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The Appeal of Torture as Mass Entertainment

Should Others’ Suffering or Self-Inflicted Pain Be Watchable?

UK Big Brother's late Jade Goody - Kiera76
Down the ages, man’s inhumanity to man has been made into spectacle for the amusement of others. It seems some can’t help it. Today, many self-torture themselves on TV.

Savage, barbaric, public sports as entertainment are not new. The standard method of execution recorded in the Bible Old Testament was public stoning. The Romans were masters at such mass events in gladiatorial arenas, men against men, soldiers against slaves, men against wild animals, all till the death. They also invented the crucifixion, one of the most cruel ways to die.

As medicine and the treatment of diseases improved through the centuries, it was commonplace for the public to go and watch operations. Indeed, the term still in use today, ‘operating theatre’, dates from those times.

Across Europe, Sunday afternoon visits to lunatic asylums were regular; the visitations providing an opportunity to make fun of the inmates. Until the 19th Century in Britain, all executions were public and the presence of food sellers and sideshow entertainers made them into carnivals enjoyed by people of all ages, including children.

Extreme Japanese Game Shows

Takeshi’s Castle originated on Japanese TV in the 1980s and it featured an actor playing the count of a castle where players had to undertake impossible tasks to reach him, a ‘live-action Super Mario game.’ It became a cult hit on world-wide television.

Another was Endurance, an often seriously unpleasant show. Eating maggots, being wrapped in clingfilm and then snaking over an obstacle course of gravel; cycling after a pint of beer with a mouthful of mustard powder; clinging to a bar while a bungee crane pulls them upwards and having liquids thrown in their faces; eating maggot-filled quiche, blindfolded while having feet tickled: all part of the fun.

Using clips from this on their UK television programmes, both Chris Tarrant and Clive James prolonged the effect of such violent sports being entertainment, with a slightly superior air, as if we are above such things in the west. However, people seem to enjoy watching others suffering, with no difference between one culture and another.

The German language even has a word for it: schadenfreude, meaning “enjoyment of the misery of others.”

According to Greg Braxton of the Los Angeles Times, TV and film producers increasingly see really graphic physical and mental torture as mainstream entertainment. Playing mind-games with performers and audience alike, is now accepted by many.

Experiments and Theories About Torture

In early 2010, a spoof game show on French TV, Le Jeu de la Mort (Game of Death), was broadcast showing members of the public being encouraged by a celebrity presenter and an audience to administer somebody with a potentially fatal electric shock.

The person was an actor, but the perpetrators didn’t know that. He screamed in pain as apparent shocks were delivered. It didn’t stop the shocks coming. The atmosphere urged on the pain-givers, they were controlled by the crowd and, presumably, pleasure in their own brief fame.

This was inspired by the early 1960s experiments conducted at Yale University in the USA, by psychologist Stanley Milgram. These sought to measure the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure in carrying out acts that conflicted with their consciences.

He wanted to explore — three months after the start of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann — whether there was a mutual sense of suppressed morality in the Germans during the war, whether they were literally only obeying orders in the death camps.

The experiment was conducted by an apparently stern professor attempting to improve learning and memory by administering electric shocks via a volunteer ‘teacher’. The hapless members of the public were under the impression they were delivering shocks in 15 volt increments to the learner as each wrong answer was given. The victim was in another room, but could be heard screaming, and then banging on the wall. Then there was silence. The ‘teachers’ were told they would not be held responsible.

At various stages, many questioned the validity of what they were doing, right up to the potentially fatal 450 volts. It was thought in advance very few people would go on to inflict the maximum, knowing it was a fatal level, even believing they were advancing learning. In fact, 65% did so, even though they were uncomfortable with it.

The conclusion was that on the commands of authority, most people will do whatever they are told, even inflicting untold pain on another person. These were not people doing it out of fear or threat to themselves or their families, but willingly despite any reservations. Later experiments in different settings and often with the victim and the ‘teacher’ in close proximity, confirmed the findings.

Indeed, war atrocities and tortures, both public and hidden, since then only confirm that theory about the dangers lurking in the dark side of the human psyche. Nowadays, additionally, in search of what Andy Warhol described in 1968 as ‘in the future, everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes’, people gladly inflict deprivation and humiliation upon themselves, as the popularity of TV reality programmes like Big Brother (now in world wide versions), I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here (UK) and Castaway (UK), amply demonstrate.

First published at Suite 101, 3 April 2010.

Photo above: UK Big Brother’s late Jade Goody – Kiera76

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