Do we need so much shock and gore on TV?

As the latest splatter-happy show starts on the small screen, Gerard Gilbert wonders why viewers, far from being sated, are still baying for blood and guts

"The following programme contains violent scenes which some viewers might find distressing," the continuity announcer warned on Sky Living last week – and I could say the same about the following article. The squeamish may wish to turn the page or click away now.

Sky Living, as promised (or threatened), plunged us headlong into a tableau vivant in which a naked man had been placed against his will in a grain silo with scores of other naked men. Their bodies had been stitched together, forming a patchwork pleasing to the silo's owner, an artistic type, it would seem, with half an eye on the Turner Prize. In order to make good his escape, the prisoner had to rip himself from the stitches attaching him to the other bodies, tearing great gashes in his flesh in the process.

All in all, it was just another bloody day in the world of the American television show Hannibal, the television prequel to the book and movie franchise about cannibalistic sociopath Dr Hannibal Lecter (played in this version by the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen). Now into its second series, the makers of Hannibal have already served up an "Amuse-Bouche" (each episode is named after a course in a gourmet banquet) in which a crazed chemist induces comas in diabetics before encasing them in fertiliser and growing mushrooms on their decomposing bodies; Heston Blumenthal, eat your heart out – figuratively speaking, I should stress in the circumstances.

'Hannibal' TV series for NBC 'Hannibal' TV series for NBC Then there's the terminally-ill insomniac who, in order to get to sleep at night, kills people and cuts the skin off their backs to give them angel wings, so they can watch over his bed as he slumbers. Or how about the cellist who has his throat cut open and filled with a cello so he can be played like a musical instrument? Hopefully not coming to Britain's Got Talent any day soon.

Now, obviously anyone seeking out a television show called Hannibal in 2014 knows they can expect big-top sadism, but what about Hobbity fantasy fans wandering innocently into Game of Thrones – HBO's adaptation of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire? They will have witnessed – among countless acts of rape and incest (sometimes together) – toddlers hanging on the walls of Winterfell, a pregnant woman fatally stabbed in the uterus, an incestuous royal affair witnessed by a boy who is then tossed from a tower, and Theon Greyjoy having his penis cut off.

But then George RR Martin's books are violent – despite the author sharing a pair of initials with JRR Tolkien, a devout Christian who would have despaired at such unabashed pagan cruelty. But even Martin was moved last month to issue a statement distancing his book from a rape scene in an episode entitled "Breaker of Chains". The scene was intended to be disturbing, he blogged, but not "for the wrong reasons".

From tonight, Game of Thrones has a stablemate on Sky Atlantic – the John Logan-created monster mash-up Penny Dreadful, in which vampires and other gothic ghouls are at large in Victorian London. On the evidence of the first episode, Penny Dreadful hugs many of the tropes of the new breed of splatter-happy television shows, with dead babies, rotting corpses and so on. But it's mild stuff compared with perhaps the most gleefully lurid show currently on television, American Horror Story – "gleefully" being the operative word (and "operative" being another operative word) as this shameless shock-fest is from the creator of Glee and Nip/Tuck, Ryan Murphy.

Murphy's anthology-horror series has produced some of the most eye-popping (literally on one occasion) images ever screened in a television drama, from the comparatively tame poker-up-the-rectum and bleach enemas to a woman aborting her own baby with a coat-hanger (Call the Midwife this is not) and Ian McShane playing a Santa impersonator who ties up families with their Christmas decorations before raping them. But then my remit is not to parade outrage, but to ask how television became so graphically violent in the first place – and why people enjoy watching such perverse, super-sick imagery.

The "how" is fairly straightforward – it's partly good old market forces. Paid-for cable channels in America such as HBO, Showtime and Starz, with only subscribers to please instead of advertisers, have been busy distancing themselves from the networks not only artistically, with morally and narratively complex series such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men, but also with greater freedom to undress actors and to splatter them with gore. Television drama hasn't just become high art; it's gone low-down porno. Shows such as The Walking Dead and Dexter have pushed the boundaries on gore, even if, conversely, Dexter's brilliantly witty opening credits (watch them online if you've never seen them) proved that suggestion can be more powerful than showing.

'Game of Thrones' TV series for HBO 'Game of Thrones' TV series for HBO Anyway, cable has been able to put clear blue water – or rather buckets of fake red blood – between itself and a Hollywood ever more skewed towards a teenage and family audience – a demographic that will be reached only if the movie doesn't get slapped with an "R" ("Restricted") rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

Interestingly, this is the opposite of what happened in 1968, when the MPAA replaced the oppressive Hays Code, and Hollywood was suddenly free to depict sex and violence – and begin at last to differentiate itself from its great upstart rival, television. This new freedom had its greatest flowering – if flowering is the right word – with the release of The Exorcist and Tobe Hooper's remorseless The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, before tastes changed back to the sort of good, old-fashioned popcorn entertainment that Steven Spielberg had started to supply.

As to why people like the gross-out stuff, there are several theories. According to a study by Jeffrey Goldstein of Utrecht University (The Attractions of Violent Entertainment), graphic depictions of gore mostly appeal – unsurprisingly – to adolescent males, and more especially to groups of adolescent males. It is primarily a communal activity, and if they do watch these television shows alone, they are almost certain to talk about them to their friends, online or otherwise. It's a social, peer-bonding activity and rite of passage, a chance for young men to test their mettle as well as flirt with taboos.

A graphic image from 'The Walking Dead' A graphic image from 'The Walking Dead' Not that television violence is without female admirers, though – Goldstein described spending an evening with a group of teenage American girls and boys watching horror films they themselves had selected. "The boys and girls expressed their distress in different ways," he observed. "When the story suggested impending bloodshed, the girls would look away and talk animatedly about unrelated topics – school, friends, parties. The boys apparently didn't feel free to look away; while still gazing determinedly at the screen, they distanced themselves emotionally from the action by commenting upon the special effects and how they were done."

You can go online to find out how the special effects are produced: American Horror Story's designer Christien Tinsley, for example, is there describing the latex transfers that apply knife gashes to the actors' skin; or how fake blood – Kensington Gore, as it's known in the trade – has developed from a simple mix of corn syrup and food colouring to an alcohol-based substance known as Fleet Street Bloodworks, after Sweeney Todd, one suspects, rather than the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry. And more and more gore today is being faked by computers – cheap, quick and with endless potential for visceral artistry.

Another of Goldstein's observations stressed the importance of context in watching extreme violence – people want to experience in safety the kinds of emotions that are usually associated with danger. Conversely, there is simple, plain old-fashioned sensation-seeking – especially in an ever-safer society. Is it any coincidence that the rate of violent crime has dropped in Western countries while a taste for vicarious violence seems to be rising?

'Dexter' TV series Control is as important as context, Goldstein discovered. In one study, subjects who viewed a violent video tape while holding a remote control were in less distress than those who viewed the same tape without one. And we don't like it too real; subjects didn't want to watch a steer being slaughtered, for example. But the study that has alarmed society's moral watchdogs is the one that found that people adjusted to the arousal generated by violent images and that they needed ever-increasing violence and terror for entertainment purposes.

"Game of Thrones is deliberately escalating its levels of violence and sex to outdo competitors," Dan Gainor, a spokesman for the right-wing American Media Research Centre, was quoted recently as saying. "And that means the next show will be even worse. Remember, what starts on pay cable moves to free cable and then to broadcast shows."

He may have a point – after all, one of the most shocking things about Hannibal is not the increasingly rococo uses it finds for dead bodies, but the fact that it's made by NBC, the advertiser-supported US network once responsible for Friends and Little House on the Prairie.

'Penny Dreadful' starts tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic, 'Hannibal' continues on Saturdays on Sky Living and 'Game of Thrones' continues on Mondays on Sky Atlantic

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