In winter 2015, I taught ANTH 381 at McGill University. As a class project, we studied the evolution of flashlight holding in film and television. We started from the observation that in contemporary film and television, flashlights tend to be held in an overhand style, but that in older productions, they tend to be held in an underhand style. Most of the group (perhaps all, my memory is fuzzy) strongly associated the rise of overhand flashlight holding with the crime series CSI, which debuted in 2000. The students that semester may already have been a bit too young to connect the phenomenon with the 90s series X-Files, which I remember as already featuring some overhand flashlight holding.
To prepare for an eventual cultural evolution study of flashlight holding in film, we decided to establish a clear timeline of the change from the dominance of the underhand hold to the dominance of the overhand hold.
Starting in the early 2000s, online debates on flashlight holding note that there was a shift in flashlight holding technique and that “somewhere in the 80’s everyone started holding flashlights overhanded”. One observer notes that “holding the flashlight in front of you [i.e. underhand] is so 20th Century”.
The earliest real-world instance of the overhand hold we found is the Harries Technique, developed in the early 1970s for combat shooting. While it is not uncontroversial, it seems to have have been adopted by a number of law enforcement agencies. Reasons given for the shift from underhand to overhand flashlight holding by law enforcement in the real world range from tactical to ergonomic. But when did the shift start to be reflected in film and television?
Data and Methods
We focused on the period from 1970 to 2010, restricting ourselves to US based drama and crime films, and television series. We queried the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) to produce lists of films and television shows by decade. Using the Excel rand() function, we randomly selected 20 films and 20 television show episodes from each decade from 1970-2010 (see appendix 1 for list). When a production in the sample was unavailable, we replaced it with another random selection.
We watched each film or television show, and recorded each instance of flashlight holding. For each instance, we recorded whether it was underhand, overhand, or other (two handed, between the teeth, under the arm, etc). We summed each type of instance for each half decade and graphed the results. For television shows, we reviewed randomly selected episodes until we found one in which there was an instance of flashlight holding.
For pragmatic reasons, we ended up with uneven coverage of the decades. Since we had a limited time for data collection during the semester, and since not all productions in our sample were readily available, we didn’t have time to complete the sample. The data on films from 1980-84 and television shows from 1995-99 are especially deficient (Table 1). Still, our data paint an interesting picture of the transition from underhand to overhand flashlight holding in American film and television productions from the 1970s to the 2000s.
The earliest instances of overhand flashlight holding in our sample occur in films from 1970-74 (Figure 1). There is a sharp rise in the proportion of overhand holding in television from 29% in the late 1980s to 75% in the early 1990s, to 100% of our sample in the late 1990s. The rise of overhand holding in film is more gradual and reaches a maximum of 76% in the late 2000s.
Overall, combined film and television incidence of overhand flashlight holding in our sample (Figure 2) increases fairly steadily from 7% in the early 1970s to 76% in the late 2000s.
We were surprised to find that the earliest instances of overhand flashlight holding went back as far the early 1970s for film. Early instances include an overhand hold in M*A*S*H The Movie as early as 1970 and 4 instances in Airport 77. However, the spread of the overhand technique was fairly slow and uneven. In Alien (1979), for example, only 2 of 13 recorded flashlight holds are overhand, and none in the sampled episode of CHiPs, the central theme of which is the daily operations of motorcycle officers of the California Highway Patrol. The iconic chase sequence in E.T. The Extraterrestrial (Figure 3, not included in our sample), in which flashlight beams shine up through the fog, would have been impossible with the use of an overhand technique.
Figure 3: Underhand flashlight holding in ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982)
The Harries technique was developed in the early 1970s, and these observations suggest there might have been some precursors that had an impact on film and television. We were even more surprised to see that the dominance of the overhand hold was well established in television by the early 1990s, a full decade before the launch of CSI. The combined proportion of overhand holding actually drops in the early 2000s, the decade in which we expected it to dominate because of the launch of CSI.
It is interesting to note that while the overhand hold occurs first in film, it grows much faster in television. There are also indications of a peak in overhand hold in television during the late 1990s, followed by a decline in the 2000s. However, while our sample included 9 television shows (our target was 10) from 2000-04, it only includes 2 for 2005-10. The decline in the early 2000s might very well be real, but there is very little we can currently say about whether it actually continues in the late 2000s.
In film, the dominance of the overhand hold seems slower to become established, but also seems more durable. From 1985 until 2000, the proportion of overhand holds in film grows only from 30% to 50%. However, it continues to grow and reaches 76% in the late 2000s.
We selected 1970 as a starting point because we initially expected the overhand hold to be introduced later, perhaps at some point in the 1980s, after a period of development and application in the real world. Now that we know that it originated much earlier, it would be interesting to extend our sample back in time to see if there are precursors that pre-date the introduction of the Harries technique. It would also be interesting to extend the time frame to 2015 to see whether the dominance of the overhand hold continues, especially in television, where it appeared to be declining.
We also need to study the forces that favoured the change from underhand to overhand hold. While tactical and ergonomic factors related (literally) to survival affect the overhand hold’s success in real-world law-enforcement, we expect that different factors are at work in film and television. The students in the class proposed a number of possible avenues for this. We could, for example, look at box office numbers (or film reviews) and ratings of lead actors to see if the spread is an instance of prestige, or perhaps success based copying. It would be interesting to do a network analysis of the people involved in the earliest productions that feature overhand holds and what role they might have played in its dissemination over time through different productions. Some students suggested that factors related to film production, such as ease of lighting, might have favoured the spread of the overhand hold. This should be evaluated by interviewing film professionals. We need to include a closer study of training manuals to determine to what extent the prominence of overhand holds in film and television mirrors its development in law enforcement training and practice, beyond the simple correlation between the development of the Harries Technique and the introduction of the overhand hold in 1970s film.
The transition from mainly underhand to mainly overhand flashlight holding in American crime dramas began in the early 1970s. By the mid-1990s, the overhand hold was dominant in television and widespread in film.
Note: This was a collective work. If student participants wish to be identified by name, please contact me.
|movie||The Liberation of L.B. Jones||1971||1970||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Columbo season 1||1971||1970||1||0||0||0|
|tv||McMillan & Wife||1971||1970||4||0||0||0|
|movie||Across 110th Street||1972||1970||1||0||0||0|
|tv||M*A*S*H* season 1||1972||1970||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Benacek season 1||1972||1970||0||0||1||0|
|tv||The Snoop Sisters||1972||1970||1||0||0||0|
|tv||The Streets of San Fransisco||1972||1970||2||0||0||0|
|tv||M*A*S*H* season 2||1973||1970||1||0||0||1|
|tv||Columbo season 2||1973||1970||1||0||0||0|
|movie||The Sugarland Express||1974||1970||0||1||0||0|
|movie||Act of Vengeance||1974||1970||0||0||0||1|
|tv||Banacek season 2||1974||1970||1||0||0||0|
|tv||M*A*S*H* season 3||1974||1970||2||0||0||0|
|movie||Dog Day Afternoon||1975||1975||2||1||0||0|
|movie||All the President’s Men||1975||1975||2||0||0||0|
|tv||the incredible hulk||1977||1975||2||1||0||0|
|movie||game of death||1978||1975||1||0||0||0|
|movie||Escape from Alcatraz||1979||1975||1||5||0||0|
|movie||The Onion Field||1979||1975||4||1||1||0|
|tv||the rockford files||1979||1975||2||0||1||0|
|movie||The Blues Brothers||1980||1980||2||0||0||0|
|movie||An Eye for an Eye||1981||1980||1||0||0||0|
|movie||The Escape Artist||1982||1980||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Remington Steele S01||1982||1980||8||2||1||0|
|movie||Eddie Macon’s Run||1983||1980||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Philip Marlowe, Private Eye S01||1983||1980||0||1||0||0|
|tv||Hardcastle and McCormick S01||1983||1980||2||1||0||0|
|tv||Miami Vice S01||1984||1980||0||0||1||0|
|tv||Miami Vice S02||1984||1980||1||0||0||4|
|tv||Knight Rider S01||1984||1980||1||1||0||0|
|tv||Street Hawk S01E01||1985||1985||1||0||0||0|
|movie||The Big Easy||1986||1985||2||0||0||0|
|movie||At Close Range||1986||1985||6||0||0||0|
|movie||Throw Momma from the Train||1987||1985||0||0||1||0|
|tv||21 Jump Street S01E04||1987||1985||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Jake and the Fatman S01E10||1987||1985||1||0||0||0|
|movie||Above the Law||1988||1985||0||1||0||0|
|tv||Mission Impossible S01E15||1988||1985||1||2||0||0|
|tv||Alfred Hitchcock Presents S04E01||1988||1985||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Tales From the Crypt S01E02||1989||1985||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Deke Wilson’s Mini-Mysteries (Episode: Blind Man’s Bluff)||1989||1985||1||2||1||0|
|movie||The Hot Spot||1990||1990||0||1||0||0|
|tv||law and order season 1 episode 6||1990||1990||0||2||0||0|
|tv||Top Cops: Mike Eubanks and Bob Kurowski||1990||1990||0||1||0||0|
|movie||The Dream Machine||1991||1990||0||0||0|
|tv||Forever Knight season 1 episode6||1992||1990||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Silk Stalkings season 1 episode 20||1992||1990||0||1||0||0|
|tv||Mann & Machine episode 6||1992||1990||0||1||0||0|
|tv||The Hat Squad”Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous||1992||1990||0||1||0||0|
|movie||A Perfect World||1993||1990||1||1||0||0|
|tv||Diagnosis Murder season 1 episode 6||1993||1990||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Broken Badges season 1 epidosde 1||1993||1990||0||1||0||0|
|movie||One man Army||1994||1990||0||1||0||0|
|tv||Scales of Justice season 2 episode 3||1994||1990||0||1||0||1|
|tv||Due South season 1 episode 3||1994||1990||1||1||0||0|
|movie||Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead||1995||1995||0||1||0||0|
|tv||Da Vinci’s Inquest||1998||1995||0||1||0||0|
|movie||Lethal Weapon 4||1998||1995||1||1||0||0|
|movie||Our lips are sealed||2000||2000||0||1||0||0|
|tv||Arrest and Trial, S1||2000||2000||2||0||0||0|
|tv||Without A Trace, S.||2000||2000||0||0||0||2|
|movie||The fast and the furious||2001||2000||2||0||0||0|
|movie||Paid in Full||2002||2000||0||1||0||0|
|tv||Trailer Park Boys, S2||2002||2000||1||0||0||0|
|tv||The District, S3||2002||2000||2||0||0||0|
|tv||The Shield, S.1||2002||2000||0||1||0||0|
|movie||Tears of the Sun||2003||2000||0||1||0||0|
|tv||Forensic Factor, S1||2003||2000||1||0||0||0|
|tv||The Handler, S1||2004||2000||1||0||0||0|
|tv||Dog the Bounty Hunter, S.1||2004||2000||0||3||0||0|
|movie||The Dark Knight||2008||2005||0||3||0||1|