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How 'moral panic' has lead to greater censorship

In the early 1980s, home video formats like VHS and Betamax swept through Britain like wildfire. Seemingly overnight, these convenient formats turned less accessible mediums such as 8mm film into antiquities.

Suddenly, it took only a trip down the street to your local rental shop to bring worlds of imagination into your home, so long as you owned a video cassette player. This brand new enterprise, as any other, was without proper understanding from the public. Home video distributors and video rental stores alike were vastly unregulated, and very little consideration was put into the types of films that were released into the hands of the public.

Because of the infantile nature of this business, there were not yet regulations on what type of films were released as the home video format needed not pass through an age-rating system of any kind, unlike theater releases. For genre enthusiasts of all ages, this was a godsend. For concerned parents and politicians, however, this unfamiliar phenomenon was a serious threat.

Moral panic is a concept that occurs when society experiences widespread fear as a result of something it identifies as a threat. This panic can stem from serious issues such as terrorism, authoritarianism, and disease, to lesser threats such as “Dungeons & Dragons” and “the Devil’s music.”

This concept was first conceived in the early 70s by sociologists Stan Cohen and Stuart Hall. This is not to say however, that moral panics have not existed throughout the complete history of society. Concerning these instances, society often believes that some form of art will in one way or another lead to real world violence.

'Video Nasties' show moral panic in action

The “Video Nasties” situation in the 80s is an excellent example of such a panic, and demonstrates why artistic moral panic is often without reason. Moral panic in film specifically has a rich history in itself.

In the early days of Hollywood, which is referred to as the “pre-code” era of cinema, there were little to no rules when it came to what was allowed on the silver screen. In 1934, the “Hays Code” was implemented, which strictly limited film in the subject matter it was allowed to show.

Some instances of things that were not allowed were interracial relationships, disrespect of the U.S. Flag, and men and women lying in the same bed. These rules were implemented after much criticism by religious and social figures for content in James Whale’s 1931 film, “Frankenstein.” The film included an early example of blood on screen, as well as an overt God-complex by the titular character. Hollywood filmmakers struggled to remain true to the Hays Code until 1968 when it was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America, a much less restrictive system.

Since so many rental stores and video distributors were simply unprepared entrepreneurs taking advantage of a budding enterprise, very little concern was focused on any potential consequences of renting out gruesome videos to teenagers and pre-teens, much less stocking these videos in the first place.

In fact, there were no consequences initially. No longer did filmmakers have to adhere to such restrictions as the Hays Code or the MPAA. Once journalists got hold of this fact, panic ensued.

Famously, the Daily Mail wrote a series of articles demonizing the types of videos that were being released at the time and how they were a threat to the moral well-being of society. The first instance of such editorial appeared on May 12, 1982, with the headline “The Secret Video Show.”

"More and more children, well used to video recorders in school, are catching on to the fact that their parents’ machine can give them the opportunity to watch the worst excesses of cinema sex and violence […] The problem arises because video is now the fastest growing part of the home entertainment industry – and yet is too young to have developed its own controls."

Although today their fears of impending societal doom are laughable, their reasons for concern were all but without reason.

These “video nasties,” as they were called, were a far cry from the familiar horror films of yesteryear. These videos were nowhere near as tame as the renowned Universal Monster films, nor even their raunchier younger cousins from Hammer Studios. Not only did these video nasties feature never-before-seen levels of blood and gore, but this blood and gore was used as a marketing tool right on the front covers of the boxes.

Videos prominently displayed such gruesome depictions of cannibalized flesh, bloody saw blades to women’s necks, and drills to the forehead. These images, while all clearly phony, remain jarring enough to shock even today’s horror fans.

Such was the gimmick of these videos, of course. While many of the video nasties were serious efforts by filmmakers who went on to hold a legendary status in cinema, just as many were also extremely low budget flicks by directors trying to cash in on the shock value trend. Often, these low budget films relied solely on the marketing effect of their daunting poster art to drive sales and rentals without delivering on their shocking promises. That did not stop the chase for the most extreme films in becoming a sort of fun competition amongst teenagers, however. It became a right of passage for teens to share the most graphic movies with their friends, and whoever could last through the entire video wore a badge of honor for doing so.

But was all this in good fun, or were there greater implications?

As the controversy went on, newspaper articles became more and more explicit in their dismissal of these horror videos. “Rape of Our Children’s Minds” and “Seize the Video Nasties” were just two among many headlines.

One woman brought attention to the issue and became the "face" of the anti-video nasties movement. Mary Whitehouse, who had admittedly never seen a video nasty, insisted that these videos must be removed from society - bringing the panic into full swing.

Coupling unfamiliar technology with the threat of invisible evil forces hijacking the minds of the youth was a recipe for utmost drama. This came to a head in August 1982 with such films as "Death Trap," "The Driller Killer," and "I Spit on Your Grave" in which distributors were charged under the Obscene Publications Act. The tapes were confiscated from distributors and destroyed; distributors received time behind bars.

It is important to note that these videos did not feature any scenes of real violence. Notably, Whitehouse lamented that the charges were not strong enough as the actions were taken against the videos themselves rather than giving prison sentences to the distributors themselves. But the controversy was long from over.

In fact, many argue that "The Driller Killer" - which had been released in 1979 in the United States with little notice but whose cover was considered too graphic in the U.K. - was responsible for the development of the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which essentially banned the "video nasties" in the United Kingdom.

How the media plays a role in moral panic

The video nasties controversy is a textbook example of a moral panic. As we have seen, the movement was greatly exacerbated by the the media’s high profile coverage of the controversy.

Julian Petley of Brunel University highlights three key components of the media’s role in inducing this panic, as originally categorized by sociologist Stan Cohen.

1. Exaggeration and distortion.

The birth of the panic was a direct product of the sensationalist semantics and melodramatic wording of journalists, Petley explains:

For example, in the Mail’s Secret Video Show article we are warned of children watching “the worst excesses of cinema sex and violence” and “torrid sex and violence sessions,” the Express headline speaks of “perversion and violence” and “poison,” whilst The Sunday Times and the Express construct, as noted above, a particularly lurid litany of the contents of the generality of horror videos (which, in fact, is based on the highlights of an extremely small number of titles).

2. Prediction

Cohen calls this “the prophecy of doom" - the declaration that things will continue to get worse if action is not taken.

This is a rather interesting point because the worsening of conditions in this case is completely suppositional, as no evidence had been made that any film had had adverse effect on children and young adults.

While connotations to more modern arguments like the theory that video games cause violence can be made, they are without reason in this instance because no connecting crimes had been committed (although the media did try to push this narrative as well by haphazardly drawing connections to crimes of all kinds).

3. Symbolization

The final stage is the amalgamation of all the negative connotations, in this case joining together under one unique term, "video nasties."

Making quick use of this symbolization, a list of 72 video titles was assembled and set firmly within the crosshairs of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Police began collecting all types of videos from rental stores and spending precious time reviewing them to ensure there was no obscene content.

Multiple video distributors were jailed for stocking videos that violated Section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act, which stated that whoever "creates, produces, possesses, imports, exports, buys, or distributes an obscene material shall be guilty of an offence and imprisoned for no longer than three months."

After months of debate and campaigning by the likes of Mary Whitehouse, the Video Recording Act 1984 was passed July 12, 1984. With this act, if a film was to be distributed within Britain, the creators had to have the film cleared for rating through a censorship board.

And just like that, the home video boom was stifled.

Dr. Nancy Nenno, film professor at the College of Charleston, had a cut and dried answer on whether films should be censored for violent content.

“As long as it’s not a snuff film” she said, referring to the genre of film in which a person actually dies or commits suicide.

This tale of the video nasties is a classic example of how moral panic can have real world consequences through things such as hasty legislation and questionable criminal punishment. It is hard to think that people served very real prison time less than forty years ago for horror tapes now seen as harmless fun.

This is the nature of moral panic, however.

by Seth Stephens


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