EARLY in the movie "The Silence of the Lambs," a Federal Bureau of Investigation official enlists an eager trainee to help in tracking a serial killer. As he prepares to send the young woman to interview an imprisoned psychopath who might offer clues, he asks her, "Do you spook easily?" Then he adds,"Be very careful with Hannibal Lecter. Never forget what he is. He's a monster." The cannibalistic Lecter is hardly the only fictional monster stalking the land this spring. Indeed, the question "Do you spook easily?" could serve as a litmus test for the entire nation as serial killers rampage through blood-spattered films like "The Silence of the Lambs" and the forthcoming "A Kiss Before Dying" and novels like Brett Easton Ellis's "American Psycho."
So hideous is the torture and dismemberment of women in Mr. Ellis's book that public outrage prompted the original publisher, Simon & Schuster, to cancel publication. Women's groups are now boycotting the new publisher, Vintage, whose executives have scrapped Ellis's publicity tour and eliminated advertising.
Yet the 26-year-old Ellis pretends not to understand the furor. Although Norman Mailer describes Ellis's protagonist as "the most demented killer ever to appear in the pages of a serious American novel," Ellis told The New York Times: "I had no idea the book would provoke the reception it's gotten, and I still don't quite get it."
Across the Atlantic, Frances Hegarty, a respected British crime novelist, is similarly puzzled and defensive about criticism of the child abuse she portrays in her new novel, "The Playroom." The first five pages, graphically describing a father's savage cruelty to his four-year-old daughter, are "almost unendurable," according to The Times of London. A well-known woman novelist in Britain has reportedly refused to review the book. Ms. Hegarty admits she was "shocked at first" by the reaction of friends and associates, but adds, "I'm not going to say I regret writing this. I don't."
How much violence is too much? And when is a certain measure of violence socially redeeming, serving a particular theme within a specific context?
The answers to those questions create gray areas that must be measured individually by readers and audiences. But lines, however arbitrary, have to be drawn. Without distinctions that say "Thus far and no farther," writers and filmmakers create an amoral world of violence and chaos without boundaries - a world like Ellis's. Even in the critically acclaimed "The Silence of the Lambs," moviegoers' fascination with the personality of the psychopath risks glamorizing - or at least diminishing - the horror o f his victims' fate.
Ellis has argued that Americans, at least those in their 20s, have become so inured to violence that they are "basically unshockable." He also suggests that the extreme violence in movies, books, and some heavy-metal and rap music reflects a "need to be terrified."
In a violent culture, writers and dramatists will continue to test that "need," pushing the limits of terror and insisting that art simply imitates life. But at what point does life also imitate art? At what point do the pervasive images of violence depicted on celluloid and paper in the name of "good entertainment" fuel the very violence they are portraying?
From Sophocles' "Oedipus" to Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" to Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," violence has maintained a powerful presence on stage and in fiction. But what prevails finally is the humane responses of pity, remorse, and horror to the acts of violence.
Ellis - and though he goes to excess he is not alone - deliberately takes an aloof, unfeeling stance as if the object is to be "cool." The only thing worth registering shock over, it seems, is the fact that anyone in the '90s could still be shocked.
But to witness the shocking without being shocked is a working definition of being dehumanized. If readers and spectators, the final tastemakers, become brothers and sisters of numbness with the amoral antiheroes themselves, we can no longer blame Ellis or anyone else. We, too, will have joined the monsters, and like him, the price we pay will be moral obliviousness - we too will no longer "get it."