June 15, 2010

Rational vs. mystical views in low vs. high-crime times: Law & Order or Unsolved Mysteries

The 20-year run of the to-be-canceled Law & Order series illustrates how different cultural production is during dangerous vs. safe times. The first couple seasons aired right as the crime rate was peaking and focused on real crime -- Non-Asian Minorities dealing drugs and shooting each other. Lacking a hero who could be counted on to bust up the bad guys if the system failed, these initial seasons were too hopeless to draw wide audiences during a high-crime era. It wasn't until the 1993-'94 season that the series broke into the top 30 in ratings (where it would remain through 2005). By this time it had made the switch to focusing on preposterous crimes committed by the bad yuppies, giving the good yuppies in the audience a grotesque enemy to join together in reviling.

In general, that's what "speaking truth to power" narratives are all about -- firing up intra-elite status contests about who's a better planner for the masses rather than really giving a shit about the downtrodden, most vividly on display in Dickens' attack on the 19th C. political economists.

Earlier we saw that the highly stylized and ornamental crime / film noir movies that have survived through the decades were almost entirely made during low-crime times. (As an update, here's a different list of the 100 greatest film noir movies, and there are only 2 out of 100 made during high-crime times.) Dangerous times, in contrast, create crime movies that feel more raw and authentic like Dirty Harry, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard. So what is the high-crime counterpart of the Law & Order series? Hill Street Blues would seem to be the obvious answer, but taking into account the themes of sex crimes and child kidnappings that run throughout Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, I think a better example is Unsolved Mysteries.

Unlike the "ripped from the headlines" approach of Law & Order, where caricature is required, the "true crime" appeal of Unsolved Mysteries employed more straightforward documentary techniques. It felt more like watching a local news report than a kabuki play, instilling a sense of urgency and dread in the viewer. Over at YouTube, everyone swears how they still get spooked out of their wits on hearing the opening theme. During it's hey-day from 1988 to 1991 or '92, Unsolved Mysteries had greater ratings than Law & Order has ever had, reaching 18% of all households with a TV in 1989. By 1993 it had dropped out of the top 30 and steadily fell into obscurity, paralleling the apparent decline of urban legends around the same time.

While the series lacked a hero to fix everything up, it still did not dwell on the failures and impotence of the system, which would have given it the nihilistic color of the early Law & Order seasons. The features were presented more as modern ghost stories, where human criminals appear to be possessed by evil rather than motivated by rational (if anti-social) grievances. When the world seems like it's coming to an end, people are more willing to believe in the occult, supernatural, and paranormal. Just compare the supernatural "force" in the early Star Wars trilogy to the positivist account of "midi-chlorians" in the later trilogy, delivered as though it were a 1950s science reel for school use.

(The X-Files is not about belief in the supernatural, as they present logical and rational grounds for belief in what the government and others only claim to be paranormal. For example, an episode about a man whose shadow vaporizes other people explains scientifically how his shadow came to take on this property. No one knows, though, how Freddie Krueger is able to enter your dreams -- he just can.)

As society apparently slides further into ruin, it seems more plausible to people that something weird or paranormal really is going on. And all religions begin with the view that we live in a depraved age, which is only going to get worse unless we do whatever the religion puts forward as the solution. Why ponder how to escape from sin, suffering, social disharmony, etc., if it seems like people are not so wild, not so beaten down, and are getting along better? The decline in belief in spirits, gods, devils, etc., first from hunter-gatherer to agrarian feudal and then to central nation-state is likely due to the drop-off in violence as each societal transition is made.

During the height of the recent crime wave, the 1980s saw not only the rise of TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries but also of urban legends and news items about Satanic cults, the divine healing powers of televangelists, and the modern-day werewolves and vampires that were called serial killers. This folklore, however accurate or not, has been lost since the fall in danger that began in 1992, just as it temporarily vanished during the last low-crime era of roughly the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s.

Going further back, though, to the next-most-recent crime wave of roughly the turn of the 19th/20th centuries through the early 1930s, we see how popular this folklore was -- Theosophy's peak popularity during the Roaring Twenties, the early monster movies (which took a turn toward the mediocre or merely sci-fi after crime fell in the mid-'30s), the Scopes Monkey Trial, and the early 20th C. Catholic revival that converted G.K. Chesterton in 1922, Graham Greene in 1926, and Evelyn Waugh in 1930, while T.S. Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1927.

Returning to how culture changed during previous surges of violence, we see the same temporary fascination with the mystical, supernatural, and occult during the Romantic movement, the Elizabethan period, and the 14th C. -- but that's a matter for another post.


  1. If you are right would we should see a rise in religion, mysticism and fanaticisim. And so we are. Its telling that recently the future head of England is ready to bend over and be reamed by Islam.

    I also wonder if there will be a reverse in sexual trends as the times become more violent. Will women seek more safety and stability?

    - Breeze

  2. Remember what the fella said: In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

    Orson Welles in The Third Man


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