Kitty Genovese's Murder & The Bystander Effect Are Still Relevant 50 Years Later
For more than 50 years, Kitty Genovese's murder has haunted New York and found a unique and morbid home in American culture. While returning home from work early in the morning on March 13, 1964, Genovese was brutally stabbed and assaulted by Winston Moseley. According to a New York Times article that ran two weeks after her death, 37 of Genovese's neighbors saw and heard the murder — and did nothing. Now, this grisly murder will be turned into an indie film titled 37.
The movie, which was filmed this summer in New York, will recount the grisly chain of events. Genovese was stabbed and her attacker fled, only to return after she had crawled to the locked door of her complex. He then proceeded to stab her again and raped her. As the title suggests, the movie will focus on the 37 neighbors who reportedly watched the crime happen and didn't intervene.
Directed by Puk Grasten, the film will likely debut sometime in 2016 and will attempt to make viewers contemplate their lives and current society. "I like the idea of examining the individual in a community, how we want to stay inside our groups to feel safe. How, when we get scared, we pull the blinds and shut the windows," Grasten told The New York Times. "It's easier for an audience to look back at something that happened 50 years ago and reflect on what it says about today."
The legacy of Genovese's murder focuses on the concept of the "bystander effect." Originally postulated by social scientists John Darley and Bibb Latane after Genovese's murder, the theory says that in large groups, people are unlikely to assist someone having an emergency. The larger the group, the less likely people are to help.
Since Genovese's murder, the bystander effect has been tested by social psychologists time and time again, each time reaching the same conclusion that individuals don't react because they don't feel responsible, are too shy to stand out in a crowd, or are basing their actions on how others react. One recent study shows that the bystander effect even appears among children as young as 5 years old.
Interestingly, while Genovese's murder sparked the theory, recent research indicates the bystander effect may have been on a much smaller scale than previously reported. In reality, the number of witnesses was much lower – not 37 or 38, as the Times claimed at the time, but instead, there were likely between 12 to 19 witnesses. The exact number is still disputed, but the original figure of 37 is widely held to have been inflated.
Also, due to the way the apartment complex was laid out, none of the neighbors had a clear line of vision for the entire attack or were fully aware what happened. And in reality, at least two neighbors did intervene. A neighbor named Robert Mozer later testified that he yelled at the attacker from his window, causing Moseley to flee the first time, and Sophie Farrar went to comfort Genovese in her final moments, even though she had no way of knowing if Moseley was gone.
Still, it's safe to say the bystander effect is a valid social phenomena, one that we still experience today. For example, look at social media platforms. Teens openly harass other individuals online, and though everyone who follows or is friends with the victim can see, few step in. On online comment boards, where it's extremely common to see vicious attacks on authors or individuals, few people ever really interject. YouTube is full of videos about real-life "social experiments," where actors pretend to be aggressive or racist in order to see if bystanders will involve themselves.
In real life, it's even more worrying. Instead of stopping to help someone in distress, a common reaction has become to pull out a phone and record. People don't break up fights — they film them. And the narrative of rapes and assaults being video taped with glee is becoming too familiar. Earlier this year in Florida, a girl was allegedly gang-raped in front of hundreds of onlookers. Police only found out when they received the video on a phone. Though the incident took place on a crowded beach, people were too nervous to step in and instead just filmed the brutal assault. In the infamous Steubenville rape case, teenagers filmed a victim's assault — not to collect evidence like a good Samaritan, but to keep the memories.
In a twisted way, that kind of video evidence was crucial in seeking justice for the two victims. And in far less drastic situations, recording has become a form of helping. Bystander videos of police brutality and video footage of crimes have become useful in finding the truth and bringing people to justice. Social media movements have proven how influential and important onlookers can be. While the bystander effect still very much exists, we might have to consider that there are two types of scenarios: the looker-on who is acting in self-interest, and the bystander who, through technology, can passively help the situation.
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