Una Mullally: Videoed acts of violence now terrifyingly common

What was once alarming is now seen as ‘content’ in our film-everything culture

Can you remember the first time you saw someone die on a screen? Someone real? I can. It was during the rolling news coverage of 9/11.

Sure, we've all seen dead people on screen before. Think of "dead bodies", and the first thing that probably flashes through your mind are the anonymous twisted limbs of Holocaust victims.

The pictures of human death, genocides, famine, sniper fire, natural disasters, were traditionally framed by news cameras and edited by broadcasters, the act of death either about to come to pass or already over.

Hypnotised by Sky News, I saw a body flutter almost peacefully from one of the windows of the Twin Towers. At first it looked like a small chunk of a building, a mangled window frame perhaps. But no, it was a person. They jumped, and they were gone.


Three years later, the images from the 2004 tsunami were so vast, that death became macro. We saw coastlines and islands devastated, not necessarily individuals. In 2011, during the Tohoku disaster – which is still almost too incredible to believe: an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown at a power plant – footage played on news networks of trucks being swept away like toys in a bath and people helplessly surfing their vehicles.

Citizen footage

With a few years of perspective, Tohoku and


were the tipping point for citizen-generated news footage of wide-scale death. Nearly 16,000 people died and a further 2,600 are still missing. In a country whose tourists are met with borderline xenophobic jokes when it comes to their apparent enthusiasm for cameras, the citizen footage was almost endless, as was the footage from news cameras. Houses on fire in the middle of oceans. Dogs wandering through deserted suburban streets.

There are times, we are told, where instances are so horrific they simply must be broadcast so people can understand the true brutality of what is unfolding. Emaciated children are pictured close to death on a sandy floor. Penny Marshall and Ian Williams reported from the Omarska death camp during the Bosnian war. Ebola-poisoned bodies roll into graves. A photograph recently captured a bomb in mid-air over Gaza. Death is the context, but it is not the depicted action. The "moment of death" has generally been circumnavigated. Until recently.

Something has changed. It feels as though every couple of weeks there’s another video of someone dying that becomes mainstream news. The internet does not have a conscientious editor protecting our horror by freezing right before a bullet enters someone’s chest. Videos of deaths, gore and violence have lived online since the early days of the web. There were rumours of snuff movies hiding in dark corners online. Juvenile gore disseminated to provoke horror became message-board currency.

But now, videos of gore, horror and death are mainstream. Much of this media barbarism is driven by the crazed brutality of the Islamic State. Throats are slit, prisoners engulfed in flames, gay people thrown from the tops of buildings, decapitated heads posed with.

The contagion of these images and videos has influence, given the trickle of young people from Britain, the US, Ireland and across Europe to Syria and Iraq.

From Russia, dashboard cameras record bizarre road traffic accidents. In the US, CCTV footage and smart phones hastily grabbed from pockets show black men being shot, beaten or dying at the hands of police officers.

In Paris, news organisations rushed to edit the video of a terrorist shooting a police officer dead in a street. In Dublin violent street attacks are videoed. There is no time now between something happening and someone covering it. Everything is filmed. And death and violence are part of that everything.

I’m not sure at what point it became acceptable to disseminate footage of people dying, but there has certainly been an increase in production of ultraviolence, and therefore an increase in its consumption.

While the torture porn trend in horror films has somewhat abated, video games are increasingly real in their depiction of violence and killing. Pornography is increasingly violent. Social media has provided a platform to share many things, death and murder among them.

Inevitably, there has been a numbing of sorts towards filmed real-life brutality. When the beating of Rodney King was filmed and broadcast, it felt like an extraordinary event. Today, videoed acts of terrible violence and killings are terrifyingly common.

In the 1990s, an increase in CCTV became a touchstone for an Orwellian representation of surveillance. But now we surveil each other, on GoPros and selfie sticks, watching concerts and penalty kicks through screens.

Film-everything culture

The instinct to record is becoming as immediate as simply to watch something unfolding. Death too has become tangled up in this “film-everything” culture. When people are killed we can watch it. In many cases, this will convey a horror and perhaps reinforce a humane reaction. But in other cases, the instinct to watch is voyeuristic. And the more we watch, the more desensitised we become. Something once terrifying and rare, is now “content”.