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Child Abuse Via the Silver Screen

Violence maims young psyches as parents look on.

October 19, 2002|James Scott Bell | James Scott Bell is a writer and novelist in Los Angeles.

The country was rightly repulsed at the videotape of Madelyne Toogood beating her 4-year-old child in an Indiana parking lot. We know such mistreatment can have a terrible effect on a child's mental health. But how many Americans indulge in a worse form of abuse without a second thought? I'm talking about taking kids to the movies. The wrong movies.

The other night I saw "Red Dragon," the third installment in the Hannibal Lecter series starring Anthony Hopkins. When the bad guy (Ralph Fiennes) bites off the tongue of a screaming reporter, then stands up, mouth bloody, and spits out the offending organ, I squirmed in my seat. What I couldn't stop thinking about, however, was the little girl in the seat in front of me.

She looked about 6 years old. I'd seen her waltz into the theater with her parents, tub of popcorn in hand, chirpy voice yakking it up excitedly. Two hours of mayhem ensued. People stabbed, set on fire, tortured. Your average day at the office for serial killers. Every now and then I'd lean over and see the little girl with her eyes fixed to the screen.

How times have changed. I remember going to the drive-in with my parents in the early 1960s. Then, about the worst thing you'd see onscreen was Godzilla stomping through screaming crowds in Tokyo, or Frankie Avalon pretending to surf. On occasion my mom put her hand over my eyes to keep me from seeing something she deemed too scary.

Now we have kids watching slashers, rapists and cannibals because Mommy can't be bothered with finding a baby-sitter, or Daddy is so clueless he doesn't see the difference between Disney and disemboweling.

After the movie, I waited outside the theater. I wanted to take a look at the happy trio as they emerged from this uplifting bloodbath. I wanted to glare at them, in fact. The little girl was being carried by the father. She was frozen. Her face was pale, her eyes wide. She looked like she was in shock.

Children are not just bodies that hurt when they're hit by the likes of Madelyne Toogood. They are souls, spirits in formation, for whom exposure to vile images does enormous damage. We used to believe in a long term of innocence for our kids, in protecting them from input only adults are wired to handle.

A 15-year study by Joanne Cantor, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, a recognized expert on children and the mass media and author of the book "Mommy, I'm Scared," concluded that disturbing images on television can lead to severe fright reactions that last for years, or a "deadening of emotional responsiveness ... toward violence." Movies are, of course, much more intense than TV.

We think children should be protected from secondhand smoke but don't give a rip (you'll pardon the expression) if they're exposed to ritual murder and grotesque violence.

I'll never forget going to see one of the teen slasher movies that was all the rage a few years ago. There was a 5- or 6-year-old boy in the theater with his parents. The movie had knives thrust into skulls, screams of tormented murder victims, all manner of gruesome death.

We need to stigmatize this parental choice. If I could have captured the little girl's face on video after "Red Dragon," we'd have another national call for social services to get involved.

The solution is not that difficult. Have a small child? Think "G-rated." Or stay home. Rent "VeggieTales" or "Beauty and the Beast." But leave Hannibal the Cannibal and his ilk to the adults who can handle him.

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