What sound does a barbed wire-encircled bat make when it first hits a human head? What about the second time?
Anyone who watched Sunday’s Season 7 premiere of “The Walking Dead” can answer those questions. And anyone who watched Wednesday’s “American Horror Story” can tell you what it’s like to watch a crowbar hitting a human head over and over.
The extremely violent head-bashings on the dramas that air on ad-supported cable followed the Oct. 16 episode of HBO’s “Westworld,” in which one of the robot hosts bashed his own head in with a large rock — though viewer exposure to the act didn’t extend quite as long as it did on the other shows. But the televised caving in of skulls has been so in vogue of late, it even extends to nonfiction. CBS’ “The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey” brought in a 10-year-old child to bash in a pig skull with a wig on it last month as an experiment to see whether JonBenét’s brother could have been her killer.
The prevalence of a particular kind of horrific act on TV raises questions about its necessity. What narrative purpose is served by holding on a skull-bashing, visually? By making the viewer witness every swing? And why are so many showrunners running to this well?
The head is the holder of all that makes us human, that miracle of intelligence, emotion, and memory. There’s a reason the only way to truly kill a zombie is by destroying the brain. Which is perhaps why watching three main characters on two series subjected this level of butchery edges the experience from a coincidence to a surprising trend.
“Walking Dead” exec producer Greg Nicotero defended the show’s creative choices as important to establishing the evil nature of the character doing the head-bashing, Negan, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
“We spent so much time really setting up different groups of people, this is by far the most despicable villain we have ever encountered. And the way the character is crafted and designed is that when he’s there, he’s on stage, he’s doing this all to prove a point. ‘This is my world, these are my rules,’ ” Nicotero said. “In this instance we felt it was important to launch us into this season to show us the extent of what Negan is capable of doing, because that drives so much of where the series is going from here on in. Yeah, it’s graphic and it’s horrible. While we were designing and testing and shooting the makeups, we wanted to push it a little bit.”
But others disagree.
“It’s a cop-out to say, ‘We had to do it for storytelling reasons,’” Stanton Wood, the USA strategic initiatives officer for the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture, told Variety. “It actually divorced it from the storytelling, in ‘The Walking Dead.’ It wasn’t about the storytelling, it was about the torture.”
By now, after six seasons, viewers of the “Walking Dead” know to expect a level of shocking material from the show. But the bat-wielding attack by Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan character sparked outrage even among ardent fans. The big complaint was that many felt they didn’t need to see characters they’ve loved for six years killed in such a graphic and inhumane fashion.
On “American Horror Story,” the storytelling excuse holds a little more water. Perhaps we did need to see Lily Rabe’s normally passive Shelby go absolutely nuts — and the show didn’t give the act with quite the same visual treatment as “Walking Dead.” Plus, it’s not as if “AHS” producers knew this episode was going to follow so close on the heels of one of the “Walking Dead” episode, or even the “Westworld” scenes. And yet it did follow so close to those other events, resulting in brain-bath overload.
For Wood, the issue in the “Walking Dead” scenes wasn’t just the unnecessary visuals, but with the dehumanization of all the characters — literally, for Glenn and Abraham, and more figuratively for the others. At a time when cases of hate crimes against certain groups have spiked, he points out, pop culture might have a moral imperative to avoid the glorification of this kind of violence.
There are all manner of arguments for showrunners to have creative leeway in telling stories as they see fit, just as all Americans have the right to simply turn off the TV. The reaction to the rash of head-bashings, particularly in the case of “Walking Dead,” suggests that the cultural context for enduring violent scenes may have changed for some viewers.
“This violence is being read in a different context than it might have been even a year ago,” Wood said. “It wouldn’t have been acceptable then, but it might not have been quite so noticeable. But showing this kind of torture is irresponsible.”
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