Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment

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Does violence in movies, on television and in comic strips and cartoons rot our children's brains and make zombies-or worse, criminals-of adults at the fringes? In this cogent, well-researched book, American pop-culture expert Harold Schechter argues that exactly the opposite is true: a basic human need is given an outlet through violent images in popular media.

Moving from an exploration of early broadsheet engravings showing torture and the atrocities of war, to the depictions of crime in "penny dreadfuls," to scenes of violence in today's movies and video games, Schechter not only traces the history of disturbing images but details the outrage that has inevitably accompanied them. By the twentieth century, the culture vultures were out in full force, demonizing comic books and setting up a pattern of equating testosterone-fueled entertainment with aggression. According to Schechter, nothing could be further from the truth. He also blasts those who bemoan the alleged increased violence in media today, and who conveniently scapegoat popular entertainment for a variety of cultural ills, including increased crime and real-life violence. Though American pop culture is far more technologically sophisticated today, Schechter shows that it is far less brutal than the entertainments of previous generations.

Savage Pastimes is a rich, eye-opening brief history that will make you rethink your assumptions about what we watch and how it affects us all.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"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.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Why the good old days were actually often quite nasty. Since Schechter has made his living out of repackaging the grimmer elements of American Gothic, whether in true crime tomes about long-ago serial killers (Fiend, 2000) or a mystery series starring Edgar Allan Poe (The Mask of Red Death, p. 556, etc.), his position in the violent-media-is-corrupting-our-youth debate should come as little surprise. He doesn't just pooh-pooh the bluenoses, he goes after them with a shovel as he argues that not only is today's popular entertainment far from harmful in the way it dishes out the violence to a nation of couch potatoes, but that it is actually far more timid than the media of just about any previous period. What is surprising is how smart and enlivening his argument is. Think the 1950s was the Golden Age of inoffensive, quality television? Schechter's deconstruction of the shocking violence and racism displayed in Davy Crockett will cure you of that notion-and that's before he even gets started on trigger-happy westerns. Even more provocative is Schechter's plunge into the glorious world of pulp fiction, ranging from the 1800s through the 1950s. His prodigious research enlightens the unwary reader about everything from Victorian penny dreadfuls (which reveled in true tales of cannibalism and murder) to the dead bodies and vileness that choked 19th-century American dime novels (which kids read by the fistful). By contrast, today's primetime TV lineup of forensic shows and dirty-minded sitcoms hardly poses a threat to American youth, in Schechter's view. Although his slim volume doesn't completely demolish the idea that media can affect children in harmful ways, the author does effectivelyrefute the notion that we are living in uniquely dark and violent times, when in fact it's much the same as it ever was. A bloody fine riposte to those who would censor with clouded hindsight and muddy reasoning. Agent: Loretta Barrett
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312282769
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 9.18 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Harold Schechter is a full professor of literature at Queens College in New York City. He is the author of The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers and The Serial Killer Files as well as a variety other nonfiction books and novels. He lives in New York City.

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