So there was a mass shooting during a Batman movie and, goddamn it, it turned out the killer owned a Batman mask and called himself "The Joker." By now, several talking heads have come to the conclusion that the movie somehow triggered the massacre, or whatever. You know the game at this point -- sadly, we've seen this whole cycle play out more than once.
As always, this knee-jerk reaction by old, scared talking heads will predictably result in most of our audience scoffing and saying that movies can't influence people to do anything, because movies are make-believe and every non-crazy member of the audience knows how to separate fact from fiction.
Well, the thing is ... that is equally wrong. But not for the reason the talking heads think.
5No, You Can't Separate Fact from Fiction
You've seen Braveheart, right? You know that's based on a historical event -- the movie makes it clear that Mel Gibson's character, William Wallace, was a real guy who really lived in Scotland back in the horse and castle days. You also know that Hollywood spiced things up for the movie -- the real Wallace probably never assassinated a dude and then jumped his horse off a balcony in slow motion.
So if you don't mind, just quickly tell me which parts were fiction. Without looking it up.
Probably the part where more than the six people directly in front of him could hear what he was saying during that speech.
Like the evil king they were fighting -- was he a real historical figure, too? What about Wallace's palooka friend, Hamish? Or the crazy Irish sidekick? Were those real guys? That part where Mel Gibson's main ally (Robert the Bruce) betrayed him and sided with the English in that big battle (aka the turning point of the entire story)-- did that really happen? What about the bit at the end, where Wallace has sex with that princess, revealing that the future king of England would actually be Mel Gibson's son? That's the most historically important thing in the whole film, surely that was true, right?
You don't know, do you? But who cares, right? It's not like that impacts your life at all. It's just historical trivia. OK, now consider this: After Jaws hit theaters, we nearly drove sharks to extinction with feverish hunting, to the point that their populations may never recover.
"Fetch my spear gun. These bastards will pay for what they did to Quint!"
Every single person who saw that movie knew that it was fiction, and that those characters were just actors. They probably knew that, in real life, there isn't a shark big enough to eat your boat. But, when the genius scientist character in the movie agreed that killing the shark was the only way to prevent dead tourists, we assumed that part was true. The same as we assumed you could really blow up an oxygen tank by shooting it.
So, we killed all the sharks, based on what the make-believe movie told us.
Ah, but that's one oddball isolated incident. Hey, did you know that after Top Gun, Navy aviator recruitment skyrocketed by as much as 500 fucking percent? Or that the number of kids taking martial arts classes exploded after The Karate Kid? Or that the popularity of the CSI TV shows has resulted in a glut of students going into forensic sciences? Or that I could cite examples of this until you hit your monthly bandwidth cap? How many of you left Fight Club thinking you knew how to make napalm? Which of us haven't forced a baby to do that wanking motion after watching The Hangover?
"Dude, it's not funny. You made him do the Nazi salute so much, he does it on his own now. Not cool."
I know what some of you are already saying: "So, what, because some gullible people do what movies tell them, that means a Batman movie made that guy shoot up the theater? So I suppose watching Bridesmaids made us all start shitting in sinks."
No. You're intentionally reaching for examples where it doesn't happen, and ignoring all of the ones where it does -- even if some movie straight up told you to become a mass murderer, it'd be working against a lifetime of society pounding the opposite message into your brain. The point of this article isn't to pin violence on movies. The point is that it's much bigger than that. Because ...
4Stories Were Invented to Control You
This isn't some paranoid conspiracy theory -- it's a fundamental part of how human culture came about. Ask yourself: Why do we go watch superhero movies? After all, variations of these stories about brave, superhuman heroes predate recorded history. We used to tell them around campfires before written language even existed.
They were created as a way to teach you how to behave.
Thousands of years ago, when your ancestors were living in tribes and hunting gazelles for food, nobody knew how to read. Even if they could, paper wasn't a thing, parchment was rare and precious. They had no written historical records, they had no educational system that could devote years to teaching history to the kids.
This was a problem. Once humans started forming civilizations, the guys in charge didn't just need the next generation of children to know how to fish and hunt, they needed citizens who would fall in line and fight for the tribe. That meant the kids needed to understand the big picture: why preserving the tribe is important, why we hate the tribe across the river, why our tribe is better than that tribe, why it's important to go off and fight in the next war no matter how scared you are.
"Why don't we all just pick fruit and have sex together? Oh, they worship a baby-eating rape-demon? Well that changes everything."
Now, to do this, they could either A) bore the kids to death with a years-long recounting of the history of the tribe, which nobody has probably written down anyway or B) tell them a cool story. They could tell the thrilling tale of Kolgor the Valiant who, when the evil neighboring tribe came to slay all of the women and children, stood alone and fought bravely through the night, with four arrows in his chest, until the enemy retreated in terror. You want to be like Kolgor, don't you, little one? Otherwise, he will have died in vain.
Clearly "B" is the one that is going to stick in the kid's brain. It doesn't matter that the story is either fiction or grossly exaggerated -- it gets the job done, it makes the kid conform to be the kind of citizen the tribe needs him to be. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- your tribe may very well be better than the one across the river, your real history is probably full of real heroes whose sacrifices were just as important as, if less romantic than, Kolgor the Valiant's. The tribe didn't go with the fictional version because they were liars, they went with it because it was the only way for the "truth" to survive.
So while we use the word "myth" these days to mean "a lie that needs to be debunked," often the myths were simply more efficient versions of the truth. They're easier to remember, they don't take as long to tell and they eliminate a lot of the messy ambiguities that can confuse the point. Also, they won't bore the listener to tears.
"Hey, instead of history notes, I wrote down 716 words that mean 'dick'."
The point is, this is why stories were invented -- to shape your brain in a certain way. A guy named Joseph Campbell wrote whole books about it, you should read them. These basic stories, these myths of the hero overcoming the odds, the great man who sacrifices himself for the greater good -- they're what make civilization go. In a society, the people and the buildings and the roads are the hardware, mythology is the software.
And while your ancestors had their heroes that they heard about around the campfire, you have Batman, and Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter. And yes, the movies you watched this summer serve the same purpose as those ancient myths. Sometimes this is super obvious (clearly Rocky IV and The Day After Tomorrow are trying to cram a message into your brain with the subtlety of a sweatpants erection). But what's the message behind James Bond? Or Iron Man?
"There isn't one!"
That literally isn't possible.
That's like saying this sculpture is nothing more than men hugging the thighs of another man, their thumbs gently grazing his testicles.
You see ...