This article includes mention of sexual violence.

It has interested me for some time that both of these two observations seem to hold true:

  1. In real life, my culture considers premeditated murder one of the very worst crimes possible, probably the single worst thing you can do to another person, and almost always deserving of the harshest punishment.

  2. In my culture’s fiction, murder is an exciting crime, but often not an especially terrible one. Make-believe murderers—whether gangsters, serial killers, or genocidal space warlords—typically embody a fun or sexy kind of evil. The crime itself might even be kind of fun, as with the “cozy mystery” sub-genre typified by media like Murder, She Wrote.

    Fiction does have non-murderous crimes my culture considers heinously unforgivable when they happen within stories, like sexual violence, or overt racism. A fictional murderer who bolsters their practice with rape or bigotry loses all sexy-fun cred, permanently demoted to only the hateful kind of villain, even if a memorable one.

I once heard, on an episode of “This American Life”, an interview with a woman who had lost her father to homicide, as a child. Ever since then, the disconnect inherent within murder-based entertainment stood out for her. In an attempt to convey what the ubiquity of light-hearted murder in popular culture felt like for her, she offered an illustration: Imagine, instead of Murder Mystery Party kits, one could purchase plans to hold a Rape Mystery Party. Gather your friends for a role-playing event where, whoops, haha, someone got raped! Everyone have fun finding the rapist!

I had no counterargument to this woman’s thought experiment, when I first heard it years ago, and I still don’t. Both rape and murder are among the worst imaginable interpersonal crimes—but if forced to rank them in awfulness, it feels correct that murder should edge out everything else. And yet, it’s often nothing in our entertainment; the make-believe people we spend so much time with kill each other constantly, in singles or by the boatload, as a fundamental and versatile plot device.

I’m certainly not against any depiction of death—even gnarly, ill-intended death—in fiction! But I find that as I get older I have less and less patience for cheap death. I’m at the point now where I have a lot of trouble watching a Star Wars show. Just all those lives snuffed out, in so many numbers, constantly, and nobody on-screen even seems to care or feel anything. It all looks like a weird nightmare, to me.

I don’t think it’s true that people en masse secretly approve of murder and want to see more of it in real life, or anything like that. And the disgust and distress that sexual violence reliably elicits in audiences shows that fiction doesn’t by its nature wipe away the awfulness of the most vile crimes. So why this disconnect between reality and fiction—in fact, one of the worst things that can happen in reality, and one of the most unremarkably common turns of events in fiction?

In my most recent thinking, it comes down to existential uneasiness, and how that hits so differently in real life versus fiction.

Death is something bound to happen to literally every person and animal and probably every other thing we know and love. Nobody is truly okay with this. I doubt that even people at peace with their own mortality are okay with this, not really. We don’t want to lose anyone, and we mourn when we do, again and again. The closer to the loss, the more it hurts. In this light, murder takes our grim shared situation and makes it so much worse, robbing one of our fellow brief sparks of what little time they had left. It is grossly unfair, the most unfair single act you could visit on someone, and everyone who loved them. So there’s that.

Death also plays a starring role in the majority of our stories, of course—think of the old saw “What’s the last story you heard where nobody died?”—with fiction giving us a way to examine death at a safe remove, abstracted from deeply personal existential terror. Our view of killing, I do believe, gets changed along with it. In the silvery moonlight of fiction, murder is simply the single most absolutely inevitable thing happening slightly ahead of schedule, due to a fellow mortal’s initiative. And when you look at it that way, it’s… kind of funny.

The humorist Gene Weingarten has a theory that joking and laughter is, at root, shouting in the face of death. I think something like that is happening here. It’s always at least a little bit fun to watch pretend people get killed, even in the most tragic scripted circumstances. It makes us feel a little less alone in both our own mortality and our ceaseless grief, past and future, for all our loved ones.

Fictionalized rape, by contrast, has none of this going for it. Sexual violence is not a universal or inevitable experience for all living things. In the murky twilight of fiction, where murder becomes a mere acceleration of timetables, rape remains an unspeakably terrible way to hurt someone—because audiences instinctually know that it didn’t have to happen to them, not then or ever. In this context, it easily takes murder’s place as the most grossly unfair act one person can perpetrate upon another.

It may be that personal trauma has helped bring me to a place where I don’t feel so easily or automatically entertained by visions of one person destroying another person’s body, the ultimate non-consensual act. I imagine histories for these characters, even the ones with no names, the gun-toting mooks the hero cuts down or flings from a plane or whatnot. I think of all the time they spent developing their mind and muscles for decades, only to get them punctured, crushed, or shredded beyond shape and function in a split second, because someone else chose to violate their bodies—bodies as precious and unique as the bodies of everyone I love. It is horror.

And I do like horror, sometimes… but only when it knows it’s horror.

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