In a dream last night, my mind contrived to arrange for the premature demise of a person who had once had the temerity to edit my articles and reviews. He died of AIDS. I read the obituaries in the newspapers, attended the funeral, watched him interred... Nice job, mind. Not very Buddhist of you. My only excuse for this execrable act of vengeance is that I had been watching "The Sopranos," and had likely picked up some useful hints about how to deal with those who cross me from the now (no longer so) cheerful band of brutes and bandits that populate its stories.
I will confess to taking nefarious delight in crime fiction, both visual and literary. It started early. Probably influenced by my father's love of Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie (as a parish priest in small English villages, he probably found a lot in common with Miss Marple!) I started out with Father Brown and Sherlock Holmes, and never looked back. I even wrote a couple of mysteries myself, back in the 1980s, which were well received--the second one even got a nice write-up in the New York Times. (I should mention also, in the spirit of full disclosure, that the same book was panned by a Los Angeles Times reviewer: that was the guy I should have whacked in my dream last night!)
It's clearly a fascination I share with millions of my fellow human beings, though I have noticed that women generally go for the mystery genre, while men devour the more violent thrillers, both on the screen and between the covers of a book. It takes more knowledge of human psychology than I possess to begin to explain why we find the killing of our fellow humans so absorbing, but I do wonder whether it's damaging to the psyche to read about or watch. Maybe it's a chicken-and-egg question: are we excited to violence by its explicit portrayal on film and television? Or do we love it on film and television because we have some natural propensity for violence?
What is the fascination, here? With mysteries, I believe it's the mystery itself: stories are compelling to the human mind, and we always want to know how a story ends. Thrillers are harder to explain, because the end is never hard to guess. The good guys win, the bad guys get their comeuppance. And what's the pleasure in seeing bodies torn apart by bullets or blown sky high? Some say that seeing others imparts the satisfaction that it's not happening to us. Others, that the adrenalin rush is a satisfaction in itself. As horror flicks show (and I'm NOT a fan of horror flicks: I don't think I've even seen one since "The House of Wax" scared the pants off me back when I was a lad,) the gap between terror and laughter is a narrow one, so these films must be tugging at some powerful subconscious emotions.
What's a Buddhist to do? Ideally, I suspect, he would avoid all such contaminants of the mind--though there must be a matter of degrees: Agatha Christie, surely, would have to be considered less harmful than James Bond, and Simon Templer (aka The Saint) than Tony Soprano. Ellie, in this instance, would have to be considered a better Buddhist than I, since she eschews all violence, whether fictional or real, and complains of having trouble sleeping if she sees anything distrubing before going to bed.
One thing I'll say for "The Sopranos": unlike "24," it's not completely mindless. Underneath the mayhem, there are some interesting emotional and moral questions explored. But then, I have to admit that even the mindless can be compelling narrative. As for the real violence that we see--from Baghdad to Virginia Tech--well, as they say, don't get me started... But let me hear from you if you have thoughts about this topic.