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.

Context

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.

Results

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.

FlashlightFig1

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.

FlashlightFig2

Discussion

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.

ETFlashlights

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.

Next steps

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Appendix 1

Type Title Date Time period Underhand Overhand Both Other
movie M*A*S*H* 1970 1970 2 1 0 0
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 Super Fly 1972 1970 1 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
movie Papillon 1973 1970 4 0 0 0
movie Badlands 1973 1970 1 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 Manhandlers 1974 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 police story 1975 1975 3 3 2 0
movie marathon man 1976 1975 1 0 0 0
tv Police woman 1976 1975 3 1 0 0
tv columbo 1976 1975 3 1 0 0
tv quincy m.e. 1976 1975 1 0 0 0
movie airport 77 1977 1975 6 4 0 0
tv the incredible hulk 1977 1975 2 1 0 0
tv CHiPS 1977 1975 2 0 0 0
movie game of death 1978 1975 1 0 0 0
movie midnight express 1978 1975 1 0 0 0
movie Escape from Alcatraz 1979 1975 1 5 0 0
movie Alien 1979 1975 11 2 0 0
movie The Onion Field 1979 1975 4 1 1 0
movie Apocalypse Now 1979 1975 0 1 0 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 Stingray S01E08 1985 1985 2 0 0 0
tv Street Hawk S01E01 1985 1985 1 0 0 0
movie Manhunter 1986 1985 2 0 0 1
movie The Big Easy 1986 1985 2 0 0 0
movie Cobra 1986 1985 1 0 0 0
movie At Close Range 1986 1985 6 0 0 0
tv Matlock S01E10 1986 1985 1 0 0 0
movie Suspect 1987 1985 3 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 Tequila Sunrise 1988 1985 5 4 0 0
movie Colors 1988 1985 2 1 1 0
movie Above the Law 1988 1985 0 1 0 0
movie The Presidio 1988 1985 1 0 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 Keaton’s Cop 1990 1990 1 0 0 0
movie Kindergarten Cop 1990 1990 2 0 0 0
movie Homicide 1991 1990 3 0 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
movie Blink 1994 1990 1 0 0 0
movie Shawshank Redemption 1994 1990 1 0 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 Raw Justice 1994 1990 0 1 0 0
movie Money Train 1995 1995 2 1 0 1
movie Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead 1995 1995 0 1 0 0
tv Millenium 1996 1995 0 4 0 0
movie Incognito 1997 1995 1 0 0 0
movie Traveller 1997 1995 2 0 0 0
movie Body Count 1998 1995 1 1 0 0
movie Fallen 1998 1995 0 1 1 0
movie Desperate Measures 1998 1995 3 0 0 0
movie The Siege 1998 1995 1 0 0 0
tv Da Vinci’s Inquest 1998 1995 0 1 0 0
movie Lethal Weapon 4 1998 1995 1 1 0 0
movie Three Kings 1999 1995 0 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 Spy Game 2001 2000 1 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
tv Monk, S.1 2002 2000 2 0 0 0
movie Tears of the Sun 2003 2000 0 1 0 0
movie S.W.A.T 2003 2000 0 0 1 0
tv Forensic Factor, S1 2003 2000 1 0 0 0
movie Suspect Zero 2004 2000 0 0 1 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 Chasing Ghosts 2005 2005 0 3 0 1
movie Hot Tamale 2006 2005 0 2 0 0
movie Pineapple Express 2008 2005 2 0 0 0
movie The Dark Knight 2008 2005 0 3 0 1
movie Lakeview Terrace 2008 2005 1 4 0 0
movie The Stepfather 2009 2005 1 1 0 0

 

 

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2 thoughts on “When did the overhand flashlight hold become dominant in film and television?

  1. I never gave that problem the slightest thought. The exersize must have been loads of fun.
    On a lighter side, it reminds of Captain Haddock: did he sleep with his beard over or under the blankets?

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  2. Ton article m’a à la fois amusée et impressionnée. Amusée car, pour moi, l’objet de la recherche est quelque chose d’une importance tout à fait relative et un peu comique. Impressionnée, car il m’a fait réfléchir qu’une étude qui semble, à première vue absolument inutile, pourrait intéresser un fabriquant de l’objet en question ou d’un autre objet destiné à être tenu manuellement. Impressionnée également par la façon dont on peut enseigner, en s’amusant, une bonne méthodologie.

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