Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 4

By Gordon Rugg

The first article in this short series examined how conflicting conventions and requirements can lead to a movie being unrealistic. The second article explored the pressures driving movie scripts towards unrealistically high signal to noise ratios, with few of the extraneous details that occur in real conversations. The third in the series examined how and why movies depict a world which requires the word “very” to describe it.

All of those themes are arguably about movies either selecting versions of reality, or depicting versions of reality which are simplified and/or unlikely. Those versions are unrealistic, but not actively wrong in the strict sense of the word. The underlying common theme is that they’re simplifying reality and/or exaggerating features of it.

Today’s article looks at a different aspect, where movies and games portray the world in a way that flatters and reassures the audience, regardless of how simplified or exaggerated the accompanying portrayal of the world might be. This takes us into the concepts of vicarious experience, of vicarious affiliations, and of why Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds. It also takes us into the horribly addictive pleasures of TV tropes…

Horrors of the apocalypse, and Wagner…


A recurrent theme in our previous articles about human perception has been whether or not something is perceived as threatening. Humour, for instance, often involves the switch from an initially scary appearance to a completely non-scary interpretation of the same situation.

At first sight, horror movies may appear to be about deliberately taking people into scary territory. However, as with many other passtimes which look scary, the scariness usually occurs within a well defined context. The context typically takes one of two forms. Either the participant has no control (e.g. being on a rollercoaster) but is in a setting which makes it clear that the real risk is minimal, or the participant is in a setting which involves real risk (e.g. mountaineering) but where the participant has a perception of control via skill.

In the case of horror movies, it’s probably no accident that there are well defined categories of horror movies, such as the slasher, or the haunted house. This means that a horror movie fan is likely to be familiar with the standard categories, and will therefore be able to predict fairly well what is likely to happen next at any point in a standard horror movie. This predictability helps to keep the scariness bounded, because of the element of predictability. We’ll return in a later article to what happens when a movie breaks out of the standard conventions for its genre.

In this article, we’ll focus on one way to reassure audiences, namely portraying scary situations in a way that gives vicarious reinforcement to the viewer’s feeling of control. This can take various forms.

One common form is giving a privileged, insider’s view of a situation; for instance, showing events from the viewpoint of elite special forces units within the military, complete with specialist technical vocabulary, specialist knowledge, etc. This gives the viewer a vicarious feeling of membership of those units, and a vicarious feeling that in a firefight, they would know how to behave like a member of one of those units.

Another common form is closely related, but different in that it involves imagining an alternative way of handling a situation. A classic form is re-imagining some part of history, from a “Why didn’t they do X?” perspective. For example, recent movies about ancient Roman warfare such as Gladiator and The Eagle show the Romans using flaming ditches as a surprise defence. This looks like a feasible approach to most modern viewers, who are familiar with highly flammable fuels such as petrol and paraffin. The outcome is that the viewers are reassured that if they were sent back in time, they would find solutions that the locals had missed, and would soon have high social status.

The same narrative device is common in movies where the protagonists are interacting with the natives. It’s so common, in fact, that it’s a well-recognised trope, known as “Mighty Whitey”. Tropes are similar to schemata; a trope is a well-established pattern of events within fiction, usually fairly simple in comparison by schema standards (e.g. the old trope that if a Western hero kissed a non-Western woman in a movie, then she would die tragically before the end of the movie). The tv tropes website is a huge, fascinating, collection of tropes, and is well worth visiting, although there’s a high risk that you’ll end up emerging from it several hours later, wondering where the time went.

Returning to the Mighty Whitey trope: The usual form involves a white man rising swiftly to prominence among the natives because of his superior intellect and skills. This trope can be combined with the historical version, as in movies such as The Last Samurai, where the Western hero becomes a high-status member of samurai society. Again, this is likely to provide vicarious flattery to white males watching the movie, and to reassure them that they would be able to surmount yet another form of adversity.

So, giving viewers the feeling of control can reduce scariness to within acceptable bounds, and flatter viewers at the same time. (Usually, in the case of horror movies, white male viewers, but that’s a topic that’s been well addressed in both academic and popular culture.)

How well does that feeling of control correspond to reality? As you might suspect, it usually doesn’t correspond very well.

In the case of the Mighty Whitey trope, there have been documented cases where Europeans achieved significant status within other societies; a well known example is William Adams, an Elizabethan seaman who became a samurai. However, the full story is far from the simple Mighty Whitey trope. Typically in these cases, the European was already a fairly high status individual in their original society, and typically, the European had knowledge, skills or other resources that were in demand in the society that they moved to. Adams, for example, was a master pilot, and had a great deal of knowledge about ships and maritime trade at a time when Japan was particularly interested in these issues. Another famous Westerner in Japan, Thomas Blake Glover, followed a very similar path, for very similar reasons. Another typical feature in the successful cases is that the Europeans assimilated into the culture that they moved into.

For someone who didn’t have so much to offer, and who tried to follow the Mighty Whitey schema without paying attention to local cultural norms, the ending could be very different. An example that attracted much attention at the time was the Namamugi Incident, where a British merchant was killed by a samurai’s retainers for discourtesy.

In between these two cases, there are many less dramatic cases where ordinary Europeans ended up in other societies, and where nothing much changed. These cases don’t usually get much attention in the history books or in fiction. From a narrative viewpoint, this lack of attention is no surprise; it’s not easy to make a box office hit from a story that doesn’t have excitement, drama and high adventure. From a psychological viewpoint, there’s the further problem that these unremarkable cases don’t offer much reassurance or flattery to the audience; they’re saying, in effect, that if your life isn’t anything remarkable now, then it wouldn’t change much if you moved to a new culture.

This issue is summed up neatly in a classic observation about movies set just after an apocalypse, to the effect that every viewer thinks that they’ll be one of the heroic survivors, whereas in reality they’ll probably be one of the bleached skulls by the side of the road. Statistically, this observation is pretty accurate, but as a motivational or reassuring statement, it has room for improvement…

Second order effects

As you might expect, tropes can easily turn into clichés, especially in well-established genres such as apocalypse survival, whose tropes are central features of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1826. This often leads to new tropes arising which are deliberate plays on an older trope. In the case of Mighty Whitey, there are numerous tropes of this kind.

The same underlying dynamic operates in other fields beyond fiction. For example, a musician might compose a piece which is a deliberate departure from a theme that has become clichéed. Richard Wagner deployed this approach on a monumental scale, with a large number of explicit musical devices to signal points such as which emotions a character was feeling, and which character was being referenced, via aspects of the music. This is the underlying dynamic of the famous insult about his music not being as bad as it sounds; the point of Wagner’s music was not to showcase the beauty of instruments or voices, but to convey a deeper message more systematically.

This issue is widely recognised in forms such as calling someone “a musician’s musician” and distinguishing between “high culture” and “low culture”. It’s a concept that leads to interesting insights, but in popular use, it’s usually not very tightly structured, from the viewpoint of knowledge modelling.

A similar issue is well known in other fields, such as safety-critical systems research, where it’s often framed in terms of the mathematical concept of second order effects.

In safety-critical systems, this concept is useful for handling interactions between the outcomes of different factors. A classic example is an office fire, which produces the first-order effect of triggering the sprinklers. The sprinklers then spray water through the office, which can lead to the second-order effect of short-circuiting electrical devices in the office. If you’re really unlucky, or the victim of bad planning, this could in turn lead to the third-order effect of a short circuit disabling the system which is supposed to send an automatic call to the fire brigade in the event of a fire.

Interactions of this type are common features of disasters, and are often the cause of disasters. The same dynamic also affects less dramatic situations, such as designing bureaucratic procedures, or planning a trip to the shops. Often, the consequence is the opposite of what was originally intended, if the second order effects introduce an unwanted feedback loop in terms of systems theory. There are numerous ways of modelling this rigorously, typically via some form of graph theory and/or argumentation. These approaches can also be applied to media studies, where they often give powerful new insights.

So, where does that leave us? In brief:

Movies are often unrealistic statistically because they wouldn’t make much box office revenue by telling each viewer that in the event of an apocalypse, they would probably end up as a bleached skull by the side of the road. That’s not the most inspiring note on which to end, so here’s a more encouraging one:

The risk of disasters can be reduced significantly by using systematic formalisms. This concept, though encouraging, may not inspire much pleasure in some readers, so for them, here’s a gentle cat picture. I hope you’ve found this article useful.


“Wikipedians cat” by Remedios44 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wikipedians_cat.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Wikipedians_cat.jpg

Notes and links

By Franz Hanfstaengl – fr:Image:RichardWagner.jpg, where the source was stated as http://www.sr.se/p2/opera/op030419.stm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55183

By Albert Goodwin – http://www.artrenewal.org/artwork/154/3154/32410/apocalypse-large.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17090743

By Henry Colburn – http://archive.org/details/lastman01shell, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20230866

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese


You might also find our website useful:


Overviews of the articles on this blog:







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