Rated E for evil

Culture | Some entertainment goes far beyond sex and violence

Issue: "Walking the tightrope," Feb. 10, 2001

Slayer is a death metal band that likes to sing about torturing women to death and then having sex with their dead bodies. In 1995, three teenage boys decided to follow the steps given in a Slayer song to sacrifice a virgin to Satan, in the hopes that it would bring similar fame to their own rock group, which they named Hatred. They lured a 14-year-old girl into the woods, where they acted out the Slayer song step by step, strangling her, mutilating her, and then, after she was dead, raping her.

The three boys confessed-telling about how they stayed up several nights in a row taking drugs and listening to Slayer planning the crime-and they have been put away for 25 years to life.

But now the girl's parents are taking another tack. They have filed a civil suit against Slayer, its American Recordings label, and its parent company, Sony. California law prohibits businesses from marketing "harmful" material to minors.

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In light of the recent Surgeon General's report, which found a definite link between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior in children, and in light of the Federal Trade Commission's exposé about how such fare is aggressively marketed to children, the parents would seem to have a point.

Sony's high-powered attorneys are wrapping themselves in the First Amendment, in "artistic freedom," but as the girl's father said (as reported by Chuck Philips in the Los Angeles Times), "This case isn't about art. It's about marketing. Slayer and others in the industry have developed sophisticated strategies to sell death metal music to adolescent boys. They don't care whether the violent, misogynistic message in these lyrics causes children to do harmful things. They couldn't care less what their fans did to our daughter. All they care about is money."

As the father's attorney pointed out, "Our society does not allow kids to watch or even get near a snuff film" (a movie that shows someone actually getting killed). "Still, minors can go out and buy snuff music any time they want without their parents even knowing."

Slayer-with songs like "Tormentor," "Kill Again," "Serenity in Murder," and "Necrophiliac" and lyrics such as "How I love to kill you"-is only one act in what has become a major stream of pop culture. Eminem raps about raping his mother and murdering his wife, as their little girl watches. Anne Rice novels spin fantasies about what it might be like to be a vampire, and movies like Hannibal portray a cannibalistic serial killer as something like a hero.

These go far beyond the usual complaints of "sex and violence." Though it should not be portrayed in a way that may excite unlawful lusts, sex has an important place in human life, within the bounds of marriage. Violence too can be positive, even in art, when it portrays a moral punishment or creates a sense of pity in the hearts of viewers. The real problem, not only in extreme cases such as Slayer but in far milder TV sitcoms and talk shows, is not sex and violence. It is evil. The pleasure it offers is the thrill of transgression.

In his books Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong and Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories, Christian psychologist William Kilpatrick points out how children learn about morality not primarily from abstract tenets but from stories. In learning to admire and identify with the "good guy"-and feeling repelled by the evil behavior of the villain-children internalize principles of right and wrong and have their imaginations shaped by a moral universe.

One would think that, conversely, stories-and music and movies and video games-that make children admire and identify with someone who is evil, and make them feel contempt and ridicule for what is good, would shape their internalized principles and their imaginations in the opposite direction.

Or, as one of the 16-year-old killers said about the effects of listening to Slayer, "It gets inside your head.... It started to influence the way I looked at things."

The issue is not just whether evil entertainment makes a child-or an adult-actually act out the behavior in real life. Only a very few go that far. Most of the millions of fans of evil entertainment know better than that, living law-abiding lives and only indulging in the dark side in their imaginations. But this is precisely the problem, what it does to people on the inside.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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