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David Schmid outlines violent culture in U.S.

David Schmid sits down with Max Calenberg from the Scarlet & Black to discuss violence and film in the U.S. as part of the Peace Studies Conference. - Ben Brewer
David Schmid is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Buffalo. Schmid has a Ph.D. from Stanford Univesrity, an M.A. from the University of Sussex and a B.A. from Oxford University. Originally from Exeter, Devon, U.K., he has been published heavily on the topic of violence including “Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture,” and is writing two more books, one of which is concerned with homicide in America. Schmid sat down with Max Calenberg from the Scarlet & Black to discuss violence and film in the U.S.

Where did your interest in violence and crime stem from?

I was looking for something to do my masters thesis about and I wrote about a famous case in England called the Moors Murders that involved a man and a woman pair of killers in the 1960s who were convicted of a series of child murders. And what appealed to me about the subject was that I’m from a first generation college family and I wanted to do something that would be of interest of people outside the academy. The other thing was I’d grown up reading crime fiction and true crime books and the idea that I could sort of bring my interests together with my academic work was really appealing to me.

And what about your interest in celebrity, did you develop that separately or did that sort of form in conjugation with your interest in serial killers?

Really more of the second, what happens was, when I moved the States to do my Ph.D., not long after I moved here, I’d been thinking about doing something about serial killers but I hadn’t decided what. But not long after I moved here, “Silence of the Lambs” was released, and there was that big Oscar ceremony when “Silence of the Lambs” won all the major categories. That whole ceremony was basically organized around Hannibal Lecter, around that character. So, when I was watching that I thought what on Earth is going on here? How can a character like this be such a big deal in pop culture? And then there were several other high publicity cases around the same time. And so it just seemed to me like something had happened that needed to be explained. So the stuff about celebrity really emerged as I was looking for was to explain what was happening with serial killers. The two things came together.

Do you think that “Silence of the Lambs” was a turning point for serial killers and violence in pop culture in the US?

Totally. I mean that’s when it really sort of went into the mainstream big time. I mean it happened a little bit before, anybody who is a true crime fan knows about the books of Ann Rule and her most famous book is about this guy called Ted Bundy called “The Stranger Beside Me”…but I think “Silence of the Lambs” demonstrated to the pop culture industry at large that there were huge amounts of money to be made from this. And it also sort of made it ok to be into serial killers. It made it kind of hip and trendy, it was definitely a turning point.

Do you think that since that film there have been any film or films that have had as big of an effect on evil and violence?

I really think that everything since then has been, in one way or another, building on the success of “Silence of the Lambs”—what that did was to establish a formula that a lot of other programs in different media were able to follow. Let me give you an example. Probably in terms of success that really sticks out is “Dexter.” If you think about that uses the same formula of “Silence of the Lambs” in a way. In each season of “Dexter” you’ve got a good serial killer and a bad one. The good one is Dexter, and that’s who it’s ok to identify with and then you’ve got the evil character. And that is the one that we go ‘boo hiss’ and we don’t need to bother with them. So in other words, “Dexter” has really solved that problem that “Silence of the Lambs” solved for the first time—how do you get audiences to identify with a serial killer without feeling guilty about it?

Since then, there have been films like “The Dark Knight,” “No Country for Old Men” and the “Saw” series, where serial killers are so dehumanized that there is no real understanding of where their evil comes from. Do you think this is sort of harmful to society’s view of serial killers because in reality their actions are most likely driven by some deep emotion issues?

The first thing to say is that what is really easy to forget to that statistically speaking serial murder is an insignificant crime. By which I mean it never accounts for more than one percent of the nation’s homicide rate in any given year. And yet, it saturates our media. The second thing is to say that even in something like “Silence of the Lambs,” you have this suggestion that there is almost something supernatural about Hannibal, he is supernaturally intelligent, he has this ability to escape from seemingly impossible situations. He literally cannot be caught. So I think there’s almost been that tendency to make evil figures somewhat supernatural as a way to sort of romanticize them, but also as a way to distance them from normal people. But the third part of this is that what’s often unsatisfying to people about real serial killers is how much they resemble us. If you take a case like the famous Son of Sam murders that took place in the New York in the 1970s, before an arrest in that case was made, you have examples of media coverage that made this guy into some supernatural monster. No one knew what he looked like. He seemed to be able to do what he wanted at will, he could never be caught. And when David Berkowitz, who was this kind of pudgy postal worker from Yonkers was arrested, people’s reaction was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is Son of Sam?’” And they were disappointed cause it didn’t match what they thought was going to happen. So I think people were on the one hand fascinated by this figure because they seem like us but on the other hand they need to turn them into something different from us cause the thought that we might really be similar is just too disturbing.

Where do you see violence in culture going in the next 10 years?

First of all, I think the culture is saturated. I think it is saturated to the point we don’t even recognize it anymore. So I don’t really think there is much more than can be done. In terms of the harm, I’m a skeptic about that kind of thing. Especially when it comes to violence, I just don’t think there is any sort of effective way to measuring what impact it has on people and I don’t see how you can isolate that effect from a host of other possibilities. Here is a really interesting example. A number of years ago the state of California was going to execute their first death room prisoner in a number of years and the local PBS stations sued the state of California for the right to televise the execution and it went all the way to the California supreme court. And interestingly the state argued not that they shouldn’t be allowed to broadcast because it would be too horrific but they said it would set a dangerous precedent and then more executions would be televised and by the end they would just become banal. The public would just lose interest. And I think that’s a really interesting thing to think about, cause that is sort of the next frontier—let’s broadcast actual acts of violence and let’s see how people react to that.

And yet, in U.S. culture in the 19 th century, hangings used to be public and draw large crowds.

Absolutely, go back even farther than that to the Puritan era, some of the largest public gatherings in the colonies were for executions. That’s what brought the whole community together and the preachers preached at those times and made sure that the crowds were getting the right message about what was going on and it’s really interesting to think about why did that change? When did executions start being sort of hidden way inside prisons? When did they stop being public spectacle? But you’re right…we’ve kind of gotten away from that, and I think that’s a good thing. But I also think it sort of made it easier to pretend that we’re not such a violent society in some ways because at least when it was in public we were sort of confronted with this spectacle.

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    Attorney Gayle EberleinOct 9, 2010 at 11:50 am

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