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Minds Made by the Movies

Arthur Kellogg

Managing Editor of Survey Graphic

May 1933

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Dr. Frederick Peterson, the distinguished neurologist of New York City, made the following comment to Henry James Forman, the author of the general volume, when asked how injurious he thought scenes of horror and tense excitement might be:

If sufficiently strong they have an effect very similar to shellshock such as soldiers received in war. A healthy child seeing a picture once in a while will suffer no harm. But repeating the stimulation often amounts to emotional debauch. Stimulation, when often repeated, is cumulative. Scenes causing horror and fright are sowing the seeds in the system for future neuroses and psychoses—nervous disorders.

These tests were made with quite ordinary films such as run nightly in neighborhood playhouses. No accurate tests were made on the thrillers, but the Committee gives the first-hand testimony of a mature woman (a registered nurse, the widow of a pediatrician who had herself read some medicine) who has charge of children's playrooms and first-aid rooms in a string of theaters in Chicago. While Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera was running there were so many faintings and hysterical collapses that the ushers were specially drilled in handling them. Throughout the run there was an average of four faintings a day; on one day eleven people fainted, four of them men. One woman had a miscarriage. Children became hysterical: "I have had as many as three in my arms at once and it required an hour or more to quiet them. They were generally children six to eight years old." Wild West and war films often had a similar effect, she testified; during The Dawn Patrol she saw children leap from their seats and scream with excitement.

Tarzan of the Apes
Tarzan of the Apes
Stark terror jumps over the footlights to some hysterical children. During the run of one famous thriller children leaped from their seats and screamed
Robinson as Little Caesar
Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar
"Call me Little Caesar!"
a budding ganster demanded.

Prof. Herbert Blumer of Chicago collected a great number of individual cases of horror and shock. Out of 458 highschool autobiographies, 61 percent stated that they had at some time been terrified by a scene in a movie. Ninetythree percent of 237 younger school children answered "yes" when asked if they had ever been terrified. A girl of nineteen related how she was taken shrieking from her first movie, as a small child, and did not get over it for years. A college girl of twenty still can describe vividly her childish impression of "a horrible hairy ape with a habit of breaking into people's houses." A child of eight had nightmares for a month after seeing Tarzan of the Apes. A girl of fourteen "was so frightened by The Phantom of the Opera I could not scream.... I could not move for two or three minutes." A college youth reported that it was two or three years before he got over a fear of dark places inspired by a boyhood viewing of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A young woman of twenty was so upset by seeing a presentation of Dante's Inferno that she did not enter a theater again for several years.

Out of a class of fortyfour students, thirty-eight told of being frightened and thirty-one of these went back for more punishment—they liked it. Of his highschool students, 64 percent reported "irresistible weeping" at pictures such as The Singing Fool, Beau Geste, Over the Hill and Coquette. One could go on indefinitely quoting Dr. Blumer's stories. Unusually interesting measurements of changes in social attitudes were made by Prof. L. I. Thurstone of the Uni- versity of Chicago and his assistant, Ruth C. Peterson. They found a Midwestern community of 5700 people, all whites; a town where almost no child had even seen a Negro. They tested the school children and found them practically without race prejudice. Then they arranged that the anti- Negro film, The Birth of a Nation, which has been revived with sound, should be shown in the town, and tested them again. Race prejudice had grown like a weed. Five months later, without a second showing of the film, 62 percent of the prejudice remained and it was still markedly present after eight months.

The film Four Sons, which is anti-war and friendly to the German people, completely changed the attitude toward Germans held by junior and senior highschool pupils tested before and after seeing it. The change persisted at another test five months later. A Chinese film, Son of the Gods, had a similar effect on 117 highschool children in another town. Five hundred children who saw The Valiant, which opposed capital punishment, promptly reacted against the death sentence. The Criminal Code gave other children a more lenient attitude toward the punishment of crime and All Quiet on the Western Front registered strongly anti-war. Two films on similar themes, for instance The Big House and Numbered Men, were found to have more effect than one; and three films more than two—a distinctly cumulative effect.

Evidence of the effects of the movies on juvenile behavior is clear, both statistically and in the poignant statements made to Professor Blumer by children from many social groups; from neighborhoods rated as good, fair and of high delinquency; from children in public schools, detention homes and prisons. There is unquestionable evidence that some movies have a "good" effect, as in the case of the girl who saw Over the Hill and vowed she would see to it that her mother should never go to the poorhouse, or the boys who got a vision of service from seeing Ben Hur or Sorrell and Son. But for children already breaking away from home restraints the "good" impressions were short-lived; on the average, they lasted about a month. Schoolgirls who had already had sex experience usually kept new "good" resolves only until they next met an attractive boy who "propositioned" them.

Cagney in Public Enemy
James Cagney in Public Enemy
"When I would see a picture like this I would go wild and say that some day I would be a "Big Shot" that everyone would be afraid of. Live like a king
without working"

The desire to be a Robin Hood, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, seems to move many schoolboys, and the desire to make easy money stirred one fifth of the boys in a good neighborhood. This desire, specifically stated by many boys, leads Professor Blumer to comment: "The creation of desires for riches and suggestions for easily realizing them may dispose many and lead some to criminal behavior." The gist of the "good" and the "bad" in the way of suggestion seems to be that the good is infrequent and fleeting, the bad (easy money, incitement to crime, and glorification of crime) constant, cumulative and to some children almost irresistible.

A boy convicted of robbery said: "As I became older the luxuries of life showed in the movies, partly, made me want to possess them. I could not on the salary I was earning." Another: "The ideas I got from the movies about easy money were from watching pictures where the hero never worked but seemed always to have lots of money to spend....I thought it would be great to live that kind of life." In a group of truants and boys with behavior problems, 55 percent said that pictures of gangsters stirred them to want to go and do likewise.

A boy of eighteen, sentenced to a reformatory for robbery and rape, made this statement:

I would see in a picture the "Big Shot" come in a cabaret. Everyone would greet him with a smile. The girls would all crowd around him. He would order wine and food for the girls. Tip the waiter 350 or more. After dining and dancing he would give the girls diamond bracelets, rings and fur coats. Then he would leave and go to meet his gang. They would all bow down to him and give him the dough that was taken from different rackets. When I would see pictures like this I would go wild and say that some day I would be a "Big Shot" that everyone would be afraid of, and have big dough. Live like a king without doing any work.

Beyond the suggestion inherent in the plots, the gangster pictures show boys who want to learn how to do criminal things. Consider these sentences from different boys and young men:

Movies have shown me the way of stealing automobiles, the charge for which I am now serving sentence.

Some of the movies I saw showed me how to jimmy a door or window.

We learned from the movies how to use a glass cutter and master key.

I learned from the movies the scientific way of pulling jobs leave no fingerprints or telltale marks.

The first stick-up I ever saw was in a movie and I seen how it was done.

I learned something from The Gateway to Hell. It is a gangster picture. It shows how to drown out shots from a gun by backfiring a car.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003