SAVAGE PASTIMES: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment

Harold Schechter, Author . St. Martin's $24.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-312-28276-9

"We belong to an innately violent species," argues Schechter. Violent entertainment is popular, he says, because it's natural to indulge in "taboo fantasies" and "escape into realms of forbidden experience." Indeed, from the crucifixions of the Romans to the guillotines of the French Revolution, from wax museums' torture dioramas to P.T. Barnum's sideshows, people have flocked to spectacles of gore and suffering. Motion pictures became popular, Schechter explains, partly by delivering realistic violence (the first special effect in cinema history was the simulated beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots in an 1895 feature). Crime fiction, from the penny dreadfuls to today's bestsellers, has always sold big, but even literary classics, like Poe's stories, continue to enthrall partly because they speak to the violent imagination. As far as Schechter, a Queens College literature professor and author of several true crime books on serial killers, is concerned, today's entertainment is far less violent than yesteryear's; special effects may make films and video games more graphic, but everything's simulated. While Schechter makes an engaging argument for the bloodthirsty tastes of our ancestors, he rather quickly dismisses contemporary sociological research on the effects of media violence on youth. This entertaining, provocative, not entirely convincing work will be a treat for literate readers who can't register for the professor's classes. Illus. Agent, Loretta Barrett. (Feb.)

Reviewed on: 12/20/2004
Release date: 03/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
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