Serling on Film Violence

When The Twilight Zone ended its run in 1964, well-wishers posted an amusing sign at the show’s farewell party: “This plaque commemorates the 128 people killed during its turbulent five years.”

Even die-hard fans may be surprised by the length of the casualty list. A couple dozen deaths maybe, but 128? Perhaps that’s because the deaths weren’t graphically depicted.


This had much to do with the strict TV standards then in vogue, of course. But it wasn’t simply that. Rod Serling appears to have been no fan of over-the-top violence. Consider this excerpt from a lecture he gave in 1972:

The thing that disturbs me is that thread of violence that seems to permeate every current film. The other night I saw ‘The Godfather’ for the first time, and I’ll admit that I found it really quite a stunning film — at least, it was good, tight, believable, it had some beautiful performances, and it was very competently directed.

But the mayhem in that picture, the deaths, the killings. Six assassinations by machine gun — each machine-gunning taking a minimum one minute to portray — two strangulations, three beatings, one car explosion, and some very explicit portraits of a bullet plowing into an abdomen and the retina of an eye.sonny_corleone_multiple_gunshots_wallpaper_-_1280x800

Now, obviously when you deal with an institution as violent as crime is, violence has to be integral. But … through the offices of films like Dirty Harry, Straw Dogs, French Connection, The Godfather and Clockwork Orange, we’re getting a picturesque view of the variety of ways that men can wreak havoc on other men — bullet, claymore mine, garrot, shrapnel, homicidal rape and kicking to death.

One can only imagine what Serling would think about the violence we see on screen today. He didn’t live to see Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees or Jigsaw.

We don’t have to go back to 1964. But considering how popular The Twilight Zone continues to be, proving over and over again that substance will always trump style, it’s worth asking: Wouldn’t we all be better served by less CGI and more imagination? By less blood-letting and more genuine storytelling?

In short, does anyone think we’ll be watching Friday the 13th marathons 50 years later the same way we watch Twilight Zone marathons today?

About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 12/28/2011, in Rod Serling and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Great blog. You could write a dissertation on what Serling touched upon in this snippet. Much like I imagine Hunter Thompson doing (re: journalism), I often picture Serling rolling over in his grave regarding the entertainment industry. His stories and series have lasted so long because they left a void that no one ever was (or will be) able to fill. It speaks volumes about good storytelling and masterful production. The sex Vs violence dichotomy is laughable and he could see it even then. What a bizarre and Zone-esque culture we live in.

    • Thanks, SJ! No question about it — today’s culture is indeed a very bizarre and Zone-esque one. If Serling was disturbed by “The Grandfather,” just imagine his take on some of today’s “entertainment.”

  2. Colin Harker

    Thanks for the post! While I disagree with Serling regarding the moral effect of film violence, I do think that a lot of lazy filmmakers rely on it at the expense of good, old-fashioned storytelling. I’ve found certain episodes of the “Twilight Zone” to be far more frightening than any of the Friday the 13th installments (which are, to be honest, hilarious). This ought to tell those filmmakers who are TRULY interested in frightening their audiences that there is more to fear than the instinctual repugnance that pain and death inspire.

  3. Good point, Colin. It’s the difference, I think, between terror and horror. I find “The Ring” and “Insidious,” both of which are PG-13, scarier than many R-rated films with more graphic violence. What we can imagine will always be more frightening than what can be depicted on film, no matter how realistic-looking it may be. In fact, realism often destroys fear, because fear relies on shadows and what your mind suggests, not what’s “really” there.

  4. This is a magnificent blog. A fantastic read. I will definitely be back.

  5. You are a very capable person!

  6. Reblogged this on Runnin Off at the Mouth…. and commented:
    I found this curious, given the “Vulgarities” post ( I’d recently posted!

    • Thanks, Frank. It may have been a generational thing, but we have to remember that Serling served in the Pacific during World War II and saw some real atrocities in combat. He was no stranger to actual violence. Yet you can see he was no fan of graphic depictions of it in entertainment.

      There’s a time and a place for everything. I’m not saying every movie or TV show should be as free of graphic violence as TZ was. Heck, you’re talking to a fan of The Walking Dead here! But I wish more of Serling’s reticence prevailed today among writers and producers. It’s too easy to use graphic violence to cover the lack of a good story.

      Plus, I’m not wild about becoming inured to it. I’m glad to balance The Walking Dead with a little Once Upon a Time and other series that aren’t as explicit in their depictions. Otherwise, it loses its power to shock, and then what do we have to do? We see it all around us — up the ante. Get bloodier. Get MORE “shocking.”

      Where does it end? Frankly, I’d rather not find out.

      As always, I appreciate the RB, especially on your fine blog. Keep up the good work!

  7. “We don’t have to go back to 1964.” We don’t HAVE to, but… :) Spot on, Mr. Serling (and Paul)! I agree wholeheartedly. I see the results of violence on the news every night – I don’t look to my entertainment to provide the same or confirm that it exists. Curious – have you gone through the series to identify the 128?

    • Thanks, Mandy! No, I have to admit, I haven’t done that. An excellent question. I’ll have to go through it and confirm that!

  8. Serling was right. And as far as I’m concerned, all this gratuitous violence is a lazy cop out for writers who don’t want to take the time to sit down and pen something decent. So much easier to appeal to people’s primitive Roman-esque bloodlust. Such a shame too. There are some well written programs today that would be so much better with less violence, less gore, and less sex.

    But there is a glimmer of hope. As you said, we’re still talking about the subtle beauty of TZ, 50+ years later. And likely still will be in 100+ years. Talent is truly timeless. The other stuff may provide a momentary rush (for some people, not for me), but you get it and then it’s over like that *snaps fingers*, and unlike something with substance, it leaves you feeling dirty and often times it can twist your sense of reality. We become DE-sensitized to this vicious, animal-like behaviour.

    Thank God we have good, wholesome shows like the Twilight Zone to “cleanse our palate”, as you and I so often say.

    • I couldn’t agree more, my friend. It takes talent, imagination and patience to craft a gripping story, but when you do, you find there’s no need for the shock tactics that are every hack’s stock in trade. How sad that such talent is always in short supply, and that even GOOD writers feel pressured to be “edgy” and “dark.”

      And as you suggest, we’re eventually numbed to these graphic depictions. Like junkies, we need more to get that elusive “high.” Yet, as you say, how do we feel afterwards? Compare the satisfaction we feel after seeing a Twilight Zone to the battered sensation one experiences in the wake of the carnage or pornography that passes for “entertainment” these days. It is indeed a modern-day Roman circus, worsened by the fact that it can reach many more millions and that it can be replayed endlessly.

      TZ is indeed a good tonic — and a powerful reminder that what we imagine always trumps what we’re shown.

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