The American security agent is strapped to a chair beside a table covered with knives and assorted medical tools. A sadistic Middle Eastern terrorist whispers gentle insults into his ear as he roughly twists the blade -- and the agent screams in agony.

It's not a midnight screening of a campy 1960s Russ Meyer splatter classic, or even an R-rated teen slasher film. It's the sixth-season premiere of the Fox TV hit "24." The show aired Sunday evening in prime time and was watched by 15.7 million viewers who could have tuned to the less violent AFC playoff game.

"24" doesn't have a lock on torture. Cable TV series such as "The Sopranos" and "Sleeper Cell" make human torture in some form a gruesome weekly ritual, and several network series, including the three CBS "CSI" shows, incorporate less intense scenes. Eight movies now playing in the Pittsburgh region feature explicit depictions of torture, including the PG-13-rated "Casino Royale" and "The Hitcher," "Last King of Scotland," "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "Pan's Labyrinth," all R-rated films opening today. Even TV commercials can include graphic scenes -- if the screams don't catch your attention, images of a bound man being tortured draw attention to the ad for "The Hitcher."

As recently as a decade ago, you might have sought such explicit scenes in the relative privacy of an R-rated movie, cable television or the video rental store. Violence in many forms, including torture, has been used by filmmakers for decades. But the gradual easing of Motion Picture Association of America ratings standards -- known as "ratings creep" -- and the film-going public's escalating appetite for intense emotion from their entertainment have increased Hollywood's use of graphic, close-up torture scenes.

It's curious that America's taste for more fictional media torture is happening at a time when real-life torture is a daily ordeal in Iraq, and the nation is debating America's use of coercive interrogation methods and splitting hairs over the definition of "torture."

Is art imitating the lifestyles of the terrorists and soldiers we see on TV? Or is life -- and the slow, excruciating extinguishing of it -- imitating art, as we become increasingly desensitized to torture presented as entertainment?

One thing's for certain: These scenes are not being forced on us against our will. TV's "Entertainment Tonight" film critic Leonard Maltin says it wouldn't be there if we didn't watch it.

"Movies keep raising the bar -- or lowering it, depending on your point of view -- when it comes to gauging mass-audience response to violence," he says. "To see a severed limb or a decapitated head, as we do in 'Flags of Our Fathers,' would have been unthinkable until 'Saving Private Ryan' set that precedent. So it is, I suppose, with torture scenes."

Instead of looking for a cause-and-effect relationship linking reality and entertainment, Maltin suggests, we should probably be looking at the bottom line.

"Every film that comes along wants to top the previous one [and] if audiences don't feel the jolt because they've been desensitized by other movies, the new film fails," he says. "The studios rely heavily on preview audiences and focus groups, and if those ordinary moviegoers found a scene like this too much to take, the studio would probably alter or soften it. Where will it all end? I have no idea."

Prime-time terror

Actor Adoni Maropis plays one of the baddest bad guys on television. Originally from Burgettstown, he's the terrorist slicing at "24's" Jack Bauer.

Adoni Maropis as Fayed on 24"I love my character. The guy comes from a deep, passionate place," says Maropis. "He feels righteous. He has strong beliefs about how the world should be, and he has a vendetta against Jack Bauer."

Maropis says the terrorist he portrays isn't so different from the rest of us.

" We all have this dark side in us," he said "You have it, my mother has it. When you have women strapping bombs to themselves and going to kindergartens and grade schools and holding kids hostage, anybody can do that. Anybody who's pushed to the edge."

Maropis says that while art may reflect life on TV, the increase in TV torture parallels the lifting of other restrictions.

"We couldn't say 'hell' or 'ass' on TV either," he says. "But now we can."

Perhaps the best barometer of evolving movie torture is the longest-running action-adventure film series and its often-tortured hero Bond, James Bond.

In "Live and Let Die," Agent 007 hops out of the pool just before the sharks get him, and in "Goldfinger," the laser beam stops inches from his inseam. So, you know something has changed at the movies when the new Bond of "Casino Royale" is strapped naked to a chair and beaten on his genitalia until he screams and cries.

"We haven't seen this kind of grit since 'Licence to Kill,' which up until this film was probably the most violent," said Steven Jay Rubin, author of "The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia" (Contemporary Books). "Obviously, he's being tortured without any visual gore, but the visceral impact isn't lost on the audience. I think they crossed that line [to visceral violence] more than any James Bond movie ever made."

Rubin says the owners of the Bond franchise pride themselves on the sanctity of the films' PG-13 rating, and "Casino Royale" is no exception. But for the movie to compete in an action-film market steeped in blood-splattered, R-rated violence, director Martin Campbell had to find a novel way to excite the crowd.

"I know about the controversy swirling around the violence," says Rubin. "But our rating system, in a lot of ways, is antiquated. The bottom line [today] is different than 20 years ago. When movies can cost $100 million to make, it puts lots of pressure on the rating system."

Violence in film -- along with sex and profanity -- increased significantly between 1992 and 2003, according to a study by the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health. They call it "ratings creep," and it means more violence in PG and PG-13 movies, more sexual content in PG, PG-13 and R films, and more profanity in PG-13 and R releases.

The MPAA is working to address some of these concerns, with new language attached to the R rating coming soon.

Why we watch

As torturous as it is to consider, what does our lust for TV and film torture say about us? Stuart Fischoff, a psychologist from California State University, spent much of his career trying to understand the way humans respond to entertainment. Now retired, he's cofounder of the Journal of Media Psychology, which compiles scientific articles exploring the relatively new field of study and measuring the effects of what he calls media exposure.

"People would prefer that, if we took this stuff off the media, this behavior [in real life] would disappear," he said. "That's not how reality has worked in the past or will work in the future. It's basically within the DNA of the human species to behave violently. In some sense, what we call civilization is putting a patina of civility on human behavior."

The increase in graphic violence as entertainment, he suggests, has merely permitted our basest human instincts and desires to be explored and satisfied in what may be the pinnacle of our technological achievement, film and TV.

"What's changed is the genie's out of the bottle," said Fischoff. "For years, most of us who have studied violence in society saw this taking place in movies and television and said it's going to be very, very hard to not have this escalate. Each time somebody displays a new form of violence, it expands the level of what's acceptable."

(John Hayes can be reached at or 412-263-1991.)

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