5 Ways You Don’t Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain

David Wong

August 7, 2012

So there was a mass shooting during a Batman movie and, goddamn it, it turned out the killer owned a Batman mask and called himself “The Joker.” By now, several talking heads have come to the conclusion that the movie somehow triggered the massacre, or whatever. You know the game at this point — sadly, we’ve seen this whole cycle play out more than once.

As always, this knee-jerk reaction by old, scared talking heads will predictably result in most of our audience scoffing and saying that movies can’t influence people to do anything, because movies are make-believe and every non-crazy member of the audience knows how to separate fact from fiction.

Well, the thing is … that is equally wrong. But not for the reason the talking heads think.

#5. No, You Can’t Separate Fact from Fiction

You’ve seen Braveheart, right? You know that’s based on a historical event — the movie makes it clear that Mel Gibson’s character, William Wallace, was a real guy who really lived in Scotland back in the horse and castle days. You also know that Hollywood spiced things up for the movie — the real Wallace probably never assassinated a dude and then jumped his horse off a balcony in slow motion.

So if you don’t mind, just quickly tell me which parts were fiction. Without looking it up.

Like the evil king they were fighting — was he a real historical figure, too? What about Wallace’s palooka friend, Hamish? Or the crazy Irish sidekick? Were those real guys? That part where Mel Gibson’s main ally (Robert the Bruce) betrayed him and sided with the English in that big battle (aka the turning point of the entire story)– did that really happen? What about the bit at the end, where Wallace has sex with that princess, revealing that the future king of England would actually be Mel Gibson’s son? That’s the most historically important thing in the whole film, surely that was true, right?

  • A D V E R T I S E M E N T

You don’t know, do you? But who cares, right? It’s not like that impacts your life at all. It’s just historical trivia. OK, now consider this: After Jaws hit theaters, we nearly drove sharks to extinction with feverish hunting, to the point that their populations may never recover.

Every single person who saw that movie knew that it was fiction, and that those characters were just actors. They probably knew that, in real life, there isn’t a shark big enough to eat your boat. But, when the genius scientist character in the movie agreed that killing the shark was the only way to prevent dead tourists, we assumed that part was true. The same as we assumed you could really blow up an oxygen tank by shooting it.

So, we killed all the sharks, based on what the make-believe movie told us.

Ah, but that’s one oddball isolated incident. Hey, did you know that after Top Gun, Navy aviator recruitment skyrocketed by as much as 500 fucking percent? Or that the number of kids taking martial arts classes exploded after The Karate Kid? Or that the popularity of the CSI TV shows has resulted in a glut of students going into forensic sciences? Or that I could cite examples of this until you hit your monthly bandwidth cap? How many of you left Fight Club thinking you knew how to make napalm? Which of us haven’t forced a baby to do that wanking motion after watching The Hangover?

I know what some of you are already saying: “So, what, because some gullible people do what movies tell them, that means a Batman movie made that guy shoot up the theater? So I suppose watching Bridesmaids made us all start shitting in sinks.”

No. You’re intentionally reaching for examples where it doesn’t happen, and ignoring all of the ones where it does — even if some movie straight up told you to become a mass murderer, it’d be working against a lifetime of society pounding the opposite message into your brain. The point of this article isn’t to pin violence on movies. The point is that it’s much bigger than that. Because …

#4. Stories Were Invented to Control You

This isn’t some paranoid conspiracy theory — it’s a fundamental part of how human culture came about. Ask yourself: Why do we go watch superhero movies? After all, variations of these stories about brave, superhuman heroes predate recorded history. We used to tell them around campfires before written language even existed.

They were created as a way to teach you how to behave.

Thousands of years ago, when your ancestors were living in tribes and hunting gazelles for food, nobody knew how to read. Even if they could, paper wasn’t a thing, parchment was rare and precious. They had no written historical records, they had no educational system that could devote years to teaching history to the kids.

This was a problem. Once humans started forming civilizations, the guys in charge didn’t just need the next generation of children to know how to fish and hunt, they needed citizens who would fall in line and fight for the tribe. That meant the kids needed to understand the big picture: why preserving the tribe is important, why we hate the tribe across the river, why our tribe is better than that tribe, why it’s important to go off and fight in the next war no matter how scared you are.

Now, to do this, they could either A) bore the kids to death with a years-long recounting of the history of the tribe, which nobody has probably written down anyway or B) tell them a cool story. They could tell the thrilling tale of Kolgor the Valiant who, when the evil neighboring tribe came to slay all of the women and children, stood alone and fought bravely through the night, with four arrows in his chest, until the enemy retreated in terror. You want to be like Kolgor, don’t you, little one? Otherwise, he will have died in vain.

Clearly “B” is the one that is going to stick in the kid’s brain. It doesn’t matter that the story is either fiction or grossly exaggerated — it gets the job done, it makes the kid conform to be the kind of citizen the tribe needs him to be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — your tribe may very well be better than the one across the river, your real history is probably full of real heroes whose sacrifices were just as important as, if less romantic than, Kolgor the Valiant’s. The tribe didn’t go with the fictional version because they were liars, they went with it because it was the only way for the “truth” to survive.

So while we use the word “myth” these days to mean “a lie that needs to be debunked,” often the myths were simply more efficient versions of the truth. They’re easier to remember, they don’t take as long to tell and they eliminate a lot of the messy ambiguities that can confuse the point. Also, they won’t bore the listener to tears.

The point is, this is why stories were invented — to shape your brain in a certain way. A guy named Joseph Campbell wrote whole books about it, you should read them. These basic stories, these myths of the hero overcoming the odds, the great man who sacrifices himself for the greater good — they’re what make civilization go. In a society, the people and the buildings and the roads are the hardware, mythology is the software.

And while your ancestors had their heroes that they heard about around the campfire, you have Batman, and Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter. And yes, the movies you watched this summer serve the same purpose as those ancient myths. Sometimes this is super obvious (clearly Rocky IV and The Day After Tomorrow are trying to cram a message into your brain with the subtlety of a sweatpants erection). But what’s the message behind James Bond? Or Iron Man?

“There isn’t one!”

That literally isn’t possible.

You see …

#3. The Writer of a Story Always Has an Agenda

Quiz Time: What do these hugely popular hero characters all have in common?

Luke Skywalker
Frodo from The Lord of the Rings
Harry Potter
Finn from Adventure Time

Got it yet? They’re all orphans.

That’s kind of weird, right? Do you think that’s a random choice? Do you think the writer just flipped a coin? Or do you think there’s an emotional button that is being pushed there, the writer reaching around the logical part of your brain and triggering something inside you without you knowing it?

That sounds devious, but those little subconscious tricks are Fiction Writing 101 (we covered a bunch of them here). It’s a scary power to entrust someone with, if you think about it. Especially if you, as the audience, don’t pay close attention to what they’re doing. You leave the theater a different person than you were when you came in. It’s a difference in millimeters, sure, but you’re going to watch a thousand hours of the stuff in the course of a year. It builds up.

“What, so you’re trying to tell me there’s some hidden agenda behind the Transformers movies? It’s freaking robots punching each other!”

No, there is no intentional hidden agenda (well, maybe a little), but there is certainly a set of assumptions that the filmmakers are passing on to you. In the case of Transformers, the assumption is that combat is beautiful and exciting, that military hardware is sexy, that destruction is gorgeous and fun and completely free of consequence. And, most importantly, that the solution to all conflict is to be more masculine, powerful, aggressive, confident and destructive than the bad guys.

“But the people already think that! These movies are just giving us what we want!”

Right, but why do you want that? You think you came out of the womb thinking that military hardware was cool? If you grew up in a real war zone, and didn’t have movies and TV, would you have the same opinion?

I’m not saying Michael Bay is a secret tool of the military industrial complex trying to brainwash you into supporting the next war, no more than the makers of Jaws were trying to wipe out the sharks — they were just trying to make a scary movie, and Michael Bay is just a dude who likes explosions. It doesn’t matter why the message is there — it soaks into your brain either way. This is what everyone misses when debating this stuff — one side says, “Hollywood is trying to brainwash you!” and the other side says, “Michael Bay isn’t smart enough to brainwash an armadillo!” and they’re both missing the point.

This is why, when some people point out how racist the Lord of the Rings stories are (i.e., orcs are evil by virtue of being born orcs, dwarfs are greedy because they are dwarfs, Aragorn is heroic due to his “blood”), it’s both correct and unfair. It’s correct because, yes, that is the way Tolkien’s universe is set up — nobody in the stories hesitates to make sweeping generalizations about a race, and they’re always proven right when they do. Frodo’s magical sword didn’t glow in the presence of enemies, it glowed in the presence of a certain race (orcs). Go write a movie about a hero with a gun that glows in the presence of Arabs. See what happens.

But it’s also unfair, because Tolkien clearly didn’t sit down and think, “I’m going to increase the net weight of racism in the world in order to firmly establish white dominance! And I’ll do it with elves!” He was just writing what he knew. Of course a guy born in 1892 assumed that Nordic races were evolved and graceful, that certain other races were born savages and that midgets love axes. Hell, he could have been the least racist person he knew, and he’d still be the equivalent of a Klansman today. Whether or not the agenda was intentional is utterly irrelevant.

I can’t emphasize this enough – there is no conspiracy. Yeah, you’ll occasionally have a movie like Act of Valor that is transparently intended to boost military recruitment, but 99 percent of the time, the movie’s “agenda” is nothing more than a lot of creative people passing along their own psychological hang-ups, prejudices, superstitions, ignorance and fetishes, either intentionally or unintentionally. But they are still passed on to you, because that’s what stories are designed to do. Michael Bay feels a certain way about women, and about the role of women in the world, and you will leave his movie agreeing with him just a little bit more than when you came in.

Knowing that, it’s even scarier to consider that …

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