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A scene in a Tarantino film in which Brad Pitt's character gets his scalp

I write crime fiction. Not too gory I hope, though I do try to chuck at least one dead body down a deep metaphorical well at the bottom of each story.

Regular readers will know (spoiler alert) that the number of dead stiffs per book has been rising steadily as the ‘Moss Reid’ series progresses. It sort of comes with the territory. Oh well.

The Crime Writers’ Association did a survey of its UK members back in 2011 that found the average body count in UK crime novels was exactly 8.38. Run that by me again?

The CWA asked how many people they had killed off over the past year (2010). The average body count was 8.38 and the most people ‘killed’ by one author was 150.

Such a precise figure to keep one awake at night: 8.38 bodies. What do you do with 0.38 of a body? Answers on a bloodstained postcard please.

Murder methods

I can’t find the CWA’s original survey; if anyone has a link to its methodology and full stats please let me know.The survey’s press release also lists “the most inventive means of killing” that year (again, I’m not sure who judged this or how it was defined).

These murder methods included:

  • Taxidermied alive
  • Sliced to death in an olive machine
  • Poisoned with soluble aspirin and Ribena
  • A euphonium rigged to land on victim’s head
  • Superglue in mouth and nostrils to suffocate
  • Bees in a wicketkeeper’s glove leading to anaphylactic shock
  • Trapped inside a Damien Hurst style art installation
  • Stabbed through the heart with a spangly stiletto…

Feeling queasy? I’m not. If anything, the list made me smile rather than shiver. That probably says something about our relationship to all those horrible deaths when we all know it’s only fiction.

At least these methods and numbers are referring to crime novels in all their diversity. Unlike books, though, many TV crime dramas seem to have a one-track obsession at the moment with young female victims who are tortured before their slaughter and gruesome disposal.

It really is becoming a (sorry) done-to-death trope. As John Banville / Benjamin Black put it last year:

I mean, they nearly all start off with some young woman being raped and murdered and cut up and thrown in a dustbin

Body counts in films

Body counts count. Or should that be “Body count counts”? Anyway, it counts for many obvious reasons…

  • A murder mystery without at least one murder is probably not much of a mystery, and your book will have many complaints under consumer protection legislation
  • Even starting with just one body can be tricky – many a writer has begun their book with the one murder then found the middle of his or her book beginning to sag (it’s crime fiction’s equivalent of “the soggy bottom” in a baking contest). The murderer can get itchy feet too. Time for another one….
  • Yes, a series of dead bodies. Now that might mean a serial killer, a compulsion, a pattern to unravel…

So at a simple narrative level bodies do count. Of course they do – they propel the story along.

While there might not be a website dedicated to counting up the corpses in crime novels, there is at least one discussion board that keeps track of body counts in films: MovieBodyCounts.Proboards.com.

The pages have a touch of the fan and the fanatical about them, as they tot up the bodies. The online forum that it has its disputes –  far more than I guess you’d get about the more cut-and-dried (and possibly buried alive) world of a novel. So the site provides handy guidelines and rules for how to go about your counts, along the lines of…

  • Can you see a dead body plainly? Count it
  • Can you see a mortal hit? Count it
  • Did someone die on screen? Count it
  • Implied kills  – ones that are only talked about but not shown – and photos of dead bodies don’t count
  • What about poor old cyborgs? The rule of thumb (we’re getting into deep Blade Runner replicant thumb territory here) is “Do they bleed?”
  • In war films, don’t count unspecified piles of or strewn bodies unless they are clear and countable (“head shots” is the exact term the site uses)
  • Ships, buildings, vehicles, houses, planets, universes etc can be counted but unless an “on-screen kill / hit / death” is shown to an individual body it can’t be added to your final body count tally. File them under “Misc” instead
  • Keep human and creature counts separate. Add these together in the final tally
  • Don’t count deleted material on DVDs (the “extras”, outtakes etc)

Zombie films have additional guidelines. For example, if a zombie is seen eating a human, that counts as a kill. Unless, of course, that human comes back as a zombie.

One person can only be counted as one death. Not twice as a human and a zombie. They are still the same character whether human or undead. Their final ‘death’ is the count.

Body count and censorship

Another scene from that Tarantino masterpiece of understatementBut did you ever wonder why body counts are often mentioned within censorship criteria and censoring debates?

It’s as if sheer numbers can quantify – and somehow pin down – the “shock value” of a movie in order to assess its suitability for younger viewers or, indeed, for any viewer.

Do I have to go into the numerous Hitchcock films that – like many a good crime novel – have a bodycount of 1.0, a single solitary murder, an act that’s often implied rather than shown in its entirety on screen, yet it has shocked us to bits?

Or what about many crime tales where non-death scenes come across as far more shocking than the killings per se (I’m thinking of rats and other stuff in Pierre Lemaitre’s recent bestseller Alex)?

Body counts alone, ripped out of context, tell us little. Fiction is not algebra, not a crude numbers game.

A writer can destroy an entire planet and nobody might mourn its passing. Or they can deal with the slow, sad death of an old man due to poverty, malnutrition and hypothermia, and treat the death of this one fictional character as a far more disturbing and horrific crime.

In my country the Irish Film Classification Office (formerly the Film Censor until a rebranding exercise in 2008) continues to cite “body count” in its judgements.

Of films released in 2010, for example, it describes Knight and Day (with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz), From Paris with Love (John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Melissa Mars), and Robert Schwentke’s Red as all having a “high body count”, while Machete has an “OTT body count”.

They do not specify what constitutes “high” or “OTT”. Is it three bodies? Eight point three eight? Ten bodies? A hundred? Twice that?

Despite this faith in numbers, despite having presumably sat down to do all these counts (and to do it on our behalf, for all of us, all citizens in this state who need to be protected), these guardians and classifiers and counters rarely talk in exact figures.

That’s a key difference between the way they and that movie count website do body counts and talk about them. The movie count website is numerically highly exact, some would call it almost trainspottery in its attention to detail. Yet these details are described with a sort of pleasure and affection rather than censoriousness.

The censors’ reports arrive from the viewing room with vague references to “high body counts”, as if this will give an air of scientific objectivity, that a film has been measured and something to do with its quality has been captured in precise numbers, numbers that they won’t or can’t be bothered to give.

I’d have more trust in the “Tomatometer” on Rottentomatoes.com. You know, the thing that aggregates film review scores.

If this really were a numbers game, if body counts really did count in that quantitative sense, sure they’d have to ban Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of The Ten Commandments (despite it scoring a whopping 91% on the Tomatometer).

Yet the latest DVD version of the Charlton Heston film got a clean bill from the classifiers in Dublin on 17 December 2012. Not a mention in the “Other / Comments” box of body counts. Its only comment is the word “None”.

Screenshot from the film classification office's website giving The Ten Commandments a clean general certificate

I’ll spare you the details of the rising death toll during this biblical epic – the horrible pustular plague, the fires and pestilence, the mass drownings of the entire Egyptian army in the Red Sea, the demise of the Golden Calf followers in a massive explosion, the slaughter of all the first-born by the Angel of Death in a glowing green mist like a gas attack in the first World War trenches etc etc etc – and that’s only Disc 1.

So I’m glad that’s all sorted then. Tick the boxes, this is not violence. In the Old Testament violence doesn’t exist. There may be a dead body or two (or two hundred thousand), but who’s counting? The film classifiers clearly aren’t.

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Today’s post was inspired by a charming childhood memory of writer Victoria Blake. It was in her blog the other day, about war films and the first film she ever saw in a cinema: Where Eagles Dare (body count = 100) (and her blog post also steered me to the Movie Body Counts website).

Victoria’s mother had refused to take her to see the musical Oliver Twist (body count = 1?) which was also out at the time, in case she “might be traumatized by the scene near the end of the film when Bill Sykes falls off a roof and accidentally hangs himself”. Hence the child ends up watching Where Eagles Dare.

From highly operatic spaghetti westerns to Tarantino’s WWII masterpiece Inglourious Basterds – a tribute to his favourite war films including Where Eagles Dare – there are plenty of classic movies with cartoon violence and humongous bodycounts. Great stuff too (though I did squirm the first time I saw the scalping scenes by the Basterds).

One of my scariest moments in those old WWII movies is that bit where the jeep or truck has to drive across the desert to sneak up behind enemy lines, and somebody gets out to have a quick fag or a pint of Carlsberg or what have you (they never seemed to go for a Jimmy Riddle in the old B&W days of the movies – and toilets didn’t exist back then either), and there’s this patch of quicksand.

Yes, quicksand.

So seeing as it’s quicksand, your man simply has to walk over and fall in of course. He’s not a major character, you see.

Somebody else tries to throw him a stick or belt or a length of rope, but it’s too late. He’s too far down and he’s a minor character. And now he’s sinking, sinking, down, down into the deadly sands.

His shoulders disappear, then an entire arm, and his face, and finally his hand, going… going… one final finger, and then… nothing. No corpse, no body to count or to bury or to grieve over. Just silence. Because he has disappeared into an absolute celluloid nothingness. Now that’s freaky.

* * *

(* Boring statistical footnote: I’m assuming this “average” is what our maths class used to refer to as an arithmetic mean – although in this instance a median or mode might have been more appropriate –  and I can’t tell whether it includes or ignores the number of crime novels that have a body count of 0.0, or how the responses were collected, how representative the sample of respondents was in terms of the overall population of crime writers – and how large the sample was because that author who’d killed 150 people would seriously skew the arithmetic mean in a smallish sample – and how these respondents were initially contacted, or how potential participants were defined – other than that “members across the UK took part”. The rehashed press release on various websites gives no indication of whether these were confined to CWA members on full membership or also included provisional members, overseas members and others who possibly aren’t writers, such as associate members and those on a corporate membership).