IDEMA: The connection between movies and mental illness

In light of the frightening number of mass murders in recent months, there is a lot of jabber by TV's talking heads about the relation between films, mental illness and mass murder. This topic merits serious consideration, beyond a brief sound bite in the mass media.
Jan 16, 2013


Most recently, this link has been discussed in our society after James Eagan Holmes —dressed up as the Joker — entered an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that was showing the new Batman movie, "Dark Knight Rises," at midnight July 20, 2012, and he killed 12 people and wounded numerous others. He told the police he identified with the Joker as he was portrayed in Batman films.

I have seen this film, and it is awful. I am not a prude when it comes to violence in movies, having watched Clint Eastwood's "spaghetti westerns" numerous times. But the body count in "Dark Knight Rises" dwarfs even those westerns. So many people are killed that you soon become numbed emotionally. After a while, you don't even care who gets killed next. 

The violence looks like a video game, although I confess I have never seen a video game.  But the technology creating the violence in the film looks cheesy.

The most famous incident of when a film inspired violence was when the 1976 movie "Taxi Driver" became an obsession in the warped mind of John Hinckley Jr. He saw the movie 15 times, and then tried to assassinate President Reagan in l981 to impress Jodie Foster, the actress who at 13 played a child prostitute in the film. Hinckley, like Holmes, dressed up like a character in the movie, here imitating Travis Bickley's mohawked appearance (Robert De Niro played the part).

"Taxi Driver" is a film worth watching again and taking seriously in light of our current debate about violence in the media. It was written by Paul Schrader, a graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Martin Scorsese was the director. The film depicts New York and Newark right after the Vietnam War as steaming sewers of filth, violence, drugs and prostitution. The photography is remarkable, as is the acting.

Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet, is borderline mentally ill. He is a walking time bomb of resentments and sexual frustration. He is fixated on porno films, and then fixates on the character played by Cybill Shepherd, who is working for a presidential candidate. Once Bickle is rejected by her (after he takes her to a porno film for his first date), he turns into the mohawked stalker of this presidential candidate, no doubt to impress her (is this where Hinkley's delusional fantasies and actions are life imitating art?).

Travis Bickle buys an arsenal of guns illegally (no background checks!). He is diverted from his prey, and ends up killing a number of drug dealers and the pimp (played by Harvey Keitel) of the child prostitute Bickle had become friends with.

The ending is classic irony, which in recent years has turned out to be a prophecy of our obsession with celebrity. Bickle is beloved by the mass media as a hero. He then returns to his job of driving a taxi in the mean streets of New York.

Paul Schrader links violence, mental illness, the obsession with guns and their availability, the mass media, urban landscapes seemingly without morals, and sexual obsession. And out of this witches' brew comes mass murder. But instead of the murder of a politician and who knows how many others at a political rally, Bickle decides to rescue the Jodie Foster character, and in the process massacres the dregs of society. The child prostitute returns to her rural Midwestern home and her parents send Bickle a letter of deep appreciation. No one suspects Bickle of being a potential assassin and mass murderer.

"Taxi Driver" is a work of art, and examines the interconnections between celebrity, our mass media, violence and mental illness. The film did not cause Hinkley's assassination attempt, but it was a factor. "Dark Knight Rises" did not cause Holmes' mass murder, but it was a factor.

So, there does seem to be a connection between violence in films and violence in society by a few mentally ill people. This connection, however unproven scientifically, does call for parental discretion and judgment on the part of moviemakers.

Hinkley's lawyer showed the entire "Taxi Driver" movie to the jury at the would-be assassin's trial. After seeing the film, Hinkley was acquitted by the jury by reason of insanity.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist



Again, I thank you, Rev Idema, for your timely piece. Society has become impervious to the violence that permeates us. It is everywhere; it is an addiction with which we self-medicate ourselves; it is a form of idolatry.

Maybe the tide is turning. Maybe we as society are beginning to see, understand, and act. Many argue against it, but I have hope that calm minds will prevail over time.

As a movie that once made a big impression on me, I am going to re-watch "Taxi Driver".


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