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Torture Prevalent, Effective in Popular Movies, Study Finds

Female professor smiling in portrait.
Dr. Erin Kearns

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The majority of popular films, including those for children, have at least one torture scene, and the scenes are usually depicted as achieving the torturer’s goal, according to a study involving a researcher at The University of Alabama.

The depictions in high-earning films could have implications for how the public perceives the usefulness and effectiveness of torture, according to the forthcoming study in Perspectives in Politics.

“When people lack direct experience with something, media can help them understand the issue,” said Dr. Erin M. Kearns, UA assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice who co-authored the paper. “We find that the messages sent about torture are fairly consistent, which may have a stronger influence on public perceptions of torture.”

Kearns worked with Dr. Casey Delehanty, assistant professor of political science at Gardner-Webb University and corresponding author of the study. They created a database of scenes from the 20 top-grossing films in North America from 2008 through 2017. Of those, 60 percent had at least one torture scene.

In all, there were 275 scenes of torture from 27 R-rated movies, 108 PG-13 movies, 58 PG-rated movies and seven G-rated movies. There were nine torture scenes among the G-rated movies, although they were lighter actions, such as dropping characters from big heights, researchers found.

“I did not appreciate how prevalent torture was actually going to be,” Delehanty said. “The thing that shook me and what led to the title of our research – ‘Wait, There’s Torture in Zootopia?: Examining the Prevalence of Torture in Popular Movies’ – was how many kids movies have torture scenes in them.”

The vast majority of people, thankfully, lack experience with torture, so how media portrays it can influence perceptions about the efficacy of torture, Kearns said. It is not ethically possible to study whether torture works, but there is some evidence that shows the practice leads to false confessions during an integration and is counterproductive to an investigation, she said.

“Evidence suggests that torture does not work, but media often show that it does,” Kearns said.

Along with the finding that movies generally show torture to be effective, the researchers found torture was more acceptable and necessary when perpetrated by the protagonist and more harsh and unjustified when conducted by the antagonist.

Delehanty and Kearns’ study suggests other areas of future research, such as examining torture across other forms of media, including television shows and films popular in other countries. While their work determines the prevalence of torture in North American films, the findings cannot say what influence torture scenes have on public perceptions. To identify the impact media depictions of torture have on the public, additional studies would be necessary, Kearns said.

“As citizens of a democracy, our suggestion here is certainly not to constrain how media depict interrogations and torture,” Delehanty said. “Rather, our aim is to draw attention to the prevalence of this trope and hope that screenwriters will exercise more caution in using torture as a plot device.”


Adam Jones, UA communications, 205-348-4328,; Jackie Bridges, Gardner-Webb University communications, 704-406-2542,


Dr. Erin M. Kearns,; Dr. Casey Delehanty,