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The Shrieking of the Lambs

Andrew Klavan
Books and Films Discussed in This Article Include:

American Psycho
Random House/Vintage, 1991, $13.00

The Silence of the Lambs
St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1988, $5.99

Salem's Lot
Signet, 1976, $6.99

Oxford University Press, 1992, $4.95

Child's Play 3
Universal Pictures, 1991

Shamley Pictures, 1960

Thelma and Louise
UIP/Pathé Entertainment, 1991

Nightmare On Elm Street
New Line Cinema, 1984

The Exorcist
Warner Productions, 1973

I LOVE THE SOUND of people screaming. Women screaming -- with their clothes torn -- as they run down endless hallways with some bogeyman in hot pursuit. Men, in their priapic cars, screaming as the road ends, as the fender plummets towards fiery oblivion under their wild eyes. Children? I'm a little squeamish about children, but okay, sure, I'll take screaming children too. And I get off on gunshots -- machine gun shots goading a corpse into a posthumous jitterbug; and the coital jerk and plunge of a butcher knife; and axes; even claws, if you happen to have them. Yes, yes, yes, only in stories. Of course; in fictions only: novels, TV shows, films. I've loved the scary, gooey stuff since I was a child. I've loved monsters, shootouts, bluddy murther; Women In Jeopardy (as they say in Hollywood); the slasher in the closet; the intruder's shadow that spreads up the bedroom wall like a stain. And now, having grown to man's estate, I make a very good living writing these things: thriller novels like Don't Say A Word, which begins with a nice old lady getting dusted and ends with an assault on a child, and The Animal Hour which features a woman's head being severed and stuffed into a commode.

Is it vicious? Disgusting? Sexist? Sick? Tough luck, it's my imagination -- sometimes it is -- and it's my readers' too -- always, for all I know. And when they and I get together, when we dodge down that electric alleyway of the human skull where only murder is delight -- well then, my friend, it's showtime. But enough about me, let's talk about death. Cruel death, sexy death, exciting death: death, that is, on the page and on the screen. Because this is not a defense of violence in fiction, it's a celebration of it. And not a moment too soon either. Hard as it is for a sane man to believe, fictional violence is under attack. Again. Floundering in a mean street America where bigots and enablers dither while the malicious play catch with live ammo, where one interest group calls a machine gun a hunting weapon and another calls a kitchen knife a form of feminist expression, where children are stolen from their houses and killed and tourists are executed for the crime of getting lost on their way to Disneyworld, the folks back home have understandably panicked, and the unerring eye of political opportunism has once more found its scapegoat: those good people who make up scary stories to help you pass the time. This year's list of would-be censors trying to shoulder their way to the trough of celebrity is hardly worth enumerating: their 15 minutes might be up by the time I'm done. Film critic Michael Medved says cinematic violence is part of a pop culture "war on traditional values"; Congressman Edward Markey says television violence should be reduced or regulated; some of our less thoughtful feminists tried to quash the novel American Psycho because of its descriptions of violence toward women and even some more thoughtful, like Catherine MacKinnon, have fought for censorship in law, claiming that written descriptions of "penises slamming into vaginas" deprive actual human beings of their civil rights.

It's nonsense mostly, but it has the appeal of glamour, of flash. The "issue" of fictional violence lifts crime out of the impoverished, muddy-minded, rage-filled milieus in which it usually occurs, and superimposes it on the gaudy images manufactured in Hollywood and Manhattan. Instead of trying to understand the sad, banal, ignorant souls who generally pull the trigger in our society, we get to discuss Hannibal Lecter, Ice-T, penises, vaginas. It makes for good sound bytes, anyway -- the all-American diet of 15 second thoughts.

But Britain -- where I've come to live because I loathe real guns and political correctness -- is far from exempt. Indeed, perhaps nowhere has there been a more telling or emblematic attack on fictional violence than is going on here right now. It is a textbook example of how easily pundits and politicians can channel honest grief and rage at a true crime into a senseless assault on the innocent tellers of tales. It began here this time with the killing of a child by two other children. On 12 February, Jamie Bulger, a two-year-old toddler, was led out of a Merseyside shopping mall by two ten-year-olds -- two little boys. The boys prodded and carried and tugged the increasingly distraught baby past dozens of witnesses who did not understand what they were seeing. When they reached a deserted railroad embankment, the two boys tortured, mutilated, and finally killed their captive for no reasons that anyone has been able to explain. The explicit testimony at the trial last November verged on the unbearable. Even the more restrained newspapers could not be read without nausea and tears. And looking at the photographs of the killers -- two sweetly mischievous Just William faces, Lords of the Flies in their Sunday best -- there arose, in me, in everyone I spoke to, the desperate urge to understand, to grasp, to know: What? What is it? What rough beast, its hour come round at last?

At first, the pundits did their best to answer but the answers seemed miserably inadequate. Psychiatrists noted the fierce sibling rivalry felt by one of the killers; sociologists noted the broken homes, the poverty, the family violence; columnists talked about the breakdown of society; one gay writer blamed everything on the pressures of heterosexual manhood; even the usually brilliant Martin Amis weighed in with a rather sleepy piece on the dissipation of moral energy in the west. And it wasn't just the media flailing about. At dinner parties, we daringly ventured to talk about Evil, and then let our voices trail off to nothing. At home, we tried to be nicer to our children -- until the little pests caught on and began to run riot. And in almost any pub, you could hear it explained how the murderers were demon freaks of nature -- an opinion that seemed a lot less ridiculous and a lot more comforting than by any rights it should've done.

But the nation's search for an answer, its grief and disgust, its sense of social despair, did not resolve themselves upon a single issue until the trial judge pronounced sentence. "It is not for me to pass judgment on their upbringing," Mr. Justice Morland said of the boys as he sentenced them to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure. "But I suspect exposure to violent video films may in part be an explanation."

No one knew why he said such a thing. There had been speculation in some of the papers that Child's Play 3, which had been rented by one of the killers' fathers, had given the son ideas. But there was no testimony at the trial, no evidence presented showing that the boy had seen it or that it had had a contributing effect. Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, who headed the investigation into the murder, said "the area of videos was one we looked very closely at" but that no link had been established by the police at all.

It didn't matter. As far as journalists were concerned, as far as public debate was concerned, "video nasties," as they are called here, became the central issue of the case. Forget the subconscious, the broken home, the poverty, the family cruelty, the breakdown of western society, even the trials of masculinity and the moral energy stuff. For the next few days, the newspapers were
splattered with stories about Child's Play 3 as writers combed the film for tenuous connections between the rampages of the movie's devil doll Chucky and the savage attack perpetrated by the Merseyside rails. In the aftermath, the British opening of the film The Good Son, starring Macauley Culkin as an evil child, was canceled. The video release of Reservoir Dogs was indefinitely postponed. Twenty-five doctors and academics who had previously dismissed the effects of screen violence made front page news with a mea culpa report saying their liberal ideals had made them naive. Action was called for, and Liberal Democrat MP David Alton answered the call on the run. With the backing of rebel Tories, Alton nearly pushed through a proposal that even the country's chief censor said would prevent the video release of "half the films made in the last quarter century and some of the greatest films ever made." The Alton bill was only tabled when Home Secretary Michael Howard reluctantly agreed to implement some Draconian restrictions of his own. From hereon in, if you rent My Cousin Vinny to an 11-year-old, you're looking at jail time, mate.

And why not? Now, thanks to Mr. Justice Morland and an eager press, we finally know what we are seeing when we look upon the rampaging fire of violence in our society: we are seeing the effects of fiction on us. Got it? Our leaders are either mindless ideologues or soulless bureaucrats. Our cultural heritage is under attack by morons who stand on the shoulders of giants and think that they can fly. Our moral verities are crumbling by the hour. Our families are shattering. Our gods are dead. The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

And it's all Chucky's fault. The instinct to censor is the tragic flaw of utopian minds. "Our first job," said Plato in his classic attack on the democratic system, "is to oversee the work of the story-writers, and to accept any good stories they write, but reject the others." Because the perfectibility of human society is a fiction itself, it comes under threat from other, more believable fictions, especially those fictions which document and employ the cruel, the chaotic, the Dionysian for their thrills. It's a form of homeopathic magic really. (A point once made by the magician Teller of Penn and Teller in an op-ed piece in The New York Times.) The chants and rituals of that old witchcraft are gone, but the template of belief remains in the censor's mind: if you erase the image, he tells us, you will magically erase the thing itself. And this superstitious fallacy plays into some prevailing fallacies of academic and political theory: the idea that language is the way we understand the world, that metaphor generates consciousness and imagery fashions our feelings and choices, that a work, an author, a reader are wholly constructed of the influences they wreak upon each other. Under such theories, literature becomes an action taken with potentially harmful or beneficial effects on the society and politics of the age (rather than, say, a sight to be seen like a sunset or a mountain range). Again, with their isomorphic links between image and reality, such theories can lead to a sort of homeopathic magic in materialist guise.

Yet one can understand the appeal of these intricate alchemies. With their emphasis on interpretation, they allow critics to sublimate their frustration at not being artists. With their urgent clashes for control of the shaping culture, they allow artists to feel they are engaged in struggles of great pith and moment. In general, they allow all of us who sit in lonesome rooms fiddling with language to feel a little bit more like Vaclav Havel and a little bit less like Bobo the Juggling Clown. Very tempting stuff, especially in a nation which largely refuses to make martyrs of its literati and so deprives them of political heroism; leaves them instead to splash about like trained seals in the shallow waters of commercial failure and success.

Fortunately for our purposes, however, a seal's life is exactly the life for me. I'm just a simple barefoot spinner of yarns plying my wares from town to town. I don't know nothing about birthing a perfect society. For me to engage the latterday Platos on their own materialist, political terms would be to be sucked in to a form of dialogue that does not reflect the reality I know -- and know I know. Because personally, I understand the world not through language but through an unfathomable spirit and an infinite mind. I sit down through an urge and with a talent as basic to my personality as inborn personality itself. With language as a rude tool I try to convey a shadow of the world my imagination makes of the world at large. I do this for money and pleasure and to win the admiration of women. And when, in an uncertain hour, I crave the palliative of meaning, I remind myself that people's souls run opposite to their bodies and grow more childlike as they mature -- and so I have built, in my work, little places where those souls can go to play.

The proper response to anyone who would shut these playgrounds down for any reason -- to anyone who confuses these playgrounds with the real world -- is not the specious language of theory or logic or even the law. It's the language of the spirit, of celebration and screed, of jeremiad and hallelujah. Of this. Now, I would not say that my fictions -- any fictions -- have no effect on real life. Or that books, movies and TV are mere regurgitations of what's going on in the society around them. These arguments, frequently advanced by violence-meisters such as Death Wish director Michael Winner, strike me as disingenuous and self-defeating. Rather, the relationship between fiction and humanity's unconscious is so complex, so resonant, and even stichomythic that it is impossible to isolate one from the other in terms of cause and effect. The gentle family man enjoys a day at the beach with Red Dragon, the assassin cuddles up with Catcher In The Rye. Writers in Ceausescu's murderous Roumania weren't allowed to admit that home-grown murder even existed while the civilized and liberalizing high Victorians made a bestseller out of Dracula, in which babies are devoured by women and women are devoured by wolves. (Interestingly, Bram Stoker made virtually the same argument in favor of censoring pornography as has Catherine MacKinnon. He feared it would incite the susceptible sex to crime: "Women are the worst offenders in this form of breach of moral law," said Bram.) Perhaps it is true that children, sociopaths, and American academics should be protected, in their emotional immaturity, from the more vicious and explicit imagery of fiction. I know I wouldn't want any of them reading my books, and would support sane and limited measures to keep them out of their hands. But for the rest of us, who can honestly say why a film like Psycho inspires a sort of moral mourning in me, whereas the Bible inspires David Koresh to be, well, David Koresh? The studies are always suspect and seem to change with the political winds. Last week, a new study here purported to show a relation between child violence and video nasties. This week, a new study claimed to show that criminals watched the same things as everyone else. It all depends on how you slice it, as it were.

So fiction and reality do interact, but we don't know how, not at all. And since we don't understand the effect of one upon the other -- or, that is, the effect seems to be so individualistic, to depend so much upon the specific work and person at the moment they connect -- whence arises this magical certainty that violence in fiction begets violence in real life like one of those old 3D films that promised to "leap off the screen"?

The answer seems to come straight out of the pages of Sigmund Freud. Or St. Paul if you prefer: "Wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself." It's Psychology 1A, but that doesn't negate the truth of it: that pleasure which is unknowingly repressed is outwardly condemned. The censor always attacks the images that secretly appeal to him or her the most. The assault on violent fiction is not really an attempt to root out the causes of violence -- no one can seriously believe that. The attempt to censor fictional violence is a guilt-ridden slap at ourselves, in the guise of a mythical them, for taking such pleasure in make-believe acts that, in real life, would be reprehensible. How -- we seem to be asking ourselves -- how, in a world in which Jamie Bulger dies so young, can we kick back with a beer at night and enjoy a couple of hours of Child's Play 3? How can a man who has to fear so for his wife or daughter read American Psycho with such a goofy simper? How can a woman who tries to teach her children to negotiate the world in peace cheer like a maniac for the marauding cruelties of Thelma and Louise?

How can we enjoy this stuff so much? So very much. Not all of us perhaps. I'm forever being told that there are people who'd rather not take violence with their fiction -- although I wonder how many would say so if you included the delicate violence of an Agatha Christie or the "literary" violence of, say, Hemingway and Faulkner. But even if we accept the exceptions, even if we limit the field to real gore, it does seem to me that the numbers are incredible, the attraction truly profound.

For instance, in the years when we could not afford to go to the movies, my wife and I would read aloud to each other: a mutual entertainment that could be stretched over several days. Once, I picked out what looked like a cheap horror novel by an author I'd never heard of. We began reading it right after dinner. Around nine o'clock, we hit the scene where a little boy was sacrificed and gutted by the factotum of a vampire. It was about four a.m. before we reached the part where a priest was forced to guzzle the spurting blood from the vampire's chest. Long after dawn, hoarse and wide-eyed, we reached the novel's apocalyptic conclusion. Even my wife -- who generally does avoid this sort of thing -- agreed that it was one of the most wonderfully ugly and frightening things we'd ever read. For months afterward, I asked every reader I knew if they had ever heard of the book, Salem's Lot, or its author, Stephen King. None of them had. It had been nicely published but largely unpublicized. Later, the movie Carrie helped launch what has to be one of the most successful novelistic careers since Dickens. But even before that, all over the country, all over the world eventually, readers like me and my wife were steadily discovering the nausea and mayhem and terror of the man's vision.

The moral, I mean, is this: To construct a bloodsoaked nightmare of unrelenting horror is not an easy thing. But if you build it, they will come. And so the maker of violent fiction -- ho, ho -- he walks among us in Nietzschean glee. He has bottled the Dionysian whirlwind and is selling it as a soft drink. Like the hausfrau who charmed her babes with descriptions of the dismembered brides in The Robber Baron, like deep-browed Homer, when he told of a spear protruding from a man's head with an eyeball fixed to the point, the violent storyteller knows that that gape of disgust on your respectable mug is really the look of love. You may denounce him, you may even censor him. You may just wrinkle your nose and walk away. But sooner or later, in one form or another, he knows you'll show up to see and listen to him -- and if you don't, your children will, in droves. Nothing can be more cruelly risible than watching experts debate a piece of fictional violence on American television, always pretending that they are above and exempt from the sweet glee that fiction provides. Is American Psycho an eroticized attack on womankind or an exploration of modern madness? Is Falling Down an incitement to murder minorities or a warning against the promptings of urban rage? The idea seems to be that whoever can impose a meaning on the fiction -- a meaning which will support his cause or career -- wins.

But fiction, like life, is not about its meanings. Like life, any good story can support any number of interpretations, many of them mutually exclusive, and many of them at odds with the author's purposes and peccadilloes. This is precisely why fiction causes single-minded political thinkers to stomp and gnash so much. Fiction lives or dies, not on its messages, but on the depth and power of the emotional experience it provides. And from the gravitas of the Aristotelian notion of catharsis to the pseudo-scientific palaver of modern literary theory, an enormous amount of intellectual energy seems to have been expended in a failed attempt to suppress the central, disturbing and irreducible fact of this experience: it's fun. Like sex: it's lots of fun. We watch fictional people love and die and screw and suffer and weep for our pleasure. It gives us joy.

And we watch them kill too. And this seems to give us as much joy as anything. All right, I suppose you can talk about the catharsis of terror, or the harmless release of our violent impulses. Those are plausible excuses, I guess. It doesn't take a genius to notice how often -- practically always -- it's the villain of a successful piece of violent art who becomes its icon. Hannibal Lecter and Leatherface, Freddy Kreuger and Dracula -- these are the posters that go up on the wall, the characters that we remember. Several commentators have been disturbed by the fact that modern thrillers seem more and more to take the point of view of the bad guy rather than the hero, but perhaps that's just our increasing honesty about the nature of what's repressed. Plenty of kids have built plastic models of Frankenstein's monster, but I don't know a single one who's ever built a model of a Tyrolean peasant with a torch. So I suppose, if you must, you could say these creatures represent our buried feelings. Whether it's Medea or Jason (from Friday The 13th), the character who commits acts of savage violence always has the appeal of a Caliban: that thing of darkness that must be acknowledged as our own. Not that people are essentially violent, but that they are violent among other things and the violence has to be repressed. After all, if I could shoot my kids every time they were snotty and beat my wife every time she was right, I'd probably be St. Francis of Assisi in my spare time. But if you want to have a civilization, you've got to roll with the discontents. Some emotions must be repressed and repressed emotions return via the imagination in distorted and inflated forms: that's the law of benevolent hypocrisy, the law of civilized life. It is an unstated underpinning of utopian thought -- what Nietzsche keenly called Socratic thought -- that the repressed can be eliminated completely or denied or happily freed or remolded with the proper education. It can't. Forget about it. Cross it off your list of things to do. The monsters are always there in their cages. As Stephen King says, with engaging simplicity, his job is to take them out for a walk every now and then. But again, this business of violent fiction as therapy -- this modern-jargon version of Aristotle -- it's a defense, isn't it, as if these stories needed a reason for being. In order to celebrate violent fiction -- I mean, celebrate it -- it's the joy you've got to talk about. The joy of cruelty, the thrill of terror, the adrenaline of the hunter, the heartbeat of the deer -- all reproduced in the safe playground of art. A joy indeed. Americans don't seem to like that word much: joy. Every day, some newspaper seems to publish some doctor's or sociologist's reasons why we should or shouldn't take our pleasure. It deadens our brain cells, it cleans our heart, it makes us live longer, it kills us. We need to know that smoke or drink or sport, sex or entertainment, is somehow medicinal before we allow it to take the
edge off the miseries of existence. Even more, Americans, culturally puritanical and yet committed to the ideal of tolerance, like to tie themselves in knots trying to show that your pleasures are not good for them, that is, the society at large. As a culture, we seem unable to accept the words of our great philosopher, Dr. Seuss, who said -- though admittedly in a wholly other context -- "These things are fun, and fun is good."

When it comes to our messier, our somehow unseemly, pleasures, like fictional gore, we are downright embarrassed by our delight. But delight is certainly what it is. Nubile teens caught out in flagrante by a nutcase in a hockey mask? You bet it's erotic. Whole families tortured to death by a madman who's traced them through their vacation photos. Ee-yewwww. Goblins who jump out of the toilet to devour you ass first. Delightful stuff.

I remember when The Exorcist (still unavailable on video in the UK) first came out over 20 years ago. The hype was extensive. The film's dramatization of a neurotic Catholic view of menarche was genuinely disgusting. Excitement in the seats ran high. Toward the climax of the picture, it all got to be too much. The fellow sitting next to me suddenly started to hyperventilate and I had to carry him out into the lobby. It was like a battlefield out there: girls sobbing, guys with their heads in their hands -- a funny little mustachioed theater manager hopping from victim to victim with a stick of smelling salts. The lines to get in to the next show went around the block. I mean, we were having a good time now.

And we've always been that way. The myths of our ancient gods, the lives of our medieval saints, the entertainments of our most civilized cultures have always included healthy doses of rape, cannibalism, evisceration, and general mayhem. Critics like Michael Medved complain that never before has it all been quite so graphic, especially on screen. We are becoming "desensitized" to bloodshed, he claims, and require more and more gore to excite our feelings. But when have human beings ever been particularly "sensitized" to fictional violence? The technology to create the illusion of bloodshed has certainly improved, but read Titus Andronicus with its wonderful stage direction, "Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand," read the orgasmic staking of Lucy in Dracula, read de Sade, for crying out loud. There were always some pretty good indications of which way we'd go once we got our hands on the machinery. Because we love it. It makes us do a little inner dance of excitement, tension, and release. What pains we go to to disguise that. With a "serious" violent work, like Time's Arrow or Goodfellas, we tell ourselves it's important, we say we thought it was good but we didn't really enjoy it -- whatever that means. When we read the accounts of the Jamie Bulger case, when we watch the latest victims being dragged in pieces from the marketplace of Sarajevo, when we follow the next installment of the Menendez trial or the Amy Fisher case, we say we're out for information, a spur to political action, an insight into life -- it's the news after all; it's really happening. But violent fiction with its graver purposes, if any, concealed -- fiction unadorned with overt messages or historical significance -- rubs our noses in the fact that narratives of horror, murder, and gore are a blast, a gas. When Freddy Kreuger disembowels someone in a geyser of blood, when Hannibal Lecter washes down his victim with a nice Chianti, even when the vicar merely shoots the colonel in the drawing room -- the only possible reason for this non-real, non-meaningful event to occur is that it's going to afford us pleasure. Which leaves that pleasure obvious, exposed. It's the exposure, not the thrill, the censors want to get rid of. Again: celebration is the only defense. And yet -- I know -- while I celebrate, the new, not-very-much-improved Rome is burning. Last year sometime, I had a conversation with a highly intelligent Scottish filmmaker who had just returned from New York. Both of us had recently seen Sylvester Stallone's mountaineering action picture Cliffhanger. I'd seen it in the placid upper class neighborhood of South Kensington, he'd seen it in a theater in Times Square. I had been thrilled by the movie's special effects and found the hilariously dopey script sweetly reminiscent of the comic books I'd read as a child. My friend had found the picture grimly disturbing. The Times Square theater had been filled with rowdy youths. Every time the bad guys killed someone, the youths cheered -- and when a woman was murdered, they howled with delight.

I freely confess that I would have been unable to enjoy the movie under those circumstances. Too damned noisy for one thing. And, all right, yes, as a repression fan, I could only get off on the cruelty of the villains insofar as it fired my anticipation of the moment when Sly would cut those suckers down. Another audience could just as easily have been cheering the murders of Jews in Schindler's List or of blacks in Mississippi Burning. I understand that, and it would be upsetting and frightening to be surrounded by a crowd which seemed to have abandoned the non-negotiable values.

Michael Medved believes -- not that one film produces one vicious act -- but that a ceaseless barrage of anti-religion, anti-family, slap-happy-gore films and fictions has contributed to the erosion of values so evident on 42nd Street. I don't know whether this is true or not -- neither does he -- but, as with the judge's remarks in the Bulger case, it strikes me as a very suspicious place to start. The postwar generation, in which these values went openly to the wall, was raised, after all, not on the films and books that are available now, but on the value-bloated pabulum of the 1950s. And Medved's old-fashioned values, to go by the interviews he gives, have not been noticeably eroded, though he's in the business of watching these things. Surely, the Scotsman's story illustrates that the problem lies not on the screen but in the seats, in the lives that have produced that audience. Fiction cannot make of people what life has not, good or evil. "Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced," said Keats. "Even a proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it."

But more to the point: though the Times Square crowd's reaction was scary -- rude too -- it was not necessarily harmful in itself, either to them or me. For all I know, it was a beneficial release of energy and hostility, good for the mental health. And in any case, it took place in the context of their experience of a fiction and so (outside of the unmannerly noise they made) was beyond my right to judge, approve, or condemn. Nobody has to explain his private pleasures to me.

Because fiction and reality are different. It seems appalling that anyone should have to say it, but it does need to be said. Fiction is not subject to the same moral restrictions as real life. It should remain absolutely free because, at whatever level, it is, like sex, a deeply personal experience engaged in by consent in the hope of anything from momentary release to satori. Like sex, it is available to fools and creeps and monsters, and that's life; that's tough. Because fiction is, like sex, at the core of our individual humanity. Stories are the basic building blocks of spiritual maturity. No one has any business messing with them. No one at all.

Reality, on the other hand, needs its limits, maintained by force if necessary, for the simple reason that there are actions that directly harm the safety and liberty of other people. They don't merely offend them; they don't just threaten their delicate sense of themselves; they hurt them -- really, painfully, a lot. Again, it seems wildly improbable that this should be forgotten, but Americans' current cultural discussions show every evidence that it has been. Just as fictions are being discussed as if they were actions (as when MacKinnon recently made the loony tune claim that she had been effectively raped in print), actual crimes and atrocities are being discussed as if they were cultural events, subject to aesthetic considerations. Trial lawyers won a lesser conviction for lady-killer Robert Chambers by claiming his victim was promiscuous; columnists defended dick-chopper Lorena Bobbit, saying it might be all right to mutilate a man in his sleep, provided he was a really nasty guy. The fellows who savaged Reginald Denny during the LA riots claim they were just part of the psychology of the mob. And the Menendez brothers based much of their defense on a portrayal of themselves as victims, a portrayal of their victims as abusers. These are all arguments appropriate to fiction only. Only in fiction are crimes mitigated by symbolism and individuals judged not for what they've done but because of what they represent. We can allow our sympathies with fictional characters to be excited more easily by illustrative circumstances because our sympathies depend upon the fact that no one has really gotten hurt.

Our thrills depend upon that as well. The woman who cheers when Louise (or is it Thelma?) shoots a would-be rapist who has already put his hands up and his penis down is not the same as the columnist who supports such an act in real life, where it would be cold-blooded murder. The man who sports a hard-on after reading Bret Ellis's meticulous eviscerations is not the same as the guy who says "she asked for it," when hearing of an actual rape. To say that the reaction to fiction and the reaction to reality are on a continuum is moral nonsense. Every thought is on a continuum with every other. Reasonable distinctions along the continuum are the only moral game in town.

And fiction and real life must be distinguished from one another. The radical presumption of fiction is play, the radical presumption of real life is what Martin Amis called "the gentleness of human flesh." If
we have lost the will to defend that gentleness, then God help us, because consigning Chucky to the flames is not going to bring it back. One of the very best works of violent fiction to come along in the last few years is Thomas Harris's novel, The Silence of the Lambs. The story, inspired, like Psycho, by the real-life case of murderer Ed Gein, concerns the hunt for the serial killer Jame Gumb, a failed transsexual, who strips his female victims' flesh in order to create a woman costume in which he can clothe himself. Expertly worked as an entertainment, the novel brings us face to face with the necessary corollaries to the century's materialist, non-spiritual approach to the human body. Gumb, in his obsession with the outline of his own body, treats other people as outlines as well, as shapes, things, that he can use and transform at his will. But more than that, the book calls up our own materialist reactions to the flesh. All the ugliest violence in the book is committed against women who are already dead. Our disgust is excited not by the taking of human life, but only by the butchery of flesh that used to be human life. Even the victims themselves only balk at obeying the killer's commands when they realize what's going to happen after they're gone. And yet, what moral difference does it make what Gumb does to people once he's shot them? The horror of it is nightmarish, but its moral value is nil. Our reactions seem almost to confirm Gumb in his attitudes, and underscore our flirtation with the rationalist cannibal Hannibal Lecter, the ultimate believer in humanity as meat. When Harris introduces the killer's next victim -- Catherine Martin -- he presents us with a character whom we aren't meant to like very much. Rich, spoiled, arrogant, dissolute, Catherine is admirable only for the desperate cleverness she shows in her battle to stay alive. But for the rest of the novel -- the attempt to rescue Catherine before it's too late -- Harris depends on our fear for her, our identification with her, our deep desire to see her get out of this in one piece. The killer refers to Catherine as "It." But Harris has the artistic intelligence to know that we, the reader, will care and worry for her; if we don't, the story simply won't be any fun.

Harris allows us the forbidden kick of our identification with the übermensch Lecter whose intelligence, wit, and appreciation of fine music in no way prevent him from killing and feeding on the human race. At the same time, he relies on our irrational -- spiritual -- conviction that Catherine, irritating though she may be, must not be killed because . . . for no good reason: because she Must Not. Harris knowingly taps in to the purely emotional imperative we share with the book's heroine, Clarice Starling: like her, we won't be able to sleep until the screaming of innocent lambs is stopped. Harris makes pretty well sure of it.

At the end, in the only injection of auctorial opinion in the book, Harris wryly notes that the scholarly journals which include articles on the Gumb case never use the words crazy or evil in their discussions
of the killer. The intellectual world is uncomfortable with the inherent Must-Not, the instinctive absolute, and the individual responsibility those words ultimately suggest. In short, though not killers themselves, these materialist thinkers share the moral blindness of their brilliant colleague Lecter, who really, in the end, has logic on his side. Harris, I think, is trying to argue that if we don't trust our mindless belief in the sanctity of human life, we produce monsters that the sleep of reason never dreamed of. The Silence of the Lambs, as the title suggests, is a dramatization of a world in which the spirit has lost its power to speak.

We live in that world, no question. "Destitute of faith, and terrified at skepticism": Carlyle's phrase still applies. With our culture atomizing, we think we can make up enough rules, impose enough restrictions, inject enough emptiness into our language to replace the shared moral conviction that's plainly gone. I think all stories -- along with being fun -- have the potential to humanize precisely because the richest fun of them is dependent on our identification with their characters; in order to have a really good time, we have to stretch the muscles of the I-and-Thou. But stories can't do for us what experience hasn't. They're just not that powerful. No murderous sexual psychopath is going to walk out of The Piano with a new-found respect for womankind; no decent bloke is going to close The Silence of the Lambs and start digging an oubliette -- it doesn't matter how many times these experiences are repeated: the lives of the audience will out. And if some people are living lives in our society that make them unfit for even the most shallow thrills of fiction, you can't solve that problem by eliminating the fiction; it doesn't even begin to make sense. By allowing politicians and pundits to turn our attention to "the problem of fictional violence," we are really allowing them to make us turn our backs on the problems of reality. We know it too, down deep, where we're in despair. After a crime like the Jamie Bulger murder, we should be asking ourselves a million questions: about our abandonment of family life, about our approach to poverty and unemployment, about the failures of our educational systems -- about who and what we are and the ways we treat each other, the things we do and omit to do. These are hard, sometimes boring questions. But when instead we let our discussions devolve, as they have, into this glamour-rotten debate on whether people should be able to enjoy whatever fiction they please, then we make meaningless the taking of an individual's life. And that's no fun at all. And it's no fun to sit back and watch it happen. 

Originally published in the June/September 1994 issue of Boston Review

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