Bad guy, not anymore

by Aastha Sethi

as published on under Dr. Anu Goel

‘Heroes don’t exist. And if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.’ This line by Brodi Ashton gives an interesting insight into our fascination with villains. Be it Batman’s Joker or Hannibal Lecter, what is it about these characters that make people love them and give them huge fan following? There are psychological theories to explain why we like the evil.

THE PSYCHIATRIST Carl Jung believed we need to confront and understand our own hidden nature to grow as human beings. Healthy confrontation with our ‘dark side’ can actually help us resolve conflicts and live a balanced life.

Talking of hidden sides and resolving conflicts, Sigmund Freud’s theory obviously comes into the picture. Freud viewed human nature as inherently anti-social, biologically driven by the undisciplined Id’s pleasure principle to get what we want when we want it —in short “born to be bad but held back by society.”Even if the psyche fully develops its ego (source of self-control) and superego (conscience), Freudians say the Id still dwells underneath, and it wishes for many selfish things — so it would love to be super villainous. Even if we don’t take such an extreme view of the human psyche, we know that everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. We all make mistakes and are far from perfect. There are times when we indulge in behaviors that we are ashamed of, which make us identify more with a character who also commits mistakes like us. A hero on the other hand is someone who appears to be unreachable, perfect and ideal, someone we may want to be but we can hardly identify with.
Ivan Pavlov would say we can learn to associate villains with other things we value — like entertainment, strength, freedom or the heroes themselves. There are needs, wishes and dark dreams that villains satisfy. The major one being to run unconstrained by rules and regulations. Cosplayers, or gamers, who dress like Wonder Woman and Captain America, can’t do any crazy thing that crosses their minds without seeming to mock and insult our heroes, whereas those dressed as villains get to go wild. Super villainy feels liberating.A villain has the freedom to go unbridled because he/she is not confirming to social norms, something which we secretly wish to do.Another angle given to this discussion is that the bad guy actually gives you a sense of purpose. Without criminals, the world’s finest heroes seem like over-powered brutes nabbing thugs unworthy of them. They add to the challenge and thrill in life.

Without criminals, Batman has nobody to hit and Spiderman would be just dusting high ceilings. The softer side in an antagonist is much more appealing than the personality of a protagonist. In the hugely popular TV series ‘The Vampire Diaries’ the menacing elder brother Damon, who hates as passionately as he loves, seems to much more popular and loved by the audiences than the self-righteous younger brother. The fact that he is mostly in conflict with his emotions is something people easily relate to. Though the reasons for our conflicts and guilt may be as simple as going for a party without telling our parents but we do relate to the ‘larger than life’ picture of super villain conflicts put up in front of us.

There are times when you even end up feeling sorry for the antagonist like Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. His guilt for his actions that he has no control of is highly relatable. People sometimes do things they don’t want to under peer pressure or for their need to fit in. They know their actions are wrong and they can identify with the bad guy and console themselves.

In the end, our interest in villains can be healthy or unhealthy. Even the maladaptive reasons for such fascination tend to arise from motivations that were originally healthy and natural — frustrated drives that went the wrong way.

Now, of course, there are many villains like Red Skull (a hateful Nazi) or Magneto that hopefully no one identifies with but a certain charisma does surround our bad guys in popular depictions where people identify with our exploits and even want them to succeed in their scheming plot.

Take the case of Don, nobody wants the notorious gangster to fail or get caught by the police. There is a charm in his freedom and brilliance in his plans so his winning over the authorities always seems justified.

This obviously doesn’t mean that we have no more real heroes to cheer for but the villain isn’t going down with a fight, quite literally!


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