The Allure of Very Bad Things
Why we root for the bad guys.
Posted April 5, 2019
As a criminologist, I am fascinated by the motivations and actions of law-breaking individuals. I know that I am not alone in this regard. Many of us, regardless of our background, education or training, are fascinated by crime. That is why true crime TV shows and podcasts have become enormously popular in our contemporary culture.
What can explain the appeal of ruthless and dangerous criminals such as the late serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy? While their appeal to the public is multifaceted, in my opinion, a good part of the fascination can be explained by our own empathy. More specifically, I believe that we are driven by an innate and spontaneous tendency to empathize with everything around us, even dangerous and deadly things.
My research on this topic suggests that many people identify with and even romanticize certain real-life criminals such as the Great Depression era bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde or the more contemporary serial killer Ted Bundy in much the same way that they identify with fictional killers or monsters in Hollywood movies.
Many people have told me that they secretly pull for the misunderstood fictional vampire Dracula and the cunningly brilliant, fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the now classic crime thriller film The Silence of the Lambs.
Such empathy and identification with predators can be explained. Psychologist Heath Matheson contends that empathizing with the monster or killer in a movie makes it more fun to watch and scarier, too (1). Empathy enables us to identify with the monster or killer. Once we grasp their needs and desires, we can then identify with their purpose, no matter how terrifying they may be.
According to Dr. Matheson, a really effective movie monster or killer is one that we can identify with and believe is goal-oriented and able to achieve those goals. A classic example of this is the fictional killer Michael Myers of the slasher Halloween film franchise.
I believe that the ability to empathize with a fictional monster like Michael Myers or a real-life serial killer like Ted Bundy makes them more predictable, more real, and less incomprehensible. I also believe that we need to understand things that are baffling and scary to us to make them less frightening. We do this in order to make sense out of everything foreign that we encounter and, thereby, reduce our fears. Simply stated, empathetic understanding reduces the fear of the unknown. Therefore, the more one can relate to or humanize a monster or serial killer, the less scary it becomes.
Although empathizing with a monster helps us to identify with its purpose, it also exposes one of our most primal fears—that is, the fear that we could become monsters ourselves. Commenting on this point, Psychologist Dr. Raymond Mar said:
I think that the scariest monsters are those in which we are able to see an aspect of humanity present. Evil is scary enough, but the idea that humanity, and perhaps ourselves, are capable of such evil is even more terrifying. Understanding our own capacity to be or become a monster creates true existential fear (1).
Applying this logic to our fascination with extremely dangerous criminals, a dual process of humanization and dehumanization seems to be in effect. That is, we try to humanize ruthless and brutal individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer in order to make him less scary, but we also try to dehumanize and separate him from the rest of us in order to create a moral boundary between good and evil.
Therefore, I believe there are contradictory processes of humanization and dehumanization occurring simultaneously as we attempt to wrap our minds around individuals who perpetrate unimaginable atrocities in our world. Ironically, our sincere attempts to achieve clarity result in further ambiguity in our perceptions of the predators among us.
Empathy, it seems, when applied to the perpetrators of evil, can ease our fears somewhat and make such individuals seem less incomprehensible, but empathy cannot draw a clear distinction between good and evil. Good and evil are not white or black concepts. If anything, empathy expands the grey area that comprises both good and evil.
1) Anders, C.J. 2011. “Why do we want to feel sorry for monsters that scare us?” i09.com Retrieved http://io9.com/5851413/why-do-we-want-to-feel-sorry-for-monsters-that-s…