Undoubtedly, films about terrorism propagate fear. But so do films about haunted houses. Fear that stems from a theatrical portrayal of terrorism differs from fear generated by a horror film only because the former reproduces an actual event. While the average viewer believes it unlikely that his attic contains a demon, a constant inundation of threatening news reports about terrorism renders him less uncertain that his workplace contains a bomb. Although theatrical portrayals of terrorist events do facilitate terrorists by furthering fear, they do not act alone. If the press serves as “oxygen of publicity” to the flames of terrorism, then movies are like additional logs—strengthening the fire when added on occasion, but not directly responsible for its endurance. Government and media construct conditions that determine much of how audiences perceive the entertainment industry’s product.

While cinematic portrayals of terrorism deepen fear, they rarely initiate it. Government officials and news media respond to acts of terror far before the entertainment industry does, setting up the framework within which the public understands terrorism. In Packaging Terrorism, Susan D. Moeller illustrates how a government’s response to a terrorist attack sets the tone in which the public understands it. She cites New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s assertion that after 9/11, “the administration portrayed America as a nation under threat from every direction” (184). Krugman’s column illustrates that as time passed, the government continued to call for absurd responses— bombing Iran and uniting against “Islamofacism” (1) — that incite a sense of pure desperation among the public.

And the press—perhaps inadvertently mirroring government response or perhaps simply trying to garner viewers— contributes to an overstated public fear of terrorists. Phrases like “radical Islamist,” excessively extensive coverage of only selected events, and even the tone of reporters’ voices all generate fear. Fear, for media, is the norm, rather than an exceptional response to select situations. These types of responses render the emotions created by film about terrorism far too deeply intertwined with other forms of communication to analyze alone.

Although some viewers may be too young to have witnessed press coverage of an event later portrayed through theater, this framework of understanding does not deal in specific events. One does not need to have lived through the events at the Munich Olympics to perceive the gravity of terrorism after watching Munich. In fact, just as Munich does, films about terrorist acts often include their own portrayals of the press. By illustrating families and individuals glued to the television as reports air about the attack in Munich, Steven Spielberg reproduces the sentiment that news broadcasts are to be taken seriously and received with wide eyes. While Spielberg does implicitly promote the audience’s failure to critically assess the news, this failure would not exist for anyone to promote if not for the weighty and overplayed tone the press employs.

One might argue that since movies serve entertainment purposes and news serves information purposes, fear and dramatization belong in entertainment. However, the lines are never so clearly drawn, and this lack of division sparks questions. Do movies about factual events inform viewers? Should movies about factual events inform viewers? In what respects should the original event be objectively replicated, and it what respects can it be dramatized? Which facts are appropriate to include?

To answer these questions, one must first understand and analyze the objective of the film industry. While goals vary from director to director, movies are typically produced to profit through the fulfillment of some public desire. In “Fear in the News: A Discourse of Control,” David L. Altheide and R. Sam Michalowski explain the audience’s “expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of the effective environment” (1). That is, news viewers don’t care about a story unless it contains a threat to be conquered. Without that hope of satisfaction, they have little reason to watch the news.

This phenomenon carries over to the film industry. Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychology professor at the University of Utrecht, explains that people watch horror films to fulfill a need for excitement and intensity of emotions. However, films about non-fictional terrorist events take this fulfillment a step further. Goldstein also explains that the practice of sensation-seeking, “the enjoyment of stimulation or physiological arousal,” creates an audience for fear.

And while horror may seem at home in the back of an old cemetery or the corners of an abandoned warehouse, fear within ordinary, realistic situations, releases chemicals that bring sensation-seeking to a new level. The victims of terrorism—and of counterterrorism—in Munich haven’t been fleeing zombies for half of the movie. As Moeller points out in Packaging Terrorism, “the deliberate randomness of their targeting of civilians is what makes [terrorists’] violence so arresting” (184). Thus, as long as government and news aid terrorists by inducing public fear with headlines like “Where will they strike next?’ the film industry will fulfill the public desire to observe fear within everyday situations from the comfort of a theater.

However, directors often cite loftier desires than making money by fulfilling desires. In a Time Magazine interview, Spielberg says that while he wasn’t “making this picture because the message can do some good for the world,” he also “didn’t make this movie to make money.” Rather, he says, he wanted to tell a story that others didn’t have the courage to get “out in the ether.” After making the movie, Spielberg facilitated a project in which he distributed video cameras to 125 Israeli children and to 125 Palestinian children and instructed them to make short films about their lives. Then, they exchanged the videos. (“Munich: The Interview). These types of actions demonstrate that while Hollywood does play upon public desire for income, making money isn’t its sole objective. Political context created by government and news transforms neutral or good intentions into avenues for terrorists to spread fear.

Spielberg cites a desire to “get that story told.” While it makes perfect sense for filmmakers to be interested in storytelling, it is interesting to note that those who usually deal in fiction have such a great interest in spreading awareness. While admirable of Spielberg and other directors to help to fill a void of knowledge in society, doesn’t the existence of that void indicate that the press is too busy “fear-mongering” (Moeller 184) to complete its job?

The theatrics of Hollywood do get tangled with the ethics of awareness-spreading in unsettling ways; one of Munich’s bloodiest scenes involves a portion of a blown up human corpse hanging from a moving ceiling fan. Details like this spark debate about whether gore is necessary or appropriate, although it is undoubtedly accurate. However, a Guardian article discusses the “firestorm of controversy about its political sympathies and historical accuracy.” Discrepancies range from factual inconsistencies like the number of agents involved in assassinations, to major claims, such as Spielberg’s portrayal of the spirit behind the attacks. (MacAskill). Further research conducted on Hollywood’s portrayal of terrorism found similar discrepancies in a number of films, and concluded “that real life is much more multi-faceted than the movies” (Wagge). While arguments against censorship suggest that filmmakers and viewers alike are okay with occasional bloodshed, the context in which this violence is understood should be a clearer one. If filmmakers appealing to a hunger for fear were not the sole means of spreading awareness, the movies would become a place for informed citizens to stimulate their emotions after reading the paper. Whether movies serve terrorists as well as producers depends upon the degree to which viewers are previously informed.

Works Cited:

Altheide, David L. and R. Sam Michalowski. “Fear in the News: A Discourse of Control.” The Sociological Quarterly. 40.3. (1999): 475-503. Web. Feb. 6 2010.

Black, Ian and Ewan MacAskill. “Munich: Mossad breaks cover.” Guardian 26 Jan. 2007. Web.

Goldstein, Jeffrey. Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment. Oxford University Press, New York, 1998. Web.

Krugman, Paul. “Fearing Fear Itself.” New York Times 29 Oct. 2007. Web.

Moeller, Susan D. Packaging Terrorism. Singapore: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Print

“Munich: The Interview: His Prayer for Peace.” Time 14 Dec. 2005. Web.

Wagge, Jordan. “A Captive Audience: The Portrayal of Terrorism and Terrorists in Large-Scale Fictional Hollywood Media.” http://www1.appstate.edu/~stefanov/proceedings/wagge.htm. Web.