I will never forget the day some Australian film students brilliantly recreated Axe Cop #1 using real actors shot for shot. Not only was it surreal that strangers on another continent were so inspired by a silly comic I made with my little brother, Malachai during a Christmas visit, but Malachai’s reaction was fascinating. He hated it.
The effects were intentionally low budget and very far from realistic. But they were close enough to terrify Malachai. In one scene, Axe Cop holds a severed dinosaur head and blood is squirting out of it. Then Flute Cop has actual, real looking blood all over his shirt, Malachai cringed and got close to me. He was scared. Then, when Flute Cop turned into Dinosaur Soldier, Malachai was horrified. The “real” Dinosaur Soldier looked bloody, scabby and slimy. Malachai turned his head and buried it in my shoulder, almost shivering. He couldn’t look and had no interest in seeing it again. The look on his eyes was like that of a virtuous person watching a snuff film.
But this is the Axe Cop kid. He made this stuff up. He loves gore right? He must sleep with severed heads instead of plush toys, he surely loves death. He must be getting raised on horror films by neglectful parents who have no moral fortitude. No doubt he’s playing those Grand Theft Auto games, gunning people down and stealing their cars, then running them over with them. Repeatedly. Then shooting their corpses. His parents must be some young goths who had him by accident and are strung out somewhere else in the house while he watches Quentin Tarantino movies.
Actually, our Dad was 40 when I was born. I am now 33. That makes my Dad 73 at the time I am writing this. Malachai is 10. Let’s do the math here. That means he had a 68 year old dad when he was 5. His mom was in her mid 40’s. He had, and continues to have extremely old parents for a child his age. Like many older people, they tend to be what some might call old-fashioned. No, Malachai does not play Grand Theft Auto. He is not allowed to watch horror movies or anything above a PG rating. He draws his inspiration from Looney Tunes, Little Lulu, Go Diego Go, Sonic the Hedgehog, Ben 10, Spider Man, Batman, Super Mario Bros. and many of the same cartoons kids all over America and the world watch on a regular basis. None of the entertainment he takes in depicts head and limb severing or bloody amputations. But somehow, when he begins to tell a story, inevitably things get crazy violent in no time. He creates entertainment that makes moms, and very feminine men, incredibly nervous.
Why doesn’t he focus on something more pure? Good? True?
My friend Eric told me a story about his brother who, when he was just a kid, came home from school with a drawing he was very proud of. It was a cowboy in a bloody battle with a bunch of Indians, blasting his way to victory. He had the scowl of a man at war and the Indians were laying all over the place, dead. It was gory wild west mayhem. His mom saw the drawing and kindly though nervously suggested that maybe next time he could try to draw something happier and more positive. So his brother returned home the next day with another drawing. There was now a cowboy in a huge battle, guns blazing in each fist, corpses scattered everywhere and bullets flying with a very big, positive smile on his face.
The question of “focusing on the good” is a question you not only get asked a lot when you are a Christian who works in entertainment, but if you are a Christian with any real conviction, it is one you struggle with on a regular basis and ask yourself often. As you should.
The answer seems like it should be simple. Smiles. Hugs. Cherubs. Hot cocoa. Cotton candy. Slides. Sing-alongs. Bible stories.
"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
That’s in the Bible. But, here’s the thing. If a story with violence in it is not pure and good, then the Bible has completely broken its own rules. The Bible, which many call true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, contains a whole lot of killing and death.
Before I go any further, I know some of you aren’t Bible readers. This is not a Bible lesson, but I think that the argument people make about “focusing on the positive” is rooted in the perception of this verse, and I think the discussion is valid with or without the scripture. It is a principle.
So back to it. You may say that a kid’s story about chopping off bad guy heads is low art because the kid is simply reveling in gore. The Bible has a greater purpose. It is telling a story about salvation and it is necessary for it to get through some bloody moments to tell the whole story. It is not bloody because it wants to be, it just has to be.
But really? Jesus told a lot of parables. He did not have to tell any stories where someone got killed, but he still did. He uses beatings, Kings planning wars, guys being cut to pieces and tortured to tell stories. He didn’t first say “forgive me, I am going to focus on the grotesque for a second”. He was able to talk about violence and tell a true, pure story.
So you say that’s Ok. HE’S JESUS. He can do that. But can’t the question at least be raised that, perhaps a story with violence in it can still be true, noble, pure etc.? The Bible, I believe, is all of these things. It is a true, pure and lovely book that is packed with violence.
I imagine you are now reading what I am saying and asking me if I am seriously daring to compare the maniacal play-killing of a 5 year old to biblical scripture. I am only comparing the two to ask this question: Can a story with violence be pure? It seems that in the case of the Bible, or at least a parable of Christ, yes it can. The focus is not on the killing, or the violence, it is on the outcome of the story.
Let’s go in the other direction. There are stories that revel in blood and gore. There are plenty of examples of entertainment that are created not using violence as an ingredient, but as the entire recipe. Gore porn, movies with loose plots that are only there to go from one kill scene to the next.
My question is this. When a little boy imagines himself fighting, and killing bad guys, is he engaging in something closer to the former or the latter? Is violence part of a bigger picture? Or is it the point?
Is the point of the story a child creates to revel in gore? If it is, why did Malachai shudder when he saw the barely more realistic images of his own imagination? Why do kids almost always fight bad guys in their fantasies?
I do not have the answer to why kids imagine what they imagine. I have observations and thoughts. But I am not trying to tell you what kids think, I am trying to tell you, if you are one of those types of people who thinks deciphering play time is easy, to rethink your position. I think an adult who looks at the violent play time of a child and applies the reaction they are programmed to have toward adult generated gore-porn is making a mistake.
Here is a challenge for you. Write an epic story about bravery. I would say that bravery is good and true and just. But when you write it, write it without any possible threat of violence from the hero or the antagonist at all. Just try to make it interesting. It has to be epic. Kids do not do non-epic. I’ll wait right here while you realize that it is very hard to write an epic tale of bravery with no threat of death.
I would submit that it is much more likely that a little boy is examining the world of bravery and overcoming fears when he fantasizes about killing bad guys than engaging in morbid, violent fantasies that glorify murder. He is escaping into a world where he is not safe, but he can win. There is a reason many little boys are fascinated with monsters in fantasy. They like being scared just the right amount, because it seems to become a training ground for overcoming fears and facing them head-on. One of my many favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes talks about how kids actually like to get scared and that is why most fairy tales have evil kings, dragons and basically tons of people who want to kill you.
“The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. There is just as much difficulty in saying exactly where pure pain begins in his case, as there is in ours when we walk of our own free will into the torture-chamber of a great tragedy. The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul.”
(read the full quote here in an older post from this blog)
Chesterton compares the love of being scared for kids to the love of a good tragedy for adults. Adults do not appreciate a tragedy because they deeply enjoy tragic occurrences. We love a meaningful story, and we love to be able to experience tragedy without it being permanent, to heed a warning and to learn from the tale told.
Boys (I can’t speak for girls, I’m not one) definitely love the thought of overpowering a dangerous oppressor. We all love envisioning ourselves as brave, and the idea of facing death head on and not backing down enthralls the male mind almost to an obsessive degree.
Maybe you think that this preoccupation with facing deadly foes, in itself, is bad. If you do, I don’t know what to tell you. This truth, to me, is as instinctual and embedded as the need for meaning, justice and love on all hearts.
So, in your fantasy of an epic bravery tale, you must envision an enemy who seems unstoppable and incredibly dangerous. Yes, they will kill you and everyone you love if they get their way. You do not enjoy thinking of your loved ones being killed. Killing in and of itself does not thrill you. But facing a massive foe bent on the destruction of everything you love with bravery and skill, that is worth celebrating. You are not killing because you like to kill, but you do like victory. You are fighting back, doing whatever must be done to defend the good.
I believe the fantasies of a little boy swing a lot more in this direction than in the direction of gore for gore’s sake. That comes later after much disillusionment and jadedness enters into the messed up head of a middle-schooler or teen. To revel in killing as an act and not a means of justice requires a certain amount of nihilism. You have to learn that there is no justice and no meaning to life before you can really embrace killing as a thing to be celebrated in and of itself. It is not a place you go naturally, it is a place you go unnaturally. Generally, you have to be taught that life is that dark, and you have to throw out a lot of good things before you can really embrace that view. I think that most people on dabble in that kind of darkness, if at all. Those who really go over to that view and ride it where it leads are truly the Charles Mansons of the world.
The kids I know who play guns would be traumatized for life if they saw a real man get shot by a real gun. No question. Kids have a keen understanding that fantasy is not reality. Oddly, they seem more in tune with this reality than most adults.
That divide is another topic for another time. My point in this post is only to wedge some doubt into the mind of a person who thinks the killing fantasies of little boys come from a bad place. You know your kid. You know that for him, the fantasy world of blasting aliens into bits and the real world with real guns shooting bullets into real people come from completely different universes. And I mean that: different universes with different natural laws, different rules, different consequences.
You know it is not simple enough to just say your kids are reveling in violence. At least you should, and if you didn’t, I hope it comes as a relief to at least be opened to another way to see the mayhem that ensues when your little boy starts blowing the heads off of bad guys. That kid wants to be a hero.