Dementors: The Emotional Impact of The Entertainment Business

Guest Writer: Duncan Richardson

The camera picks out a tear rolling down the man’s cheek as he stares at the person in the opposite chair.  To highlight the emptiness of their lives, they are being filmed in an abandoned warehouse.  The camera zooms in.  The tear glistens in the spot lights and the tension builds.  What next?  Will the man break down?  Blow up?  

If you think of JK Rowling’s’ Dementors as fictional monsters, just look around your local TV program guide.  I don’t know where Rowling got the idea from, but there are creatures that consume human emotions all around us.  Every day we are offered a smorgasbord of sadness, rage, jealousy, resentment and lust, just to mention a few.  Reality TV depends on provoking and displaying strong feelings and the audience seems to lap it up.

Maybe there’s nothing new in this.  We used to have public punishments, from the stocks where miscreants could be pelted with rotten fruit to executions where people’s last moments alive were viewed avidly by hundreds, sometimes thousands of spectators. Hangings used to draw big crowds and the press always focussed on how the condemned behaved, as if there was something to be learned from that.  Some parents believed the show was educational too and took their children to watch.  One of the earliest ‘children’s’ books published in Britain features a father taking his children to a hanging as a moral lesson.  Thomas Hardy saw a woman being executed and she stayed in his mind, becoming Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

So perhaps reading fiction is the same as watching a cooking show where the emphasis is on how much despair and anger can be generated in the studio.  Both are vicarious consumptions of other people’s lives, although fictional characters only experience fictional suffering.  But what about the real people that we devour on reality programs? No one is forced to go on those shows. Presumably, people know what they are getting into.  Yet there is something about the ‘Reality TV’ phenomenon that I find disturbing.  It isn’t the medium.  There are shows that genuinely qualify for the label ‘reality’ where the cameras explore real problems in real situations.  OCD Houseis one of many examples. Watching those people who had volunteered to allow a TV crew to follow them around and ask questions, you couldn’t help but be impressed by their courage.  They gave a powerful impression of what is must be like to live with an inner voice that never lets you rest.  Perhaps I was consuming their courage and frustration but you could also call it learning and there is a difference.

The question comes down to exploitation and purpose.  When something is set up to produce competition, humiliation and failure for someone, no matter how willing their participation, we are back at the freak shows of the not-too-distant past, consuming the suffering of others, just for entertainment.  Millions of viewers would disagree, as the ratings show but the crowds around the guillotine were huge too, and most people today would not argue for a return to those days.

Some of the participants complain about the way they are treated on and off the set and that is not surprising.  They are being used after all, like any consumable. For the producers and directors of these shows, the participants are like puppets, to be manipulated at will. With dreams of fame and stardom, the people sign up and find themselves often chewed up and spat out, set up to be mocked on national television or threatened if they close to follow a script of their own devising.  Perhaps those who refuse to be puppets and speak out might warn some hopefuls watching and waiting for their opportunity.

I would like those shows to disappear but perhaps we need to understand them better first.  And I’m not advocating that these shows ever be banned.  That would only send them underground.  It would be great though if we could all switch channels or turn off and interact with people we know, instead of consuming the emotions of strangers.

About Duncan Richardson:

Duncan Richardson is a writer of fiction, history, haiku, radio drama and educational texts. He teaches English as a Second Language part time, in Brisbane, Australia.