the fingers spread apart far enough that you'll be able to look when you want to. And I think we always have that sort of repulsion/attraction to scenes of death and violence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you very much!
THOMAS DOHERTY: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thomas Doherty is the head of the film studies program at Brandeis University. [MUSIC] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers, engineered by George Edwards and edited by Brooke. We had help from David Serchuk and Kathleen Horan. We would also like to thank Sound Portraits Productions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.