Forty Years Ago They Tried to Warn us…
Msgr. Rudolph G. Bandas
|Reprinted from The Remnant, November 1967|
(www.RemnantNewspaper.com Posted July 17, 2006) The last quarter century has given us in the movies another instructional agency. It has given us an educational system which is alluring and cogent, and which involves all the youth of the country as completely and thoroughly as our long built up school system itself. The all-pervasive and permeating quality which the movies have evinced in the space of a single generation is itself proof of their universal appeal to mankind.
Statistics reveal that motion pictures are shown to an American audience of at least 77,000,000 weekly. Of this movie audience 37% are minors, that is, children from five to twenty years of age. In fact, American children attend – on the average – a movie a week, or, fifty two movies a year. (Editor's Note: Please keep in mind that this article was written forty years ago and that these statistics have skyrocketed since the advent of VCRs, DVD players, cable TV, satellite TV, etc. MJM)
Here then is another school equally vital and perhaps more far-reaching in its results than any we call by that name. Its possibilities for the instruction of humanity are vast and far-reaching. It could be an immense and unprecedented instrument of civilization. But many are justly apprehensive about its influence upon children and about its being exploited in the wrong direction. Let us point out some of the psychological and pedagogical principles which underlie the motion pictures and which explain why the movies exercise so profound an influence over the conduct, emotional experiences and attitudes of children.
In the first place, children’s minds are “virgin, unmarked slates” which receive writing with remarkable ease. The children’s mental field is not crowded with a host of acquired images which frequently exclude or render difficult the entrance of new ideas. On the other hand, their minds register new impressions with unusual clearness and intensity. Hence it is that movies have often been used to further propaganda among children, change the mental attitudes, engender prejudices, and arouse new desires. Some are of the opinion that the movies must be leveled down to the twelve year old intelligence. Usually the films are approximately of that level. And that fact makes it so natural and easy for the young to absorb the images and form their ideas of life from the movies.
Secondly, the gateways to the soul are the five senses. Some psychologists confidently assert that sixty-five percent of our knowledge is acquired through the sense of sight. The Church herself recognizes in her Liturgy the important role of the visual faculty: she wishes us to discern the invisible things of God through the visible forms of her Ritual.
Now it is precisely to this important sense-faculty that motion pictures make their powerful appeal. The movies supply images, so to speak, ready made. Dean Holmes, of the Howard School of Education, maintains that where talking motion pictures supplement the textbook in class, knowledge of students increases from 20 to 40%. In fact, children have been found to retain an average of 70% of what an intelligent adult would carry away from a dramatic film. No single category of scenes into which the contents of the films may be divided passes completely over the children’s heads. Coming to the young, as pictures do, in the most impressionable years of their life, the effect becomes of extraordinary weight and potentiality and amounts to a shaping of their outlook and a molding of their character.
Thirdly, while children glean impressions from the movies with the pliability of wax they retain them with the durability of marble. The visually attained knowledge was found to possess a curious expansive quality. In many instances, after a lapse of months, the children actually remembered more than they retained directly after seeing the picture. The process of maturation in the child’s mind, the intense reality which these events assume to his world-exploring eyes, the day-dreaming induced by these vivid images – all these factors tend to expand the contents of movie impressions.
It is, however, the profound emotional influence, exercised over the children by the movies, which impresses the pictures indelibly upon children’s memory. While the emotional reaction to movies on the part of adults is about 1.2 and that of adolescents about 2.0, that of children was found to be 3.6 and sometimes ran as high as 10.0. This powerful emotional appeal affects their young brains and nerves with almost the force of an electrical charge. It leaves a physical imprint on the child’s being which lasts as long as seventy hours. It increases the motility or restlessness during sleep 14 to 26%, and prolongs this restlessness for four or five successive nights. In a word, it leaves an indelible impress on his whole being.
Finally, the child is by nature an imitator. He tends by natural impulse to imitate the examples set before him. The Church herself takes advantage in the educative process of this imitative instinct. In her Sanctorale she proposes as models of imitation those who have exemplified in a high degree the teaching and precepts of Christ, and encourages us to walk in their footsteps. The movies, because of their concreteness and vividness, are one of the great sources of patterns for imitation upon the part of children. Who, for instance, is not familiar with the Indians, the gangsters, the cowboy band, the cop and robbers – of the backyard or playground?
From a block of wood either a statue or a shovel may be hewn. It is the use that we make of an invention which determines its value for us. The movies have in certain instances been of immense service for wholesome pleasure, entertainment and enlightenment. Even less artistic pictures have at times the effect of stirring an audience, especially the younger spectators, to compassion, love, repentance – to resolutions to do better, enter upon a new form of life and help others. Nevertheless, the content of current commercial motion pictures constitutes a valid basis for apprehension about their influence upon children. The movies frequently supply a distorted view of life, present suggestive and immoral patterns of conduct, and effect adversely the health of the child.
In the first place, the movie portrayal of a certain character or of a certain line of conduct gives totally erroneous ideas of the situation or event as it occurs in actual life. A mature, experienced adult can at once discount in some degree what he has seen on the screen: he knows that real life “is not like that” or that “this can only happen in the movies”. But the immature child or adolescent cannot discount. With the seeming sanction and approval of the adults sitting about him, he can only assent and accept.
The screen characters are frequently untrue to life. The criminals appear on the scene ready made – with no future and almost no past. Nothing is said about the factors – psychological, hereditary, environmental or social – bearing upon the individual and making him what he is. Unlike the novel, the movies fail to portray the continuity of experience which produces the criminal. The true causes of crime – such as lack of religion, disorganized homes, chaotic conditions, unemployment, insecurity – are hardly ever shown.
The movies give us a distorted view of life and of its occupations. Hardly any human being is pictured on the screen after the age of forty. If the population of the globe were distributed and arranged as it is in the movies, there would be no farming, no manufacturing, no industry, no science, and no economical problems. Such a world would speedily starve to death.
The movies frequently create a spirit of dissatisfaction in young people. In a certain high school, 22% of the children questioned declared that they had experienced feelings of resentment against parents as a result of certain motion pictures; 12% confessed to actual rebellion against parental authority. They became dissatisfied with their environment. They began to demand too much from their parents in the way of privileges, liberty, leisure and comfort. After seeing a picture full of thrills, luxury, and beautiful scenes, their clothes did not seem smart enough, their own life seemed to them dull and drab.
The movies are vulgarizing the nation. The humorous and comic scenes of virtually all present day movies bristle with vulgarity, innuendo, and double meaning; they abound in shoddy characters with tawdry goals in life. These sallies, this insidious and pervasive vulgarity, does not pass over the heads of children. Instead of leading men to higher levels of decency and culture, the movies do not reflect current life even as it is.
The child frequently sits in a stuffy theatre for several hours. He has no chance of expressing or working off his emotions as during exercise and play. Yet he is intensely stimulated. A healthy child, it is true, seeing a picture once in a while will suffer no harm. But stimulation, when often repeated, is cumulative. Scenes causing intense emotion, terror and fright sow in the system seeds for future nervous disorders and intellectual inefficiency.
Certain other bodily disorders are also caused by motion pictures. In one instance, 29% of the children examined by an oculist complained of visual fatigue after seeing a movie. Boys have been found to show an average increase of about 26%, and girls about 14% greater hourly restlessness after a movie than in normal sleep. So great were the variations in individual cases that 50%, 75%, and even 90% of increase in restlessness were recorded. This marked increase in restlessness after a movie has the effect of preventing the child’s full recovery from his fatigue. This motility sometimes persists for four or five nights.
Since the movies come to the children in the most impressionable years of their lives, the effect becomes one of extraordinary weight and potentiality. If motion pictures emphasized high ideals, their influence upon children would be highly beneficial. Yet, although some pictures have been found to spur the spectator to self-sacrifice, noble resolves, and virtuous deeds, the majority of the pictures tend rather to produce the opposite effect. In 1930 only one out of 500 pictures dealt with children’s pictures, that is, with subjects designed for children or in which children are the central characters. Somewhere between 75%and 80% of all pictures deal with sex, love, crime or mystery films. The chances are 3 out of 4 that every time the children go to the movies they will see some story unfolding a plot dealing with the trinity of major preoccupations – love, sex or crime.
The effect of these movies – as careful scientific research has shown – can easily be imagined. In the First place, the sharp barriers between right and wrong, built up by the Church, home and school, are progressively eroded and undermined. The young are made tolerant and sometimes sympathetic towards crime and criminality. They conclude that the lot of a benevolent criminal is preferable to that of a hard plodder.
The movies have been found to create in children the desire for riches and to suggest means of easily realizing them. The children desire to become “big shots” and “big guys” before whom every one bows and trembles, to “earn money easily” to own “swell machines”, etc. The “gangster” or “crook picture” points the way to wealth and to “high society”. In one penal institution 26% of the inmates confessed that pictures taught them to “act tough”, to wish to “punch and beat up” someone, to rob newsboys, break into stores, etc. Well has it been said that not even Imperial Rome in the period of her greatest decadence held up such symbols or images for its young to copy and imitate.
Motion pictures show children the technique, methods and means of committing crime. How carefully the Catholic teacher is trained to beware lest – in initiating the child into the exercise known as examination of conscience – he suggest and make known to the child sins of which the latter was hitherto ignorant.
Yet in the movies we unhesitatingly expose the child to a portrayal of crime, illicit enterprises, misdemeanors and techniques of delinquency. Pictures have been found to supply boys with an impetus and technique for the following practices: how to jimmy a door or window; how to break a window noiselessly by pasting flypaper on the window before breaking it; how to carry a machine gun in a violin case; how to use gloves in burglary so as not to leave fingerprints; how to pick pockets; how to drown out shots of guns by backfiring; how to gamble with drunken persons; how to use a master-key for gaining entrance to a house; how to take a door off hinges to force one’s way into an apartment; how to steal cars; etc., etc. Crime is emphasized on the screen out of all proportion to its place in the national life. Crime and crime and more crime – that is the impression left upon the children. Need we any longer wonder why the rising generation is restless, unruly, hard to control, and why crime waves are increasing in intensity?
Motion pictures have been no less influential in teaching the youth of the country the “techniques of love-making” and in starting them on the path of sexual aberration. Illicit love frequently appears as the goal of heroes and heroines. A considerable number of boys and young men in one penal institution declared that they used the movies as a sexual excitant and as a means of attaining their sinful end.
In another instance, 40% of delinquent girls confessed that they were moved to invite men to make love to them after seeing passionate sex pictures. Still others declared that the movies gave them the desire to make money easily or to obtain support by living with a man. For all these unfortunates the movies emerged as a school, a school, indeed, unto the wreckage of their own lives and unto the disgrace of society. And what the movies failed fully to do was accomplished by the sickening jazzy erotic music of the radio, salacious literature and the example of the half-nudist portion of the American population!
Some try to minimize the injurious influence of the movies by maintaining that the criminal is portrayed as unattractive and therefore serves as an example of horror to the child. It is true that he is often portrayed in this way – but not always. Frequently he is represented as a man of great physical courage, adventure-loving, well-dressed, kind to his mother and sister, clever and attractive. And the conduct of attractive characters is certain to be imitated. Then again only one fifth of the criminals in motion pictures are shown as receiving legal punishment; many go scot-free. Such facts are infallibly registered within the youthful minds.
Others contend that the movies are after all only a make-believe world, in which the characters are not real but mere shadows on the screen. This is true. But to the young people – especially to the children – the world of the movies is no less real than life itself. The emotions and responses of the young to the feverish life of the screen are much the same as to those of actual life. If a child, as experience shows, can identify himself with a plant or an animal, and commune with these irrational creatures as if they were his friends and brothers, how much more closely will he identify himself with the living, active and speaking human beings of the screen! He has not yet arrived at the stage where he can “discount” as the adult does.
The Americans believe in high standards of education and of living. They manifest deep concern over textbooks – whether they instill patriotism and extol the heroism of national leaders; over curricula – whether they include character and religious instruction; over teachers – whether they be single or married. What an outcry would go up if some questionable character were to come in and take charge of our children’s schooling. Again, the Americans believe in hygiene, sanitation, pure food, pure milk, pure water. What would they say and do if the milk were discovered to be in the least degree tainted; or if suspected water were turned into our mains? Yet those same Americans will not hesitate to expose their children’s minds to the influence and imprint of ill-chosen and objectionable pictures.
Especially harmful is the exhibition of gangster pictures in the so-called high delinquency neighborhoods – in localities where the environment is bad and society more or less disorganized. The showing of crook pictures in such areas is equivalent to releasing a treacherous enemy at the public expense. The criminal picture in such congested areas tends to combat and annihilate all the influences for good which society is at pains to provide. Of course, some one will no doubt say that the American public is getting what it wants. But so is the Indian on the reservation when someone criminally sells whiskey to him.