Murder By Numbers

One of the most disturbing serial killer cases in Canadian history is currently unfolding in Vancouver. Robert Pickton is on trial for the murder of six women, with another trial for the murder of 20 other women set to follow. The facts of the case, which started to be revealed last week, are gruesome – beheadings, sex toys attached to weapons and many other graphic details. It can be difficult to read or watch on TV, but the facts are the facts.

Meanwhile, on last week’s episode of CSI, a woman was bludgeoned to death and then injected with drugs. On CSI: Miami, a man was shredded by a landmine; on CSI: New York, a corpse was found stuffed in a salt truck. On the last episode of Bones, a man was shot dead on the rooftop of a hotel. The shooter, in a hood, straps the victim to a cross, guts him, and then lights him on fire. All watched by millions of Canadians.

The difference between these two events is one has people complaining about the sensationalizing of human tragedy and the other has them sitting in front of the tube with snacks. CTV's Lloyd Robertson and Global National's Kevin Newman have stated that because the facts may be too upsetting for viewers, they have decided to withhold certain aspects of the day's proceedings. Many newspapers and radio stations are doing the same. Nobody is complaining about the fictionalized version.

I don’t want to see the trial sensationalized – don’t put the gore in the headlines, don’t lead with the brutal details – but I don’t want to see them hidden either. I find it odd that people can be entertained by blood and guts but don’t want it aired when it’s the truth. We can watch Saving Private Ryan, but don’t show us the experience of real soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq. In this weekend’s Globe and Mail there was an article about how Canadians are turning away from the grisly details of the accused serial killer’s trial. Six pages later there is an ad for a stage production of Sweeny Todd, about a 19th century serial killer.

“You can watch CSI and it's completely divorced from the real experience. If CSI had an episode featuring human body parts, people would simply say ‘gross,’” says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture. “When a news anchor reports it, you'd want the kids to leave the room. I don't think CSI has made us shrug our shoulders at the real story of people being beheaded. We make these distinctions.”

People aren’t shrugging their shoulders, they are averting their eyes unless the deaths come wrapped in quick edits and cool music. TV violence hasn’t inured people to real violence, it’s made them only want to see it when it’s entertaining.


  1. TV violence hasn’t inured people to real violence, it’s made them only want to see it when it’s entertaining.

    Along with that, unfortunately, I think it has also desensitized a lot of people which is why I think we hear more stories of young people committing senseless acts of murder because it's all fiction to them.

  2. It's a difficult line, but I'm in favour of having it all out there - be it real or fictional violence - than restricting anyone's ability to view it.

    I believe that people are going to do what they are going to do and entertainment is just the windowdressing and rarely the cause.

  3. Part of me wonders how many of the people recoiling at the idea of hearing details about the crime and trial are going to see Hannibal Rising when it comes out.

  4. I think you are right. People are perfectly fine with seeing fictional violence in entertainment, but are very uncomfortable with addressing real life violence. In fact, I think the reaction many have had to the Robert Pickton case could be proof that people have not been desensitised to violence by watching fictional violence on TV and in movies. If they had been, I can't see why they would have any objections to the coverage of high profile murders.

  5. i think this is an exceptional post...

    the division between reality and entertainment is very clear to MOST people and yet at the same time, it's all sort of sick if you think about it.

  6. Valid points Jer. It makes me realize that while I have no desire to know the finer details of the ongoing trial I don't feel it should be hidden from me. And I'm one of those people who doesn't CSI or other murder-based shows. I just don't find the subject matter entertaining.

    And is that professor who I think it is?

  7. Hannibal Lecter is a perfect example. A serial killer, whose crimes would be seen as abhorrent in real life, is lauded as an anti-hero in popular culture. Didn't he feed his victims to pigs in one of the last movies/novels? Meanwhile the pig farmer Robert Pickton is accused of disposing of victims in a rendering plant and people don't want to have it reported.

    I understand that people may not want to personally hear the details, but it's a far different case to ask news agencies not to report that people pay to eat popcorn in front of all the time. Lets not celebrate or sensationalize Pickton's crimes, but we can't ignore them either.

    And yep Hugh, it's pop culture quote-o-matic Prof. Robert Thompson. Think I can submit the past two years of this blog for a Master's thesis?

  8. I think another part of the appeal of shows like CSI (in all of its incarnations) and Law & Order is that it still only shows snippets of everything.

    When you don't have the whole story it's a whole lot easier to not really pay attention to the facts. Everything that is brought to light on those shows is usually so graphic and extreme that you do become desensitized and detached from the fact that in a lot of cases, most of the stories were culled from newspapers and real-life situations.

    Even though a lot of the details are accurate, the mere fact that there is some extrapolation and creative license makes these shows watchable.

    I'm totally with you in the sense that people shouldn't be fed selectively 'appropriate' information for the sake of maintaining comfort zones...

  9. I should probably add that I'm a physical anthropology student, so most of this stuff is both right up my alley and entirely fascinating to me, but I come from a family of pathologists so that is to be expected.

  10. I'm not sure it's that we don't want it aired but it's that much more difficult to take when it's actually happened.

    The Pickton trial is interesting in Vancouver as it's lead nearly every newspaper cover since the trial began last week. The first few days it was understood but now my thought is that after only a week, I've already started to avoid that part of the paper.

    Ugh. It's a no win situation.

  11. The bizarre irony is that if this case is particularly gruesome, the story will eventually be made into a move or end up as the plot on a CSI or one of their ilk and people will hear the details but with a Hollywood veneer.