Category Archives: books

Throwback Thursday: The Comic Book Panic


Every decade or so, we seem to have a cultural panic about something teens are into. These days, it’s violent video games, but that was far from the first target. Before that, it was heavy metal and role-playing games. The pattern repeats at least back to the 1950s, when the freakout of the times was over comic books and their alleged link to juvenile delinquency. This freakout went all the way to the U.S. Senate.

It also got to the point where magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal were describing the perils of comic books, an idea we mostly laugh at today. The article claims, for example, that the books’ detailed descriptions of crime teach kids how to become criminals. Like many anti-media pieces, it lists in great detail (and without context) the violent deeds described in the stories, as if a roundup is enough to explain the problems inherent in reading these books. It also, typically, cites an increase in “juvenile delinquency” and describes a number of youth-committed crimes in depth, with vague references to comic books (one young criminal’s older brother blames them, for example; I’m sure he’s an authority on the subject).

And, like every other teen pastime, so many kids were reading comics that there’s no real way to say the books — more than any other factor — inspired youths to commit crimes or even just act out. Sure, all of the crimes described in the magazine article can be found in comics, but so can plenty of other things that adults wouldn’t and didn’t find objectionable. Did those aspects of comics inspire teen behavior, too, or just the bad bits? Or maybe kids, like adults, like to see, hear, and read thrilling fiction because it’s just that — fiction.

One reason I like to look back on these moral panics is to show how we feel about them with the benefit of hindsight and perspective. Has any wave of youth violence ever been credibly linked to media? The answer, again and again, is no. So why do we keep blaming their interests?

Books, violent games and the bias of brain science

Photo by Flickr user bucaorg.

Photo by Flickr user bucaorg.

A new study into how reading fiction and literature affects our brains is finding that — gasp! — it changes our brains! More specifically:

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” says Gregory Berns. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

In the small study at Emory University, 21 people were asked to read sections of a novel (Robert Harris’ Pompeii), while their brains were studied in an fMRI machine. They read on some days and took breaks on other days, to give the researchers the chance to figure out what was triggering brain shifts.

Although they found that changes in parts of the brain devoted to “perspective-taking” decayed quickly once they finished reading, “Long-term changes in connectivity, which persisted for several days after the reading, were observed in bilateral somatosensory cortex, suggesting a potential mechanism for ’embodied semantics.'”

Why am I mentioning this, when it has nothing to do with video games, heavy metal, the occult, goth culture or role-playing games? Well, some of you may recall this post, in which I described a Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis study in which the researchers found that playing violent video games also changed players’ brains — and implied that such changes were negative, or at least the ensuing press coverage did.

But I wonder, now, what those Indiana researchers looked at. Did they look at the same areas of the brain as the Emory scientists? If they had, would they have found some of the same “perspective-taking” changes, given that many video games ask you to take on the role of a character in the game? I suspect, too, that this happens when engrossed in a good role-playing game character, and possibly even when you’re listening to a powerful song that’s told from another person’s perspective (Bruce Springsteen’s and Tom Waits’ music are full of such opportunities).

We’ve come to know so much more about neuroplasticity. We know our brains change when we learn new things — sometimes that’s good, and sometimes that’s bad. But if people are going to study popular media, it might be good to study them in the same way, so we have a better understanding of whether they have the same effects on us. Science is one of the ways we can combat this idea that certain media are beneficial and certain ones aren’t.

Is “Twilight” turning teens into wannabe vampires?

According to one father, “Twilight” inspires kids to dabble in sex, the occult, and home-style vampirism.

Just in time for the final Twilight movie to hit the theaters, we have a worried dad (and pastor) attempting to connect the films with a subculture that, frankly, has been around a lot longer than Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. He somehow stumbled across the various “vampire” communities on the Internet, began (as many parents do) casting his 15-year-old daughter in that scene, and got scared.

He writes:

There, girls the same age of my 15-year-old daughter are talking about “awakening,” which is their word for converting to paganism (like the Christian word “born again”). In a perverted twist on Communion, their sacraments include the giving of your own blood by becoming a “donor.” This is entirely pagan. These storylines offer eternality without God and salvation; in the place of Jesus’ shed blood, girls and boys shed their own blood to be awakened to their own salvation of a new spiritual way of life filled with sex and occult behavior.

We heard a lot of similar chatter around the Harry Potter books and films: that they would turn young children into occult-obsessed heathens, that their souls would be lost. Even the Vatican changed its mind about that theory once it became clear that millions of kids hadn’t taken up the wizarding life.

Here’s the thing about teens, paganism, sex, and “vampires.” When I grew up, teens were reading Anne Rice’s books and playing Vampire: The Masquerade. They played at being vampires, dressing in dark clothing and wearing faux fangs. Few, almost none, drank anyone’s blood. It was a game, a role play like any other. A chance to try on a different identity, one that’s more mysterious and powerful than, let’s face it, just about any drab-feeling 15-year-old.

What I’m saying is this: teens (and adults) have been playing with this trope for a while now; it didn’t start with Twilight. The fact that Twilight took off suggests that there’s something in the cultural zeitgeist right now that makes it a good fit. What we need to do is analyze what that is — actually talk to kids about why they love the books and why they may be imagining themselves in some of the roles — and go from there. It isn’t about the Devil or the Internet/Mormon authors luring them to their doom. It’s about something that’s part and parcel of adolescence — coupled with the way the world is right now, and has been for the past 30 or so years since Lestat emerged from Rice’s imagination and hit the pages of a book — that’s driving people’s interest.

Fortunately, the author of this piece more or less does the right thing with his own daughter:

I do not shelter my children from these sorts of things. Pop culture is too pervasive to hide from (on a recent trip to a Barnes & Noble with my daughter we noticed an entire section of books dedicated to “Teenage Vampire Romance”). My wife and I talk to my daughter about these things so that she can be discerning, informed, and safe.

I don’t agree with him that media is “a potential threat to her well-being,” and would encourage him to let his daughter use her own discernment to seek out what she needs, and keep the lines of communication open so they can talk when she’s pursuing something that gives him pause.

I don’t think he’s wrong to worry. That’s what parents do. They want their kids to grow up safe, healthy, and happy. And, because he’s a pastor, he enters that role with a pretty specific worldview, and maybe even an obligation to keep his kids on the straight and narrow. But it isn’t Twilight tempting them — or anyone’s kids — to role-play as vampires.

So what is it, then?

Why not ask them, instead of judging them?

Backward Messages: now on Pinterest!

I wanted to let readers know that I’ve started a Pinterest account, where I’m gathering links related to this blog. Some of them will wind up as blog posts, while others are just along similar lines. Follow me there to keep up with the news I’m tracking.

Are “The Hunger Games” sacrifices Satanic?

Are the themes of child sacrifice in The Hunger Games enough to label it “occult/Satanic?” Some groups think so.

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has earned many accolades, and is one of the best-selling young-adult book series since Harry Potter. This week, news broke that the books garnered a different type of honor in 2011: they’re among of the most-challenged library books in America.

Challenges happen anytime someone would like to request that a book be removed from public libraries. (Banning is when they actually are removed.) In this case, individuals and groups challenged The Hunger Games books on several grounds: “unsuited to age group and violence,” “anti-ethnic; anti-family,” and “occult/satanic,” earning the series the #3 spot in the 2011 top-10 list (which also includes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and many recent releases.)

The Wall Street Journal caused a ruckus last year when it published a piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon decrying the violent state of young-adult fiction, including The Hunger Games.

We spend a lot of time here at Backward Messages examining what types of content are appropriate for kids, particularly in the context of video games. There’s plenty of evidence that such fiction does not harm kids, and that in general young people are good about recognizing the difference between fiction and reality. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in last year’s ruling on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, had this to say about violent content in kids’ fiction:

California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none. Certainly the books we give children to read — or read to them when they are younger — contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales 198 (2006 ed.). Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. Id., at 95. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven. Id., at 54.

High-school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. The Odyssey of Homer, Book IX, p. 125 (S. Butcher & A. Lang transls. 1909) (“Even so did we seize the fiery-pointed brand and whirled it round in his eye, and the blood flowed about the heated bar. And the breath of the flame singed his eyelids and brows all about, as the ball of the eye burnt away, and the roots thereof crackled in the flame”). In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. Canto XXI, pp. 187–189 (A. Mandelbaum transl. Bantam Classic ed. 1982). And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island. W. Golding, Lord of the Flies 208–209 (1997 ed.).

Are Lord of the Flies and The Odyssey still taught in classrooms? Is The Hunger Games more violent or offensive?

Actually, all this is beside the point I wanted to make, which is that I had to think long and hard before I figured out what about The Hunger Games would qualify as “occult” or “Satanic.” Finally, I realized they must be talking about the competition itself, and the requirement that each district (potentially) sacrifice a boy and a girl each year, some as young as 12.

Given that Abrahamic religions have been responsible for some pretty horrific tales of infanticide, child sacrifice, and fratricide, it’s tricky business calling a book “occult” or “Satanic” if it contains those themes — particularly since no occult or Satanic faiths practice human sacrifice, particularly child sacrifice.

Some may recall the religious furor over Harry Potter, which Catholics recently rescinded. Hopefully, those who challenge The Hunger Games for its themes — which also, by the way, painfully illuminate a number of pending problems in our society — will eventually come around as well. A series that’s getting more teens reading — and reading about ideas and possibilities that really matter — shouldn’t be challenged; it should be celebrated.

The Harry Potter debate: When is magic evil, and when is it a miracle?

Does Harry Potter’s use of “evil” sorcery to defeat evil make him good? Or evil? Even the Vatican can’t decide.

As I mentioned last week, the Vatican has had a change of heart regarding the occult overtones in the Harry Potter multimedia franchise. After years of claiming that the young wizard’s tale would lead impressionable readers to practice witchcraft and sorcery, someone in Italy must have noticed that that wasn’t really happening.

In a review of the final film in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, reported, “evil is never presented as fascinating or attractive in the saga, but the values of friendship and of sacrifice are highlighted.” Another critic noted, “the saga champion[s] values that Christians and non-Christians share and provide[s] opportunities for Christian parents to talk to their children about how those values are presented in a special way in the Bible.”

The Catholic Register also has positive words for the film, though the critic is uncomfortable with some of the language surrounding resurrection.

However, it’s unclear whether this positive spin on the Harry Potter world trumps such statements as then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2005 letters discussing how the wizard’s saga contains “subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.”

There’s also the statement from the Vatican’s chief exorcist, Rev. Gabriele Amorth, who said, “You start off with Harry Potter, who comes across as a likeable wizard, but you end up with the Devil … By reading Harry Potter a young child will be drawn into magic and from there it is a simple step to Satanism and the Devil.” Again, this is a statement from a half-decade ago; has Amorth changed his mind?

Michael D. O’Brien, author of Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, argues:

To believe that the Potter message is about fighting evil is superficial. On practically every page of the series, and in its spin-off films, evil is presented as ‘bad’, and yet the evil means by which the evil is resisted are presented as good.

Admittedly, I am on the other side of the aisle from O’Brien. Not only do I not believe magic is evil, I don’t even agree that the magic depicted in Harry Potter is intended to represent literal sorcery. Was Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus sorcery? After all, he says some magic words and Lazarus comes back to life after four days in a tomb:

41 So they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying.
Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said,
“Father, I thank you that you listened to me.
42 I know that you always listen to me,
but because of the multitude that stands around I said this,
that they may believe that you sent me.”
Lazarus, come out!

43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
44 He who was dead came out, bound hand and foot with wrappings,
and his face was wrapped around with a cloth.
Jesus said to them, “Free him, and let him go.”

I may get in trouble with Christian readers for saying this, but honestly, the only reason this isn’t considered evil sorcery is that it’s presented as a miracle — in the same collection of stories that says sorcery is evil. Yes, the Bible is full of contradictions; arguably this is one of them.

So, here’s the question: is O’Brien right? Is the good vs. evil message in Harry Potter “superficial”? Is the use of “evil” to fight evil the real message of the saga? What do you think?

And the latest moral panic is … books?

Andrew Smith’s “The Marbury Lens” is among the young-adult books in WSJ writer Meghan Cox Gurdon’s crosshairs — she says it’s inappropriate for teens.

In what rulebook, operations manual, or parenting guide is it written that children and teens are pure, innocent, and morally untainted? Where is it written that they never have sexual or violent ideas, aggressive feelings, or fears inspired not by media fictions but by real life or their own fertile imaginations? The idea that kids are blank slates, happy and pure of thought until corrupted, is at the root of every child-related moral panic, from the crackdown on comic books to in the 1950s to the current outrage over … young-adult books. It doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far, does it?

Last month, Wall Street Journal writer Meghan Cox Gurdon penned a screed decrying the current state of young-adult fiction. It’s a state she describes as, “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things.”

In the course of her article, Gurdon goes after a number of YA books, describing their content in lurid detail (almost echoing Justice Scalia’s recent descriptions of the gore and violence contained in youth literature dating back to the Brothers Grimm). These concepts, she argues, threaten “a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.”

Personally, I’m wondering whether it has dawned on her that reading accounts of teens’ dire straits might a) shine a light on the fact that far too many children experience trauma, or b) that reading about such experiences might actually help readers develop that “tenderness of heart” toward such experiences that Gurdon is fighting for. It doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind; instead, she posits, “books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.”

Fortunately, Gurdon’s piece opened a dialogue. One of those dialogues was with Lauren Myracle, author of “Shine,” one of the books on Gurdon’s blacklist. Myracle and Gurdon chatted last week on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and Myracle responded to Gurdon’s claims:

Do books normalize dangerous behaviors? My answer would be people aren’t dummies. Some are, but most aren’t. Kids aren’t, either. I think that kids are, again and again, not given enough credit for being smart and for being critical thinkers.

(Remember when the Harry Potter books came out, and religious leaders were convinced they’d inspire kids to become demon-worshipping wizards? The Vatican is now championing the final Potter film.)

YA author Frank Portman, author of King Dork and Andromeda Klein, chimed in on his own blog. He writes:

For Meghan Cox Gurdon, a book that fails to advance, or even merely complicates, that agenda, let alone actually impedes it, is a bad book, worse than useless, unsuited to the task at hand, which is, essentially, social engineering.

But, of course, that’s not at all how or why people read novels. In fact, some of the best novels, like other forms of art, were created with precisely the opposite agenda in mind: to rile, to irritate, to provoke, to test, to undermine conventional assumptions and to discourage conformity. I’d even go so far as to say that the books that have meant the most to me over the years, “young” and otherwise, have been the ones deliberately constructed in order to make the parent’s job harder.

Portman also goes after the anti-Gurdon movement, which tagged many missives on Twitter with the tag #YAsaves. Young-adult fiction, Portman points out, isn’t there to save lives any more than it’s there to make parents’ jobs easier. It’s there to be art. To be fiction. For teens who enjoy reading. End of story.

What’s the darkest thing you’ve ever read in a young-adult fiction book, and how did it affect you when you read it? Share your tales in the comments.