Star medical examiner's compassion a lesson to splatter film fans

The third in our “Cult of Crime” series
Part 1: Foxy Knoxy and the case of the honorary Missing White Woman
Part 2: School, mall and workplace shootings: Why so many? No, why so few?


Recently retired as chief medical examiner of her state, Dr. Marcella Fierro worked the Virginia Tech massacre. Yet she can’t tolerate violent movies or TV shows.

“I cannot find a shooting or a stabbing entertaining. I simply can’t,” she says in an AP article by Kristen Gelineau. “My frame of reference — absolutely wrong for gore.”

Author Patricia Cornwell used her as the inspiration for Dr. Kay Scarpetta in a crime fiction series that may have spawned the whole crime scene investigation craze in films and TV.

Yet, writes Gelineau, Dr. Fierro is “indifferent toward the ‘CSI’ series.”

While, of course, she learned to step outside of herself to survive in her gruesome work, Dr. Fierro says that her mission was “to take care of [her] patient — who just happens to be dead.”

Gelineau describes a play Cornwell and Fierro attended which included a rape scene. “Fierro bolted from the theater, and Cornwell found her in the parking lot, crying. ‘People just don’t understand,’ she told Cornwell.”

Dr. Fierro’s compassion shines like a beacon. Especially at a time when we Americans expend a huge amount of psychic BTUs fueling the firewall between our psyches and the havoc our government is wreaking in our names.

But a question begs to be asked: If someone who’s as used to seeing the effects of violence up close as Dr. Fierro is can’t handle it in entertainment, what does the average viewer of violence, gore, and torture in today’s TV shows, movies, and video games want with it?

In a June 2007 article for NPR, Neda Ulaby asks those in the business. Such as Tom Ortenberg, an executive at Lionsgate, the film company that released “Hostel” and “Hostel II,” cutting edge films in the extreme horror genre. To him, one of these films is like “a thrill ride for its core audience of male (and increasingly female) 18- to 24-year-olds.”

Musician Rob Zombie, who branched out into film directing to make horror films, such as the recent remake of “Halloween,” seconds this. Audience members, he explains, “go to their job every day. . . they want an experience. . . . they just want to be affected by something.”

English writer J.G. Ballard (“Crash,” “Super-Cannes”) made a career of modern psychic numbness. As he sees it, jaded tastes require escalating cycles of stimulation, which inevitably lead to the disintegration of the self.

But David Poland, editor of Movie City News, who watched “Hostel II” when it premiered in June, described it to Ulaby as “misogynistic, hateful, heartless, thoughtless, despicable.” For good measure, he tacked on “soulless.”

“I think,” Poland summed up, “that we’ve crossed some sort of line.”

But Eli Roth, who directed “Hostel” and “Hostel II,” told Ulaby that he’s “inspired by the real-life horrors on the evening news.”

All together now: “Then why not watch the real life horrors on cable or network news instead?” That way, our ultra-violence fix will be socially redeeming. Who knows? Maybe, like Dr. Fierro, compassion might bloom in our hearts.

But, it turns out what we’re exposed to on the news might not be enough to fill our needs for violence and death. Ulaby describes the view of author and professor Mikita Brotman, a “horror scholar” educated at Oxford. (Aren’t most graduates of English private schools, whether perpetrators or victims, laureates in torture?)

Regarding Iraq, Brotman maintains “that although we hear about war atrocities, the only pictures we’ve seen that can compare to the shocking images from other, earlier wars are the photographs from Abu Ghraib.”

“And so there’s this massive disconnect,” Brotman herself says, “between what we’re told is going on and what we’re seeing, which is nothing, nothing at all — not even coffins. . . . So maybe these vignettes are compensations for what you don’t see in real life.”

By “vignettes,” Brotman means not just the most gory scenes in horror movies, but “war porn” such as the videos made by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They feature killing and dead Iraqi bodies scored to death metal or metalcore.

In fact, writes James Harkin in London’s Guardian, “Grotesque new horror film franchises such as Hostel and Saw might be movies imitating war porn.”

By effectively absolving viewers of being complicit in creating a demand for these films, Brotman goes too far. But, in fact, observing violence, however morbid, may be the product of a natural urge to become familiar with death.

In the process, we may only be trying to deprive it of its sting. But removing death from life breaks a circuit in the life cycle.

Once, people died in our midst and often bodies were laid out in our houses. Today, some may have spent a loved one’s final moments with him or her. But most of us only see dead bodies in funeral homes, where the impulse to commune with death is inhibited by modern mortuary practices that reduce bodies to waxen effigies.

Whether or not we’re exposed to realistic portrayals of war, terrorism, and torture on the Web, there’s more than enough in print and Web reading material to sate our need for violence and death. All that’s required is a willingness to imagine words into images. Before we know it, we’ve entered that subdivision of the imagination called empathy.

As Dr. Fierro remarks in another profile of her, anybody in her field has to have a part of herself “that’s willing to be empathetic — and to suffer the consequence of being empathetic.”

Even if we’ve never understood the difference between it and sympathy, with practice we can extend empathy to the victims of our nation’s policies. Thus equipped with compassion, we can make more constructive choices in our lifestyles and in the voting booth. We’re then in a position, like Dr. Fierro, to contribute that much more to the common good.

8 replies »

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  2. Very interesting perspective, especially for some one like me who deals with horror films all the time. What Poland may have dismissed at the time is the ending of Hostel 2 — a stretch to call it feminist but hardly misogynistic. The point, though, is that the “moral” victory of the “good guys” at the end of each Hostel film allows the audience to experience the cathartic effect more fully, and with less guilt. Catharsis has been around since Greek tragedy and folks like Ulaby don’t need it in this form any more than real martial artists get the same “high” from a kung fu film that other viewers might–they’re busy doing the real thing and the target audience for these films is “the rest of us.” There’s no good and bad, right and wrong here unless we impose it. In fact, it’s dangerous when pop culture analysis doesn’t make the distinction with the real world–then we’re conflating the two just like the real psychos who go on shooting sprees “inspired” by movies and video games.

  3. Russ,

    This is a fascinating essay–one of the best you’ve posted.

    One of the interesting things about the modern horror craze is how different nations and cultures interpret the desire to be shocked out of numbness. Whereas America seems to exhort gore, violence, and brutality, the Japanese horror wave emphasizes psychological terror and sheer “mindfuckery” as metaphor for a particular issue (i.e. “Dark Water” explored parental abandonment and child neglect through the spirit of a murderous preteen, for example). French directors have put out films that mix elements of the American and Japanese approaches, such as “High Tension,” which starts out like a typical slasher flick but ends up being more of a higher-level audience double cross.

    The media blackout on images of the war is no coincidence, of course–it’s a calculated plan by the Pentagon and a complicit media to maintain support for a failed plan by denying people the ability to see what they need to see. They learned their lessons from Vietnam and even the first Gulf War, after all. But because people sense and are acutely aware of that void, they will look for anything to fill that gap–and torture porn is the result.

    The odd and depressing need for humans to have catharsis through violence is as old as the Roman gladiatorial games–and just like the “bread and circuses” signaled the decline of that empire, so too may our love for extreme violence signify ours. Of course, I’d rather have people get that rush from watching an action film than going out and shooting someone. 😉

  4. Back in the early ’90s Nine Inch Nails released an EP called Broken, which contained the MTV hit “Wish.” Trent Reznor released a companion video package that’s one of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen, especially the video for “Gave Up,” which seems intended as a comment on the Jeffrey Dahmer case.

    I’ve never seen an interview where Reznor talks about it, but what I think was going on was an attempt on his part to bypass our mediated experience of horror. Highly produced, stylized, and always at a remove thanks to the glass screen between us and the physical experience of sitting in your own living room or a theater surrounded by people. All these things have engendered an unreal relationship with horror – and this goes even for news reporting. Reznor eschewed professional looking production in favor of what looks like bad hand-held low-fi techniques, so the terror of what’s happening in the basement comes off looking like something that might actually be real.

    I used this video in an undergrad media studies class when I was teaching at the University of Colorado. As we came to section on censorship I told my class that if we were going to discuss the topic we were going to get past the safety of the purely philosophical. The visceral impact turned even hardcore NIN fans green and incoming freshmen two years later were still hearing the stories about that class.

    Maybe this was Reznor’s twisted comment on the same thing that troubles Fierro. I don’t know. But one thing is for sure – our nation’s media audiences have an appetite for sanitized depictions of things that they have no real awareness about at all. I suspect this is a bad thing.

    If you’d like to see the NIN video, click here. Just be forewarned.

  5. The interesting thing about Trent Reznor’s companion video to “Broken” is that he decided not to commercially release it saying that he didn’t feel it was appropriate to publish it at the time. I think he felt the visuals in the short would cause alot of negitive publicity and undermine what he was trying to do with his music.

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