In the Fourth book of his Republic (c. 380 BCE), as part of a larger discussion of psychological disunity and the division of the soul, Plato recounts the story of a man named Leontius who has difficulty tearing his eyes away from the horrific imagery of mangled corpses suppurating in the street. What’s particularly troubling to Leontius is that, despite his revulsion, there’s something utterly seductive about these dead bodies.
Spotting the corpses laid out by the public executioner, Leontius “both desired to look at them, and simultaneously was unable to look, turning himself away, and for a long time he struggled and covered his head. But overcome nonetheless by his desire, he opened his eyes wide, ran up to the corpses and said, ‘there, you evil things, sate yourselves on the beautiful spectacle.’”
His powerlessness, his inability to avert his gaze, caught simultaneously — and paradoxically — between an attraction and aversion to the horrific scene ultimately causes Leontius to curse his own eyes (ō kakodaimones). The paralyzing effect of visual horror and violent imagery, its ability to attract and repel, has not gone unnoticed. Only a few decades later, Plato’s student Aristotle made similar remarks in his Poetics (c. 335 BCE) when referring to the odd pleasure derived from viewing memetic horrors in works of art. Immanuel Kant, Julia Kristeva, Noël Carroll, William Ian Miller, Adriana Cavarero, and (many) other more modern thinkers have made similar observations. It’s clear that there is, strangely yet undeniably, something alluring about graphic imagery.
Among the countless horrific and indescribably evil things perpetrated by the terrorist in Christchurch, New Zealand, whose attack on March 15 killed 50 people and injured dozens more in two separate mosques in the city, was his decision to broadcast the attack live on social media. The shooting, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called an “extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence,” has rocked the country and sent shock-waves around the globe.
But what shouldn’t surprise us is the avidity with which audiences tuned in to watch. Although YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter rushed to scrub a 17-minute video of part of the attack from their platforms, users kept reposting, replaying, and disseminating the footage with rabid efficiency and enthusiasm. YouTube’s Chief Product Officer, Neal Mohan, noted in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered that the site was receiving on average one new upload of the video (or clips from it) per second in the first few hours after the attack, which he said represented an “unprecedented volume.” This sort of violence, despite — or more accurately because of — its graphic nature, attracts viewers.
Given the context of anti-Muslim violence in Christchurch, it might seem strange to note that the gunman’s digital and film tactics share striking commonalities with the vile videographic “aesthetic” (if that’s the right word) of the so-called Islamic State’s snuff-films that began ricocheting across the Internet to eager audiences in 2014.
ISIS’s films — a blend of ultra-violent psychological warfare and mass-media propaganda tool — routinely and consciously recreate famous shots and motifs from action films like The Hunger Games, Sniper, Mad Max: Fury Road and video games like Halo, Call of Duty, and Gears of War, furnishing these movies and games with “life” in a world that frighteningly blurs or collapses the distinction between reality and fiction.
The gunman in Christchurch filmed his attack via helmet camera in imitation of the first-person shooter games he, satirically, claims (in his 74-page manifesto) helped to “train” him. The aim in each case — in the dark recesses of the extremist ideological nethersphere — is to appeal and appall, to traffic in horror by actualizing the stylized violence of Hollywood and video-game “myth” that has otherwise always maintained a fictionalized distance.
Perhaps part of the appeal of these videos rests in this violation of the fictional by the actual. Perhaps the nods to unreal violence, coupled with the distance provided by the medium of film and the indiscretion and space accorded by the Internet, help to shield audiences from the reality of the horror they are consuming. Combined, these things help mediate our gaze — or make us feel as though we’re simply watching an edgy horror film.
There is a real sense in which the Internet, through its seclusion, its vouchsafed voyeurism, has eradicated sentimentality in the face of violence and death. Or perhaps for many, despite their revulsion at the acts and their cause, the horrors are simply too intoxicating to ignore.
News reports have rightly noted the self-absorbed and deranged agenda of the gunman to claim some sort of perverse “glory” through his atrocious crimes. But we should at least take a moment to acknowledge our own captivation by and complicity in the grotesque video-spectacle as willful viewers. It’s a role to which the perpetrators of this atrocious real-life “art-horror” seem acutely attuned.
While we condemn the heinous acts of the gunman, we must not lose sight of our own innate human capacity to strangely, painfully, enjoy these horrors even if, like Leontius, we might feel compelled to curse our own eyes.
Dr. Andrew M. McClellan is the Stepsay Family Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics in the Department of Classics and Humanities at San Diego State University. He has published numerous works on violence and horror in ancient literature and culture, and the reception of ancient literature in modern society. His book Abused Bodies in Roman Epic is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.