We Should Be Alarmed That Our Children Are Not More Alarmed

Many parents would be horrified at the sadism their children favour as entertainment. Ought they to be worried?

In Hostel, the gore flick young audiences have made into North America’s top-grossing theatre attraction, human beings perpetrate on one another whatever can be accomplished with knives, hooks, scalpels, tongs, drills, pincers and electrical saws.

Paxton and Josh, the two feckless protagonists, become separated first from each other and subsequently from their own limbs and organs. Each act of anatomical exploration is presented in graphic detail: blood spurting, here body fluids flowing and oozing, there an enucleated eyeball dangling from its socket. One of the leads is subjected to involuntary thoracic surgery without the benefit of anesthesia; in retribution, the arch villain has his fingers amputated and throat slashed, before being drowned in a toilet bowl.

“This film is not visually more explicit than others have been recently,” Rick Groen, The Globe and Mail’s movie critic, says, “but it breaks new ground in making torture its central theme. It wrenches torture, a talking point in today’s world, from its political context and rubs our faces in the gore.”

“Traditionally we target males between the ages and 18 and 24 with horror films,” says John Bain, senior vice-president of Maple Pictures, Hostel‘s Canadian advertiser. An informal count at a recent Vancouver showing of Hostel found that for each person over 30 among the viewing audience, there were about 10 who looked 25 or younger, many of them female. Mr. Bain has also seen this trend. “In our market research with Hostel, and with other horror pictures over the last couple of years,” he says, “we have been seeing a lot of interest from teenage girls and young women.”

Vancouver developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld sees the widespread popularity of movies such as Hostel as a danger signal that our youth population is becoming emotionally desensitized. “We should be alarmed that our children are not alarmed,” he says. “They are attracted to what ought to repel people with normal feelings, enticed by what ought to be scary.”

According to Geoffrey Carr, also a Vancouver psychologist, the young have always been drawn to edgy material, to whatever pushes the boundaries. “Parents throughout history have lamented the so-called degeneration of youth culture,” Dr. Carr says. “I don’t see anything fundamentally different about today’s adolescents.

“What is worrisome is that the material being presented is becoming ever more outrageous.”

Dr. Neufeld, who formerly worked with adolescent offenders in the prison system, believes that there has been a profound and sinister transformation.

“It reflects what is happening clinically. Adolescent psychiatry wards are filled with young cutters who mutilate themselves — another marker of a psychologically numbed state.”

My own observation as a family physician and therapist, but, even more so, my own gut feelings, lead me to share Dr. Neufeld’s concern. It may be the norm today but far from natural or healthy that adolescents and young adults seek ever more explicitly voyeuristic exposure to human suffering, wounding, dismemberment, degradation and death. It’s a sign of an emotional shutdown among young people, also manifested in the rising popularity of extreme sports and illicit stimulant drug use.

Simply put, for many youth, it takes more and more to elicit the adrenaline rush. Why?

Emotional shutdown is not a voluntary act. It’s an automatic psychological defence, a dynamic set in action when human beings experience their own sense of vulnerability as too threatening, too overwhelming to bear. The person who shuts down emotionally has been deeply hurt. Shutting down is the formation of emotional scar tissue to cover a raw, sensitive area of one’s psyche.

On the outside, one sees hardness, rigidity, imperviousness — the “I don’t care” of alienated youth. On the inside, there is a painful, raw wound.

It is Dr. Neufeld’s view, and mine, that many children have lost their sense of emotional safety in the world because they have lost their sense of close connection with the adults who care for them.

People who are shut down emotionally need ever more stimulation to feel — they need to view more gore to feel disgust, more violence to feel fear, more explicit sex to feel titillated. They are drawn to such material because non-feeling is a boring, deadening way of experiencing the world.

Jenna Gossman, a Grade 12 student at Vancouver’s Churchill Secondary School, was upset after seeing Hostel. “I didn’t think it was going to have that much gore,” she told me. “I couldn’t sleep afterwards.”

I regard that as a good sign. The parents who have most cause to worry are those whose kids can see people’s inhumanity to one another as “cool.”

Forbidding our teenagers to see violent movies is not the answer, even if it could be successfully achieved — in any case, an impossibility. To rekindle human emotions, we need to make our children feel that it’s safe to be vulnerable. And that can occur only in healthy relationships with us, the nurturing adults in their lives.

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