Can you really be desensitized to violence?

by Michelle Gagnon

During the Left Coast Crime Conference a few weeks ago, I attended, “Forensic Science Day.” We were images-5.jpgpromised that the “California Forensic Science Institute (CFSI) and the Crime Lab Project (CLP) would provide expert speakers and programming.”

And let me tell you, they weren’t kidding.

The eight hour event included a tour of the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center on the CSU Los Angeles campus, a lab which serves the LAPD and the LA Sheriff’s Department.

It kicked off with Don Johnson (not the one of Miami Vice fame-although he was wearing a pastel shirt) from the school of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics walking us through a quadruple homicide as it was initially encountered by the CSI team. Which meant dozens of photos of the victims as they were found, in addition to the trail of carnage through their house which gave you an extremely clear picture of the attack and how it proceeded. It wasn’t pleasant.

Now, I watch a lot of procedural shows on television-not CSI, because frankly I think it’s just silly. But the Law and Order franchise, The Closer, Southland, and in the past The Wire and The Shield. I’m no stranger to graphic depictions of violence. And what we were seeing was still photos, not video. images-4.jpg

Yet what really struck me was how when it comes down to it, there is a difference between a fictionalized vs. a real crime scene. I had expected to be somewhat desensitized, but somehow knowing that what we were seeing had really happened, that these were real victims who weren’t going to get up and walk away, made it almost too much to stomach. It didn’t help that two of the victims were an elderly disabled woman and a four year-old girl. During their close-ups, I almost had to leave the room.

images-3.jpgIn the course of researching serial killers a few years ago, I experienced something similar. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve sat through “Silence of the Lambs,” or movies of that ilk. When I read about some of the things that serial killers had actually done to their victims, it was a gut punch. Some of the stories were so horrible it took weeks to get them out of my head. There were things I encountered that honestly I wish I’d never seen- and those of you who have read my books know that I don’t shy away from violent crime. So it surprised me to have such a strong reaction.

Since Columbine there’s been a lot of discussion regarding whether the violence on TV, in movies, and in video games has desensitized kids to a point where they’re more liable to commit violence in real life. I himages-2.jpgave to wonder, based on my reaction to that quadruple homicide scene. Is it true that for some people, the line between truth and fiction has become blurred? Or would a kid hooked on Grand Theft Auto have the same reaction I did to images from a real crime scene? I suspect that for the most part, they would. What do you think?

On a side note, the rest of the day was very cool. A trace evidence specialist led us through the Phil images-1.jpg Spector case (which, oddly enough, wasn’t nearly as disturbing. But then, what happened to Lana Clarkson wasn’t as terrible as what was done to that little girl). We also had a fantastic presentation from a “Questioned Documents” examiner who explained exactly how easy it is to forge a signature, and what to do to combat that (sign your name over itself 2-3 times) and we toured the labs, including the rooms that hold stainless steel water tanks where guns are fired to match ballistics from crime scenes. Very cool. More information on the lab and the Crime Lab project is available here.


12 thoughts on “Can you really be desensitized to violence?

  1. Odd timing for this topic. Yesterday, a man shot his girlfriend with a sawed off shotgun near where I work, and killed her. That happened in the morning, and I didn’t know about it until I got home twelve miles away and in another city–when I found my street blocked off. There were a couple of fire trucks and a million police cars. I was able to park, but eventually the firemen left and all the police stayed. Crime scene was the only explanation. The news crews eventually came to film, and I discovered that the shooter from this morning had committed suicide. The police kept everything covered up with tents, so I didn’t see anything–and I didn’t want to. It’s a very different experience the reality than seeing fiction. With fiction, I do have it in the back of my mind that it’s going to end well. I also know that while the author may be accurate in their descriptions of things, they’re also filtering through the viewpoint. That does make a big difference.

  2. I agree that movies and television desensitze us to the idea of violence and they may allow us to gloss over a story in the news, but when we encounter violence in reality that is completely different.

    I’m reminded of the day we asked my brother-in-law to help butcher a deer. He’d seen plenty of violent movies, so what we were doing shouldn’t have bothered him, right? He vomited (outside) four times.

    That’s not to say I think kids should be watching gruesome horror movies at ten years old. I do think the exposure has consequences.

  3. Just when I think that I’ve become desensitized and can pretty much handle anything, there’s always something new (to me at least) that comes along and rocks me to the core. While researching the WWII Japanese research group Unit 731 for my thriller THE 731 LEGACY, I came across documented atrocities by humans on humans that were so disturbing, I hesitated to include them in the book for fear that no one would believe them based upon fact. They still haunt me to this day.

  4. During my fire service years, I carried an obligation to be desensitized. After all, I WAS 9-1-1, the guy who was supposed to bring order to the chaos, and to muscle on through the misery and the blood. Some cases broke through the facade–anything with kids is always tough–but never to the point of disfunction. Victims’ parents, friends and relatives offered up ample grief and mourning; my job was to be a source of strength and, to a more limited degree, comfort.

    I also had an obligation not to take any of that bad stuff home with me. So, I mostly sucked it up and forced myself to focus on the many lives I’d saved instead of the few I was unable to.

    What’s interesting to me now is the fact that I no longer have any stomach for real-life violence. It’s almost as if those fire service years hyper-sensitized me.

    That said, people who’ve read my books know that they come with a fair amount of violence, some of which is pretty graphic. Each violent act, though, takes a toll on its perpetrator.

  5. I live in Thailand and have a family with young children. I am quite glad that violence is censored on Thai television. Most violent stuff is either American or Chinese. Guns aimed at people are blurred and so is blood, cigarettes and bottles of alcohol, and nudity or love making too. Honestly, I prefer to have my children watch porn than people killing each other. Perhaps not the right comment on a blog called The Kill Zone 🙂

  6. Actually, to give an answer to your question: yes, I think one gets desensitized to violence. One gets desensitized by sex as well and many other things. If one gets to experience none or little of the things that touches our senses or emotions, the greater an impact they have on us.

    Pantau (Bangkok)

  7. There is a growing body of research that indicates you can be desenstized to violence. Indeed, there are plenty of combat veterans who can explain the process. The problem is, that it seems, the pushing down our horror at what we see often manifests itself in other ways.

  8. We really can become desensitized to violence if it is around us, or we it. But, in my opinion TV or book violence doesn’t really do the trick. Because in our minds we know it is not real. The real thing, when encountered for the first time, will usually be quite a shock no matter how much TV one watches. Having been, like John, the body behind 911 (EMT from 98-2001) I saw my fair share of dead bodies in various stages togetherness. After a while I had to consciously remind myself to be solemn around dead adults, especially when the survivors were on scene. Never had that problem with kids though. That still chokes me up.
    My 18 year old son, Mr. Violent Video Game, cold blooded digital killer caught a glimpse of his first dead body last week. He was at a friends apartment and when he came out cops ushered him back in until they could get the scene cleaned up. He looked across the lot toward his car and a few spaces down was a man on his back on the frozen pavement. His limbs were twisted in an awkward position, he was clearly dead. The car next to the body contained another dead man. Turns out the two had a shoot out in the front seat of the car and both were apparently equally quick on the draw and fire. Two seconds of rage, two dead men. My son said he was pretty shocked and has had a hard time getting the image dead man out of his head.

  9. Linda, that’s so terrible!
    Pantau, I find that being a parent definitely made me more sensitive to it, especially anything related to children.
    Lieutenant, that’s interesting- in what other ways can it manifest itself?
    I saw three people hit by cars when I was living in NYC, one who was dragged for half a block before the van stopped. I still have a hard time getting those images out of my head.
    Basil, sorry your son went through that. But then, I guess it’s good to hear that real violence was still disturbing, even for someone acclimated to hyper-violent video games.

  10. I have become more sensitive to violence in books and movies and have to skip graphic scenes now.

    I think young people may become desensitized to visual scripted violence, but the number of military people taking meds and suffering from PTSD indicates that real violence never gets easier to process.

  11. If we see or read about a 100 fictitious people being blown to pieces we don’t cry our eyes out. We know it’s not true as some of you mentioned. But why do we all get emotional about Richard’s Gere’s loyal dog Hachiko. We cry when Julia Roberts dies, eventhough we know she’s an actor. We cry when Leonardo kicks the bucket. We all know those actors are all fine. I cried my eyes out when I read about a 15 year old boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. How does that work?

  12. hi my name is aliah and i am 15 i decided to comment because i came across a website today that should have scared me to death there were pictures of actual traffic accident with blood and guts everywhere there was even a three year old girl that had been hit by a car with her brains everywhere (im sorry) and i didnt feel anything after seeing all of that. then after i seen all of that i started to notice all of the death that was in the shows i was watching and the games i was playing that i hadent noticed before its crazy how you see things when you look for them

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