Psychology for Writers

Insights for the writer and the writing

Falling Prey to the Dark Side

Why do people become like the things they hate?

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People’s fascination with horror, including Halloween, fascinates me. Why do we get so excited about things that focus on spooks, scares, and monsters?

Maybe because that creepy stuff calls to the dark side that resides in each of us.

Psychologist Carl Jung argued that everyone has a dark, repressed side, which he called the Shadow. More modern theorists claim that this Shadow is a reservoir for creativity. And when I look at the overwhelming popularity of a writer like Stephen King, I believe it.

A King fan myself, I am fascinated by the way the author doesn’t just graze elbows with the Dark Side—he plunges head-first into the scariest situations he can think of.

And his fans are riveted.

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One of the things I like about King is that his heroes are not knights in tarnished—let alone shining—armor. They are flawed human beings, most of whom fall prey to their own dark sides. King realizes that, as Nietzsche claimed, “When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” In other words, one cannot interact with or fight monsters without awakening the monster that lies within. Like calls to like.

Perhaps realizing that humankind is vulnerable to that dark side, Nietzsche also exhorted, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."

Years ago, someone else once gave me the same advice in different words. He said, “When we fight evil, we must take care not to become the very thing we hate.”

Let me give you an example.

A year ago, a man in Zanesville, Ohio released 56 exotic animals from their cages and then committed suicide. Unfortunately, because it’s very hard to safely re-capture such animals, 49 of those animals were killed. Many people were outraged, and the authorities dealing with the situation began receiving death threats.

Stop and think about this for a moment, folks. These people are threatening to kill people (and sometimes they do kill people) because they disagree with the authorities killing (animals). In other words, in their hatred, these “activists” are becoming the very monsters they claim to be fighting. They kill because they hate killing. Their hatred has consumed their reason.

So spend a little time thinking about your Shadow, and your main character's Shadow. What does your main character hate and fear more than anything? What is he willing to do to exterminate the hated and feared thing? How can you make his interactions with the hated thing taint him? In other words, each time your character looks into the abyss, how can the abyss claim a little more of him?

© 2012 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. More information is available on the book's website.

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology.

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