“Real life” crime shows are the latest rage on American television. Feeding on this fury, there is now for sale an encyclopedia of crime, where one can examine the “true stories” of deranged persons like Jeffrey Dahmer. The first book in the series is titled Serial Killers and was out in time for last Christmas. Anything dangerous, destructive, or (best of all) perverse seems these days to have a series devoted to it, and a willing and waiting audience. There are shows that follow real police officers around as they corner criminals—the latter often of the hard-bitten drug dealer or titillating prostitute variety. The entire spectrum of tragedy, criminal or accidental, that can befall one is now grist for the media mill. New shows seem to be appearing every day, each offering a glimpse of a world that is dark and horrifying.

The thrust of many of these oftentimes lurid productions is that disaster and terror can afflict anyone, at almost any time. Taken collectively, and including the proliferating talk shows and news programs, these broadcasts create a climate of fear, and the trust that should exist between neighbors and friends dissolves. Even a loved one could be a maniacal killer, the shows instruct us, and trusting someone else is putting your life in his hands. Having trustworthy relatives is not even a sure guarantee against disaster, as the several “rescue” shows now on television, which concentrate on purely natural disasters, attest.

On the one hand, perhaps some good is served by these broadcasts. Americans have lived too long in wealth and safety and have forgotten how precarious is humanity’s physical existence. Having dispensed with every sort of instruction that attempted to explain the facts of tragedy and violence in terms of parables and moral truths (such as the Bible, McGuffey’s readers, and traditional fairy tales), a gap needs to be filled, and there is a chance that these shows provide a partial remedy. But, due to the media’s own moral ambiguity, it is doubtful whether these shows will have any lasting positive effect. For although seeming to disapprove of criminal behavior, the genre is supported by human evil and thrives on the violence-addicted nature of its audience. It is not surprising, therefore, that these shows claim to provide nothing more than entertainment or “information.” It is not easy to disregard one’s benefactor.

What redeeming value there is in the new breed of “true crime” shows is evident in one of the oldest of the genre, America’s Most Wanted. This show has somewhat revived the American tradition of vigilantism. More than 200 criminals have been apprehended due to the exposure their crimes have received. But again the message is mixed; the difference between the hunters and the hunted becomes muted and fluid. The criminal could be a father, brother, sister, trusted friend, or any other in whom people might place their confidence. While one episode might showcase the activities of fearless police officers collaring the bad guys, another features cops on a rampage, abusing their authority and taking advantage of those whom they are supposed to protect.

Another facet of this fury is evidenced by a show that has aired for several years now but has only recently gained a sizable following. The show is American Gladiators, and for the first time last year, action figures of the show’s major participants were marketed as Christmas presents, a sure sign of popularity (as well as decadence). This program combines all the violence of the “true crime” shows with none of the actual pain, although even in the crime shows almost all of the criminal and violent acts are “simulations.” In Gladiators, two contestants compete against each other and the gladiators in a variety of pseudo-martial events. The gladiators bear such names as “Gold,” “Gemini,” “Star,” and the like. Their outfits, both male and female, are suitably revealing to satisfy the appetite of the crowd, which is adolescent in both age and maturity.

Mixing violence with sensuality is nothing new, of course, and Richard Weaver long ago explained that the rise of sensational journalism is always the result of “man’s loss of points of reference, [of] his determination to enjoy the forbidden in the name of freedom.” In times past, a Legion of Decency could be depended upon to preserve some sort of standards and to keep a watch for egregious breaches of public morality. But these days, those who would protest are silent; what is worse, apparently the general populace does not see anything wrong in letting their own children (mostly boys and young men) watch scantily clad men and women cavort for an hour. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem put it in the fourth century: “Be not interested in the madness of the shows, where thou wilt behold the wanton gestures of players, carried on with mockeries and all unseemliness.” Now, it seems, such madness is relished.

No wild animals or devoured Christians are in attendance as of yet, and no one actually gets hurt, a situation which reveals a certain amount of cowardice and squeamishness on the part of the viewers. At least the Romans had the stomach to watch real violence; we are satisfied with heavily padded yet lightly clothed “warriors” shooting tennis balls at one another. A democratic touch is added to the show by the contestant interviews, wherein we learn that most of the contestants are just normal folk, trying to get along. No one seems to have reflected upon the irony of providing “gladiatorial” games, no matter how ersatz, in what is supposed to be a republic.

Perhaps it is better to think of this new trend as looking not back to a pagan past but forward to a hi-tech future. The literature of science fiction has long had as a staple feature the idea that in the future man himself will become the object of sport. Indeed, these latter-day gladiatorial contests resemble nothing so much as the video games with which children spend so much of their time. Both glorify senseless violence with no recognition of either the pain or the loss of life involved. At least the pagans had a sort of innocence; their moral code, while perhaps not complete, was coherent. In a world entering what has been called a “post-Christian” era, innocence is no excuse, and so we are left with just plain moral disintegration. As Hilaire Belloc pointed out some years ago, a post-Christian world will surely be darker than the pre-Christian. No longer buoyed by a framework of moral values, social constraints, or honest pastimes, it is no wonder that people have turned to such violence and voyeurism. Christians facing wild animals in the arena may make a comeback.