So far I have discussed extensively the impact of pornography, and the “pornofying” of culture in general, on child abuse throughout the West, with particular focus on the United States. But there is another, related trend which is just as important; the proliferation of extreme violence through the mass media and the ease with which young people are now exposed to it. I will argue that violence has become a means by which to extend the titillation of pornography beyond the point where it has anything to do with sex. I will show how the growing prevalence of both sex and violence through mass media tie in to the larger consumer society of Western capitalism on the one hand and the exponential growth of American militarism since 9/11 on the other.
“Your Brain on Gore”
In June, 2014, ABC reported the findings of a study conducted by psychologists at Vanderbilt University. The researches found that films featuring scenes of “gore — and even erotic images — cause temporary ‘blindness’” in moviegoers. Researchers at the University of Central Florida and Indiana University released a study showing “those scenes also wipe out our memory of what happened just before the blood hit the walls.” The latter study also found that when it came to “sociomoral disgust” like racism and child abuse, a slower response was evoked, suggesting that participants were thinking through the situation rather than just mindlessly consuming it. These participants had electrodes attached to various areas of their body to monitor their response and showed that “the more disgusting the scene, the more involved the participant became.” A consumer of a violent scene could vividly remember it, but, according to the study, they had “”incredibly poor memory for what preceded it.”
A similar “study” was conducted, under entirely different conditions and for more nefarious purposes, by the bourgeois sex-trafficking cult known as NXIVM which I mentioned in part 2 of this series. Jennifer Kobelt, a NXIVM survivor, told the CBC that this experiment, known within the cult as the “fright study”, involved her being shown violent scenes from various fictional films which gradually grew in intensity, along with more passive material to calm her down in between sets. This went on for a good while before it climaxed in the display of an apparently real snuff film wherein a group of men violently gang rape a woman at gun point. At the end of this clip, the woman is decapitated by a machete. Much like the more official study referenced above, Kobelt had electrodes attached to her head and elsewhere to monitor her body’s response. As “tears and snot” streamed down Kobelt’s face, the man who administered the “fright study” asked her, “What’s going on for you?”
When Kobelt told the “doctor” how awful she felt, he suggested she attempt an “exploration of meaning” which in NXIVM’s jargon means a process where an individual “finds” the “root” of an emotional response deeper within their psyche. The idea is that all human emotion can be controlled and regimented by ceasing to identify emotional response in the particular shape of external events (IE a brutal gang rape causing one to feel disgust because it is disgusting) and instead seeing certain emotional responses as a problem within the individual (I only think this gang rape is disgusting because I haven’t worked on myself enough).
Kobelt remembers thinking, “I don’t know if this is something I want to resolve. I don’t know if I ever want to be OK with gang rape. Or, you know, murder by machete.” But then her NXIVM “programming” kicked in: “Jenn, you’re fighting. Stop fighting. Just take the feedback,” Kobelt told herself. “If you’re fighting it, it’s probably true.”
Kristin Snyder, who committed suicide while still a part of NXIVM, went a step further in describing the cult’s psychiatric experiments. “I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was killed/turned off,” Snyder’s suicide note reades. “I still have feeling in my external skin, but my internal organs are rotting. Please contact my parents … if you find me or this note. I am sorry life, I didn’t know I was already dead. May we persist into the future.”
This feeling of one’s interiority slowly vanishing or decaying is often felt by those who suffer from anxiety and/or trauma-based disorders which produce dissociation, depersonalization, and derealization. If we once again consider the larger bourgeois connections of NXIVM, such as its ties to the Bronfman family, is it a bridge too far to suggest that perhaps media funded by their wealth or supported by their government institutions has a similar function to the “fright study” IE the instrumentalization of trauma for social engineering?
When describing the fright study, Kobelt stated she felt like the protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange during the infamous mind control scenes. In light of this, we should consider a phrase coined by Kubrick; “psychedelic fascism.” Kubrick mentioned this concept in a response to critics of A Clockwork Orange who he felt misunderstood it as apologia for fascism. On the contrary, Kubrick argued: “…the thesis…so far from advocating that fascism be given a second chance, warns against the new psychedelic fascism—the eye‐popping, multimedia, quadrasonic, drug‐oriented conditioning of human beings by other beings—which many believe will usher in the forfeiture of human citizenship and the beginning of zombiedom.”
As EBBerger points out on twitter, this phrase resurfaced in an article on Charles Manson and the 60s counterculture in an issue of Vague magazine. The article recounts the way Manson used the Flower Power dynamics of hippiedom to assert an agenda of control; “There had to be an answer at the end of the long acid rainbow…there had to be something that would give it all meaning. That would prove, beyond anyone’s doubts or fears, that it was all RIGHT…The group knew. The group was RIGHT. All else was wrong.”
With regard specifically to child abuse, we can see something resembling this “psychedelic fascism” in the behavior of exploitative adults. As the academic and clinical psychiatrist Judith Herman has written, “Being caught in extreme fear states results in a loss of sense of being present.” In Trauma and Recovery, Herman notes, “‘…repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality… symptoms simultaneously conceal and reveal their origins; they speak in disguised language of secrets too terrible for words.” Children develop a variety of coping mechanisms which include “trance states, the altering of time, place or person, hallucinations and possession states, which can feel alien and involuntary in the context of the development of fragmented personalities.” Herman refers to this spectrum of trauma response as, “dissociative virtuosity.”
A report by Katherine Fitzpatrick of Universite Sainte-Anne showed that the potential for such “dissociative virtuosity” to emerge through exposure to violent media exists. Fitzpatrick says that children exposed to high levels of violence in the media “become more antisocial and emotionally distressed.” She notes that, “Around the ages of three and four children begin to develop perceptions and expectations about the world around them. These views are strongly influenced by their daily experiences. If children are often exposed to scenes of violence, they may develop a view of the world as a more dangerous place than it actually is.”
Fitzpatrick’s report also reveals, “significant associations between exposure to violent media and classroom attention problems. Furthermore, exposed children were reported to show more signs of emotional distress; in terms of sadness and a lack of enthusiasm.” A study published by the US National Institute of Health seems to agree, saying, “..extensive observation of violence has been shown to bias children’s world schemas toward attributing hostility to others’ actions.”
The NIH report also notes that, “…increased heart rates, perspiration, and self-reports of discomfort often accompany exposure to blood and gore. However, with repeated exposures, this negative emotional response habituates, and the child becomes ‘desensitized'” In turn, the NIH says, “Such attributions…increase the likelihood of children behaving aggressively.” It notes that “mimicry” or the “imitation of specific behaviors” can be seen as “a special case of the more general long-term process of observational learning.” While the neurological process through which this occurs isn’t fully understood, it’s “likely” that mirror neurons, “which fire when either a behavior is observed or when the same behavior is acted out, play an important role.”
Between 1984 & 2000, the amount of children ages 3-17 with home computer access increased 55%. There was a 30% increase in kids of this age group who had internet access. By 1999, 53% of American kids had a TV in their bedroom, including 32% of 2-7 yr olds & over 60% of 8-18 yr olds. By 2018, nearly 94% of American children and teens aged 3-18 years old had home internet access, a trend that was relatively stable across racial groups. By 2014, American children were watching on average four hours of TV a day and the Center for Parenting Education has estimated that people between the ages of 8-28 now spend 44 hours a week in front of digital screens in general.
The National Institute of Health reports that, “Children in the United States spend an average of between three and four hours per day viewing television, & the best studies have shown that over 60% of programs contain some violence, and about 40% of those contain heavy violence…Children are also spending an increasingly large amount of time playing video games, most of which contain violence. Video game units are now present in 83% of homes with children. In 2004, children spent 49 minutes per day playing video games.” (A 2019 survey shows that this number has dropped slightly to an average of 34 minutes a day playing video games)
From the mid-80s until today, television, video games, and the Internet have become ubiquitous parts of American childhood. This development has coincided with a revved up American nationalism and militarism, which came out strong during the final years of the Cold War in the “Reagan 80s” and was then exacerbated heavily by events like the first Gulf War, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and, even more drastically, 9/11. During this time, tabloid journalism, 24 hour news, and the rise of the World Wide Web enabled the creation of a highly sensationalized mass media landscape which totally envelopes nearly every facet of daily life, leading to phenomena such as reality television, talk shows, and, eventually, social media. It is in the nature of these forms of media to simplify reality into a series of easily digestible servings which maximize the emotional response of the consumer in much the same way as a fast food meal.
A Science.org report reads, “The established link between trauma-related media exposure & distress may be cyclical: Distress can increase subsequent trauma-related media consumption that promotes increased distress to later events.” It notes that symptoms of PTSD and even physical health problems emerge in those subjected to repeated viewings of “mass violence” events, which the “24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of mobile technologies” which ensure even more “collective, community-based traumas” are made to “transmit distress by broadcasting an event to whole populations.” Furthermore, “an individual’s media use after a collective trauma may fuel a cycle of distress by exacerbating distress and worry about future events, which promotes even greater distress when these events ultimately occur.” The report suggests a “cycle of sensitization” which in turn fuels a “cycle of distress.” These cycles have arguably reached a new height in the post-9/11 atmosphere.
On the 17th anniversary of 9/11, psychologist and research scientist Dana Rose Garfin published the findings of a study her team performed analyzing the collective trauma effects of media reporting on the 2013 Boston Bombing. “Our study found that as media exposure increased,” Garfin says, “so did respondents’ acute stress symptoms.” Garfin’s team found that, “The impact on children growing up post-9/11 likely extends well beyond the physical & mental health effects of exposure be it direct or media-based. Each tragic incident that individuals witness, even if only through the media, likely has a cumulative effect.”
At the same time as these cycles of sensitization and distress developed, so did groundbreaking new approaches to advertising to children. In the documentary Consuming Kids, youth marketer Nick Russell says, “What we have is the rise of 360-degree immersive marketing where they try to get around the child at every aspect & at every avenue.” James McNeal, a pioneer in child marketing, is quoted at the start of Consuming Kids as saying, “The consumer embryo begins to develop during the first year of existence. Children begin their consumer journey in infancy & they certainly deserve consideration as consumers at that time.” To put into context how extensive child marketing research became in the 80s and 90s, consider a Washington Post article from 1999:
“With the number of children in America larger than at the peak of the baby boom, and their purchasing power growing faster than economists can measure it, a vast service industry of market researchers, public relations firms, newsletters and ad agencies has sprung up to lead corporate America to young hearts, minds and piggy banks…Saatchi & Saatchi, one of a growing number of advertising firms with a dedicated kid-market division, recently hired cultural anthropologists to observe children for 50-hour stretches in their native habitats — at home — to better understand their fast-evolving relationship with digital technology.”
One child psychiatrist interviewed in the film, Dr. Michael Brody, gives a compelling opinion on the renaissance in research related to child marketing: “I’ll say it. These marketers are very similar to pedophiles.” Consuming Kids then cuts to a clip of a speaker at the “Kids Power Conference” saying, “Kids love advertising. It’s a gift. It’s something they want. There’s something to be said by the way about being their first and about branding children and owning them in that way. Antisocial behavior in pursuit of a product is a good thing.”
Advertising to children certainly did exist throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. However, it was very confined and had to meet certain legal requirements that were stricter than today’s standards. Despite these limitations, towards the end of the 70s, youth marketing became so refined and obnoxious that a movement to end it all together emerged. This reached a crescendo when the Federal Trade Commission proposed a ban on all advertising to children under the age of 8, with particular focus on ads which promoted sugary cereal or candy. During the subsequent hearings, Fred Furth, a lawyer for Kellogg, argued, “In an American, democratic, capitalistic society, we must learn, top to bottom, to care for ourselves, and that the last thing we need during the next 20 years is a national nanny.”
Furth’s statements display a counterattack against a growing consciousness for child welfare during the mid-20th Century which I touched on in part one of this series. At the same time, they display a longstanding mindset among American capitalists; if a child’s labor is legally no longer up for grabs, we must extract value from them through other means. As Anya Kamenetz writes in Generation Debt, “When the USA was industrializing in the 19th Century, people 13 and up were the backbone of the semi-skilled workforce.” Later, “Roosevelt’s New Deal was explicitly designed to take jobs away from young people and give them to heads of households. Young people’s secondary economic role has persisted ever since.” Kamenetz points out that the privileges of suburban, predominately white postwar America, “gave new cultural prominence in the 1950s to the modern version of teenhood, a distinct stage of life, a subculture, and a commercial market funded ultimately by parents.”
That is, while explicit child labor such as that Marx spends a good deal of time analyzing in Capital Vol. 1 has been formally criminalized within the United States and Western world generally, it has largely been outsourced to countries in the periphery. Within the imperial core, the extraction of value from children has been moved to the realm of their role as a consumer. Because of this, it is an existential threat to capital anytime there is an attempt to diminish this dimension of the domestic political economy of child abuse, just as there is a threat to a smaller-time abuser when attempts are made by concerned observers of their conduct with children to intervene.
Thus, as the Reagan/Bush counterrevolution re-consolidated the power of American capital over both the core and periphery of global capitalism, a backlash against the regulation of child marketing emerged, itself part of a larger backlash against a renewed public interest in the wellbeing of children. Rather than being allowed to go through with its proposed ban, the FTC was stripped of much of its power to regulate marketing to children at all with the “FTC Improvement Act” of 1980. After the election of Ronald Reagan, whatever was left of these protections were also obliterated.
Between Reagan’s election and the release of Consuming Kids, child consumer spending grew by 35% every year, from $4.2 billion in 1984 to nearly $40 billion around the time of the 2008 crash. A 2010 study from Global Issues shows that children under 12, along with teenagers, influence parental purchases totaling over $130-670 billion a year. Tweens (8-12 year olds) heavily influence more than $30 billion in other spending by parents. Children up to age 11 spend $18 billion a year in the US while their teen counterparts fork over $160 billion. These figures appear to have remained more or less stable for about a decade, falling slightly only during 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We see, then, from the 1980s until today, at the same time that children have become gradually more submerged in media which itself grows exponentially more violent, they have also been mutated into little more than a new, even easier to exploit consumer.
In Montreal, Quebec, on May 25, 2012, Jun Lin didn’t show up for work. Two days later, three of his friends looked for him at his apartment, finding no trace of the college student. On May 29, Jun Lin officially became a missing person. The same day Jun Lin failed to show up to work, a video was uploaded to the gruesome but popular site “bestgore” which hosted real videos of murder, torture, war crimes and other atrocities. This video, titled “1 Lunatic, 1 Ice Pick” depicts an unseen assailant torturing and then decapitating a man who later turned out to be Jun Lin.
Eventually the police identified a 30 year old gay porn star Luke Magnotta as the perpetrator of thsi crime. Magnotta grew up with a mother who exhibited symptoms of a severe case of OCD while his father was a diagnosed schizophrenic. Each of Magnotta’s parents turned to alcohol to try and cope with their respective disorders, and ultimately became addicted. Despite fantasizing about one day becoming a police officer, Magnotta’s main goal in life was to achieve fame. Starring in porn films was merely a springboard to this larger ambition, which he attempted to realize first through an attempt at modelling and then as a star in Canadian reality TV.
Like many millennials, Magnotta settled for fame online. He created a series of accounts on social media and web forums and ended up using them to spread a rumor that he was dating a high profile murderer named Karla Homolka. Police later stated that Magnotta setu up at least 70 Facebook pages and 20 websites using a variety of names. Magnotta would finally get his wish by uploading the footage of his murder of Jun Lin to bestgore.
The website was founded and run by a man named Mark Marek. For hosting the video of Jun Lin’s slaying, Marek would be convicted by Canadian court with a “corrupting morals” charge. Like many Web libertarians, Marek depicts himself as nothing more than a principled friend of Free Speech persecuted by Big Government. He was pictured outside a Canadian court with duct tape over his mouth and carrying a sign reading “Guilty of Canadian Thought Crimes.” In an interview during this time, Marek claimed his goal with bestgore was to “help people understand what really is happening so they don’t live in a fantasy, but fall into reality.” But as we have seen, prolonged exposure to high amounts of violence does precisely the opposite, priming the mind, particularly if it is young, for dissociation and suggestibility.
Individuals like Magnotta-young, mentally troubled Internet junkies who commit depraved acts of violence-are not an outlier in the West of the 21st Century. The same year Magnotta carried out his brutal murder of Jun Lin in Canada, two Americans around the same age-James Holmes and Adam Lanza-committed two of the most infamous mass shootings in American history. In the nearly 10 years since, Holmes and Lanza’s acts have been eclipsed by even more brutal shootings, including the shooting at Stoneman Douglas Highschool which birthed the “March for Our Lives” organization. However, even with the energy expelled in the wake of these tragedies now organized into a formal “movement”, most of it is still spent trying to push for gun control legislation, rather than try to seriously interrogate what causes some young people to want to murder 1,000s of others (not to mention themselves) every year.
One of the most farcical expressions of this sentiment came in the form of a tweet by President Biden’s current secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg, who is a former military officer, stated, “I did not carry an assault weapon around a foreign country so I could come home and see them used to massacre my countrymen.” The obvious implication here is that if you go through the motions of enlisting and training in the American military and waiting until you are shipping to one of the nations currently under the heel of US imperialism, to commit mass murder with an assault weapon, it’s fine, but if you simply unleash all of your rage on your fellow Americans, then it’s a tragedy.
When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out the massacre at Columbine all the way back in 1999, the specter of “violent video games” emerged as a possible alternative to the narrative of lax gun control regulation being the origin of the tragedy. Ironically, this accusation, which is now taken for granted as ridiculous, actually possesses a kernel of truth. But to get at it, we must peel back a layer of outrage which suggests video game developers are morally bankrupt and only care about making a quick buck corrupting youthful innocence and instead focus on the actual, material history of the video game industry as it relates to the military.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Violent Media concluded that extended use of violent virtual games was linked to increased aggressive behaviour, thoughts and emotions, as well as decreased empathy. This would come as no surprise to the US military, which has been involved in developing video games since that industry’s very beginning. Spacewar!, which is arguably the first video game as we now use the term, was developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962, when the university was receiving millions of dollars from the military to develop tech to help fight the Cold War. Five years later, the Television Gaming Apparatus, an early attempt at a home console, was developed by a military electronics firm called Sanders Associates. In 1972, Nolan Bushnell founded Atari, using an adaptation of Spacewar! he called Pong to cement video games as a revolutionary innovation in American entertainment.
Battlezone, a military themed game for the Atari 2600, was appropriated by the U.S. Army Training Support Centre for use in training.”Instances like these,” Chapman writes, “have led to a standing relationship between the video game industry and the military, leading to a mutually beneficial relationship between both parties.” In the 1990s, the military organized a committee to analyze the benefits of using games developed for civilian consumers to train new recruits. It concluded that, “The use of technological innovations, such as personal computer (PC) based war games, provide great potential for Marines to develop decision making skills, particularly when live training time and opportunities are limited.”
As a result of this study, the Marines developed a version of the famous first person shooter Doom. Known simply as Marine Doom, this mod was “used as a training tool equipped with bunkers, real weapons, friendly fire and fighting holes, & eventually tailored to represent a mission in the Balkans prior to deployment.”. In a videotape recorded before the Columbine massacre, Eric Harris compared his and Klebold’s planned rampage to Doom. He also pointed out that the shotgun was “Straight out of Doom.” According to Columbine student David Proctor, who occasionally played Doom with Harris and Klebold via modem, the pair had developed several mods of the game that resembled the high school. “Doom is so burned into my head,” Harris wrote in a personal journal, “my thoughts usually have something to do with the game.”
Michael Macedonia, of the US Army Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command, once wrote that computer simulations in the military were a “smooth transition for younger generations of soldiers, who, after all, were spoon fed on Nintendo and computer games.” Citizens are not only being conditioned to ““rapidly react to fast-moving visual and auditory stimuli, and to switch back and forth between different subtasks”, as one study put it, but are being coded with certain values which reinforce American militarism. And these games are created in a space where the military often funds development and, in turn, developers go to work for the military. As Macedonia notes in his article:
“Today, the Microsoft Xbox andSony Playstation 2 game consoles are being adapted for distrib-uted and networked military gaming. Meanwhile, an Army-sponsored group of artists, Hollywood special-effects experts, and researchers at the University of Southern California are working on the next generation of military trainers: immersive virtual-real-ity environments akin to the “Star Trek” holodeck, in which real soldiers interact with synthetic yet life-like actors.”
As Chapman writes:
“We train our young early to be ready to jump into the fire; but, what purpose does a disassociated video game war depiction play? I like to refer to this purpose as the imprint phenomenon. Bostick, Hansen, and Barry have shown that the target age for military exposure is between 13-17. At this age the average American child has an incredibly impressionable mind. We give them a free copy of America’s Army, or Modern Warfare for Christmas, and later ask what they want to be when they grow up. I can guarantee that a few will raise their hands proudly and state that they want to be in the Armed Forces.”
In spite of all of this, many will still insist there is little negative impact on the minds of young people from playing violent video games or consuming hyper violent media in general. As we have seen, it is true that conservative enunciation of this issue is not only cynical, but obfuscates the real problem, which is that, just like child advertisers have an interest in using the mass media groom children from birth to be good consumers, the US military has an interest in grooming children and teens to be hyper-violent, borderline sociopathic soldiers.
Around the time the most recent Mortal Kombat game came out, Kotaku covered the mental stresses the development team faced in creating it. To make the ultra violence as realistic as possible, the overworked developers constantly referred to real life gore images, including the types of videos hosted on sites such as bestgore. One developer stated that within one month of working on the game they began to have, “extremely graphic dreams, very violent.” Eventually they “just stopped wanting to go to sleep” and eventually started keeping themselves, “awake for days at a time.” This developer ultimately was diagnosed with PTSD by a therapist.
The same year this game was released, The Verge reported on the conditions of contractors hired to moderate for social media websites like Facebook. Many of these people, in their early 20s and 30s, began to experience symptoms of PTSD and other dissociative disorders. A woman covered in the piece says she had a panic attack while viewing the film Mother! in the theater due to a violent stabbing scene. She also woke up crying after hearing machine gun fire in a television show her roommate was watching and had to beg them to turn it off. The article notes that employees often cope “using drugs and alcohol, both on and off campus.” One former moderator told The Verge, It’s so sad, when I think back about it — it really does hurt my heart. We’d go down and get stoned and go back to work…We were doing something that was darkening our soul…” Another moderator told the magazine, “I don’t think it’s possible to do the job and not come out of it without some kind of acute stress disorder or PTSD.”
If this kind of content can have such a harsh effect on the mental health of adults, how can one honestly say it has a negligible effect on the development of children or teenagers? Chapman refers to Colonel Dave Grossman, who pointed out that:
“…the written word can’t be processed until age 8, and it is filtered through the rational mind. The spoken word can’t be processed until age 4, and it, too, has to be filtered in the forebrain before it trickles down to the emotional center. But, these violent visual images: At the age of 18 months, a child is fully capable of perceiving and imitating what they see. And, at the age of 18 months, these violent visual images, whether they be television, movies or video games, go straight into the eyes, and straight into the emotional center.”
The studies referenced earlier would seem to substantiate Grossman’s claim.
“Preparing for Trauma” and Serial Killer Fandom
In recent years, the consequences of this prolonged, trauma-based grooming of the youth by mass media for the reproduction of the American Empire have been felt among both young adults and those still in their childhood and adolescence. A recent study by Blue Cross Blue Shield reads, “Millennials are seeing their health decline faster than the previous generation as they age. This extends to both physical health conditions, such as hypertension and high cholesterol, and behavioral health conditions, such as major depression and hyperactivity. Without intervention, millennials could feasibly see mortality rates climb up by more than 40% compared to Gen-Xers at the same age.” The study dubs this a “health shock” and compares it to the massive loss of young life which transpired during the Vietnam War and/or the height of the HIV crisis.
An article from Business Insider elaborates further; major depression has risen faster among millennials than any other age group, with diagnosis rising 47% since 2013. More millenials are dying from “deaths of despair year after year. Deaths of despair, which are defined as deaths related to excess alcohol or drug consumption or suicide to cope with mental distress, killed 36,000 Millenials in 2017 alone, with drug overdoses being most common.
Suicide has skyrocketed by 73% among black youths between 1991 to 2017, with the rate for black girls in particular rising an estimated 182%.A 2020 report issued by the CDC shows that the rate of suicide among those aged 10 -24 in general increased nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018. During that same period, anxiety disorders in children and teens increased by 20%. The National Institutes of Health has said that 1 in 3 adolescents aged 13-18 will experience an anxiety disorder.
The role of the 2008 recession and now the COVID-19 pandemic, along with increased anxiety over climate change, is largely to blame. But it is clear that the virtual environments created by the mass media and the organs of State to reproduce and reinforce the ideology of the American Empire have greatly exacerbated the problem. Two causes of this rise in mental illness listed by healthychildren.org, which is a project of the American Academy of Pediatrics, include “a world that feels scary and threatening” and “social media” as causes.
Recently, two troubling trends have emerged which I will examine to end this post; “school shooting drills” and the rise of true crime (which has a relative serial killer fandom).
About one year after the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre that led to the March for Our Lives, a PSA was released by an organization named Sandy Hook Promise. The PSA, which was obviously meant to play on one’s heartstrings, dresses itself up as an ad for “Back to School Essentials,” showing children use these items for banal purposes. But as the commercial continues, it is heavily implied that the children are being forced to become little McGuyvers and repurpose their “essentials” to survive a school shooting. “My mom got me the skateboard I wanted,” one kid says before smashing a window to escape the massacre. “These scissors really come in handy,” quips a little girl, implying she is about to use them in self-defense.
Around the same time, a fashion label released a line of merchandise themed around school shootings. A show the label organized to advertise these clothes generated significant backlash online These two things are part of the same phenomena as something even more prevalent; schools across the country now hire “experts” who simulate school shootings. For instance, at Jewett Middle Academy, fully armed police officers rushed classrooms unannounced, traumatizing numerous students. In 2014, at Troy Buchanan High School, students were dressed in fake blood and bullet holes on their bodies to make the simulation more convincing. An article notes one girl was “shaking and crying.”
These developments normalize school shootings for innumerable children as “just a fact of life” rather than something that could be changed in any fundamental way. Even more, they make the idea of a youth massacre into a farce, into hyperreality. A general desensitization to and fetishization of violence is taking place among youth, along with the spike in mental illness.
In the true crime community, which is currently experience a boom, and in the serial killer fandom, we can see one result of this development. “A simple search for “serial killer fandom” on Tumblr,” Vannesa Willoughby writes, “uncovers a plethora of accounts that range from true crime lovers to unrepentant “fans” of notorious murderers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, and most recently, white supremacist Dylann Roof.” One page, known as “jeffrey is a babe”, holds a post that says, “I don’t want to slut shame, but Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t lose his virginity until he was 25 years old, and before his apprehension at age 31, he managed to sleep with over 200 dudes. Daaaamn, Dahmer.” Another page rebrands Ted Bundy as a silly character, sometimes even as a smooth operator and model for masculinity. There was even once a page dedicated to James Holmes, where fans affectionately called each other “holmies.”
To quote Dave McGowan, “With the possible exception of school & workplace shootings, nothing better serves to facilitate the promotion of a ‘law-&-order’ agenda than the palpable fear aroused by the sociopathic killer, a fear that propels the population into an every-man-for-himself mentality…“Anyone, after all, could be a serial killer, hiding behind a mask of civility: a co-worker, a friend, a neighbor…even a family member. The ultimate goal, & one that we are rapidly approaching, is the destruction of all social bonds…the complete atomization of society.”