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The Times They Are A-Changin'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | June 23, 2010 |


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A few weeks ago, I put together a fancy set of graphs based on pulling searches on the term "vampire" and seeing if there was any discernible trend over time in the amount of vampiric entertainment being made. There were quite a few comments asking for a similar bit of work to be done on various other keywords. So here we go.*

I pulled the data the same way as last time, which to summarize: computer program looks up keyword on IMDB, and then does regular expressions and such to parse that down to something Excel can munch on. The idea is that we get a list of every film and television episode with the particular keyword in the description, organized by year of release. This time, I ran the program against 13 keywords instead of just "vampire."

*Those who squint warily at numbers and technobabble can feel free to skip the next two paragraphs. Though it will hurt my feelings.

I realized quite quickly that one problem with looking at the data this way is that there is simply far more entertainment today than there was in decades past. And exacerbating the problem is the simple fact that obscure items are far more likely to be in IMDB the newer that they are. So rising numbers might not indicate anything other than rising numbers in general. The logical thing to do would be to take each year's number as a percentage of the total number of records in the database for that year. E.g., if there were a hundred entries in IMDB for 1963 and ten of them were about vampires, that would be ten percent. Unfortunately, IMDB has common sense protections in place so that you can't just search for nothing or a space and then download their entire database. They also have protections for exceptionally common words, like "the" or "a."

So I did the next best thing and searched for everything with the keyword "than." I figured that would be a pretty good proxy in relative terms for the total number of entries in a year since it's a generic and innocuous word that shouldn't be correlated in and of itself to any particular genre or time period. So the long story short is that the y-axis on these graphs isn't particularly meaningful since it's a ratio but not really a percentage of anything. But while the number itself is fairly meaningless, it can be safely compared between years and graphs to give a relative idea of the popularity of a meme.

First up, we've got a graph dealing with the more inhuman and/or supernatural sorts of threats: aliens, ghosts, witches, and zombies. Aliens had a massive level of popularity during the sixties, though they saw a precipitous drop in the first half of the seventies from which they quickly recovered. Ghosts are very popular across all time periods and have a lower amount of variation. There seems to be a sweet spot of ghost popularity that we've been hovering around for the last fifty years. Witches are less popular consistently and seem to see that popularity wax and wane substantially. Zombies are similar, though even less popular overall.

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Next up are the human sort of beasties, which includes mutants, because if there's one thing I learned from the X-Men, it's that mutants are people too. Of course, the sour taste of X-Men 3 shelled the spiking popularity of mutants in the 2005-2010 block. Cannibals? There's a definite mid-seventies to mid-eighties spike in interest. Pirates enjoyed huge popularity back in the sixties, but that had largely eroded by the eighties when it jumped again. Despite Jack Sparrow's efforts, the popularity of pirates has been gradually dropping since the late nineties. Ninjas were basically a non-factor until the early eighties, but by the late eighties almost surpassed pirates before falling back into the crowd. Hackers have an interesting trend. Early on they are unheard of, which makes sense since there were only three computers in the world besides HAL in the sixties. During the eighties there was a spike in Broderick-inspired paranoia before people realized that teenagers couldn't actually start World War III with their Tandy. They spiked again in the late nineties when people discovered the Internet and became concerned again about tic-tac-toe playing super computers.

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Last up are the political enemies: communists, nazis, terrorists, and Vietnam. Communists were scary during the sixties apparently, but then dropped off precipitously during the early seventies with an explosion of interest in Vietnam. That popularity of Vietnam plots continued to grow until it crashed with the end of the Cold War and the start of the nineties. Ironically, the popularity of communism wasn't affected much by the end of the Cold War since it had already dropped so far back in the seventies. Nazis were the go-to villain, besting communists in every five year block back to 1960, and holding the top spot against other political antagonists until Vietnam interest peaked in the late eighties and terrorists became the new villain of choice from 1990 onward.

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The relative occurrence of terrorists in Hollywood productions actually peaked in the five year block before 9/11. Hollywood causes terrorism? We've got a graph for that.

So, overall, who are we most scared of? Here's the breakdown of which of these groups was the most popular in each five year block:

1960-1965 Aliens
1965-1970 Aliens
1970-1975 Nazis
1975-1980 Aliens
1980-1985 Aliens
1985-1990 Aliens
1990-1995 Aliens
1995-2000 Aliens
2000-2005 Ghosts
2005-2010 Ghosts

The clear winner is our dreaded nemesis from beyond the stars, the aliens. The Nazis managed to wrest control of our sub conscious fears in the early seventies, but then aliens retook control for a solid quarter century before giving way to ghosts in the last decade.

* Note: Once again, we shall emphasize that these findings do not even remotely hold up to statistical or scientific rigor. I mean seriously, these numbers are based on running keyword searches on IMDB, any attempt to hold them up to such standards will be roundly ridiculed.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.


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