Monday, February 11, 2019

Our Fascination with Bad Guys and Evil

I enjoyed reading the latest blogs from Donis Casey and Frankie Y. Bailey about their take on their literary villains. When blocking out a story, I often fixate on the villain and then I wonder why. Why do we have such a fascination with bad guys and evil?

I reached out and asked a number of writer friends who their favorite villains are. Some of the answers were quite interesting: Randall Flag (from Stephen King’s The Stand), Tony Soprano, Jack the Ripper, Long John Silver, The Joker, Draco Malfoy, Maleficent, the Pied Piper of Hamelin (well, when he wasn’t paid for eradicating the plague ridden rats from town, he reciprocated by stealing all the town’s children), Hannibal Lecter, Nurse Ratched, and of course, Darth Vader.

Some answers drew more than a one word answer. “Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. He could seem so normal as to be a sociopath. She really placed a light into that dark world. A villain…anti-villain.”

“Jack in Lord of the Flies. He is proof we are all base when stripped of rules, that hunger is what drives us all.”

“John Wilkes Booth…even though he killed Lincoln, he was a somewhat sympathetic character, a lost soul, pathetically delusional.”

When she mentioned John Wilkes Booth, it stopped me in my tracks for a moment. Booth thought what he was doing was the right thing. Don’t most villains rationalize their crimes as ‘doing what’s right’? Don’t they view their actions as beneficial for the greater good…even though their ‘greater good’ is criminal, repugnant, and destructive?

And the statement about Tom Ripley seeming so normal? The philosopher Hannah Arendt, while watching the Nazi engineer of genocide, Adolf Eichmann, stand trial in Jerusalem, realized that the most striking thing about evil was its banality. Eichmann looked like a bank clerk not a textbook villain. He was a bureaucrat who murdered millions of innocent people.

Ted Bundy, boyish, handsome, and charismatic, was a sadistic sociopath who confessed to thirty murders. But he looked so normal.

John Wayne Gacy tortured and murdered at least thirty-three teenage boys and young men. Before he was caught, he attended parades, children’s parties, and charitable fundraisers dressed as a clown. A CLOWN!!!! Okay, that’s pretty scary.

How many times have we heard the television interview with the neighbor of a serial killer who had been arrested say, “He seemed so normal”?

So back to why we’re so fascinated with evil.

Carl Jung believed we need to confront and understand our own hidden nature to grow as human beings. Healthy confrontation with our shadow selves can unearth new strengths, while unhealthy attempts at confrontation may involve dwelling on or unleashing the worst parts of ourselves.

Sigmund Freud viewed human nature as inherently antisocial, biologically driven by the undisciplined id’s pleasure principle to get what we want when we want it. We’re born to be bad but held back by society.

In the early 1970s, Stanford psychologist, Philip Zimbardo carried out his infamous Prison Experiment. The mock jail he created in Stanford’s psychology building where “guards” abused “prisoners”, revealed the speed with which ordinary people can begin to carry out depraved acts in a toxic environment.

I’m certainly no expert, but is it possible the reason why we’re fascinated with bad guys is that the line that we need to cross to get to the Dark Side is incredibly narrow?

Or is it that being good is boring and being bad is wicked fun?


Anna said...

Scariest photo of Sigmund Freud I've ever seen. Revealing? Hmmm....

Rick Blechta said...

Excellent post, Tom! Thanks.