Children and Dogs
We are all used to seeing people die in movies and not having it ruin our day. Many people believe that this restrained reaction is due to our knowledge that we are watching a fiction, our awareness that no one is really dying.
If, however, at the end or a row of anonymous movie extras being gunned down, the assistant director should accidentally place a child or a dog, the theater owner will hear about it. Some people’s days will in fact be ruined.
This surplus sensitivity to the onscreen deaths of children and domestic animals is extremely common. Spectators who endeavor to elevate their compassion for adult victims may succeed in leveling the playing field to an extent; but almost everyone understands, on a gut level, the special status of children and animals.
It seems to me that the near-universality of this reaction effectively refutes the idea that our indifference to onscreen death is due merely to our sophistication in recognizing the difference between fiction and reality.
Asked to explain this phenomenon, almost all interviewees say the same thing: “The child/animal is innocent.” The implication is that the adult is presumptively guilty, or at least that the occurrence of guilt in adults is sufficiently high that we should take no chances with them.
One can put forth an evolutionary explanation that we divide the world into members of our tribe, who help us survive, and others, who are a potential threat. Or one can opt for the more Freudian explanation that we all harbor an atavism that gives us a simple pleasure in the death of others, and that we feel freer to indulge this atavism with the excuse of self-defense.
In support of the evolutionary thesis, we observe that makers of fiction are skillful at using identification to change our reaction to the death of fictional characters. All filmmakers know that bit players will die unmourned, that the protagonist’s best friend is good for a bit of manageable sadness at the end of the second act, and that the death of the protagonist is an emotional experience that must be handled carefully. In effect, some characters become part of our tribe.
However, we are still capable of enjoying a tragedy in which the protagonist dies. The evolutionary thesis alone cannot explain this.
It could be that all three considerations – the argument from artistic sophistication, the argument from tribal affiliation, the argument from atavism – operate within us and combine to govern our reaction to onscreen death.