Effects of Humorous Heroes and Villians in Violent Action Films

By Fynn Chester, Juan Pablo Sepulveda, Andrew Gutierrez, Jacob Ishikawa

Dr. Cynthia King

We conducted an interview with Dr. Cynthia King, a very well known professor of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. The Interview was based off of one of her publications called the Effects of Humorous Heroes and Villains in Violent Action Films.

Dr. King worked in a media violence research field prior to conducting this study. While working on media violence, she then took a course to elaborate on humor theory. The similarities between the two intrigued her enough that she combined the two during this study. During this time, however, there were movies coming out such as Pulp Fiction, and one liner Arnold Schwarzenegger movies where violence was at the forefront, but humor was a close second. Dr. King decided to research the effects that humor plays in these violent, and sometimes grotesque, action films. King goes on to describe how her curiosity was what attracted her to the topic and how presenting this to some of her classes gives students an understanding of the commitment, curiosity, and thinking process one must have as a research professional.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Dr. King describes how the background information is based on what we already know. Reviewing articles, other studies, and using key information to obtain a plethora of knowledge and information as the cornerstone of your research. King describes how you may already find an answer to a question you’re thinking about using as a hypothesis altogether and your understanding of the question at hand may be resolved before starting. By using this information to your advantage, you can refine and redetermine your hypothesis in a more quality manner. King studied how humor and violence wasn’t a new theory and that her previous knowledge on the topics had been short stemmed. Learning to love the process of examining an entire history of feelings and emotions among certain aspects of life. Designing a study that is well rounded is key and the goal of all researchers and publishers. Then having others review your research and study and giving you very helpful feedback, even about information that you may have already seen and adapted into your study. King compares her study to mystery movies and foreshadowing. A good mystery movie will leave you at the end looking back and saying you already had the answers, and you just had to finish the movie to see it. A bad mystery movie will leave you with open ended questions that have no result from the movie itself. The study should come to an answer at the end, whether it is negative or positive, but it shouldn’t end in more questions.

Dr. King states that her study was completely experimental, which allowed her to manipulate whichever part of the process she’d like. A survey, King says, is really only correlational, and cannot create causality. Taking films and editing the movie to have no humor at all allows for the manipulation in her survey, which resulted in varying answers for her study. The main difference between the control groups was that each viewed a different version of the same movie because of the editing. One control group viewed a movie which had been edited to show no humor for the hero, another was edited to show no humor for the villain. These manipulations created vast differences in the outcomes of how the viewer interpreted the film. In the bigger picture, the study aims to show what the effects on society may be, and that maybe violence mixed with humor can desensitize something that is wrong or not seen in everyday life. The true test of the experiment came after the movie when Dr. King had the control groups watch short videos of actual violence. King played two videos, one of the show Cops, where a squad car pulls up to two men in a violent altercation, and another video from Face of Death, a video compilation of people being hurt or hurting themselves.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day 1991

Villain humor made the movie more distressing for all viewers, and hero humor made the movie less distressing only for men. Women still had the distressing factor to the movie based on the perception of the movie. Also, finding a film that not everyone had seen was key to the experiment, because bias did not want to be included if participants had viewed a film before. The implication of using humor in violence actually may have worked better because it can make people view it in a more materialistic view. The idea that humorous cues in violent films indicates that whatever is being watched is “just a movie” and not reality allowed audiences to enjoy and appreciate the films.. The second aspect of the study showcases actual violence, but without any humor at all, because it is real life. Without humorous cues to precede the violence, audience reactions were different than expected. Being able to decipher the media research that happens and the effects it can have on populations was of utmost importance.

At the time the experiment was conducted, technology and programs were still in their infancy, so paper and pencil were the instruments used. While inputting the results and coding the participants to have statistical analysis is difficult, it used to be much harder due to the lack of technology at the time. The brainstorming and designing of the study will take much more time to prepare then actually putting it into action.

In Dr. King’s experience with film editing, it became much harder to actually learn a completely different skill just to be able to conduct a study. Without the technology to “point and click”, it was tedious and difficult and the study took quite some time to complete in full. In total, the experiment took one year from start to finish. Dr. King states she had a great, sometimes frustrating, experience. King found a new love for video editing, considering she had never edited film before. King also had to build her own code to gather the statistics. It was an experience that allowed her to grow as a person, instructor, and doctor.

If one is to take anything from this interview, it should be that perseverance and understanding should be at the forefront of one’s goals during an experiment. There will be times when one cannot fathom moving forward, finishing a task, gathering the right partners, or building an experiment…but if the motivation and determination is there, one can endure. Create, learn, and share. That is the true nature of experimentation.