Why We Love Villains so Much (and Still Believe in Heroes)

darth vader

We hope for happy endings, usually. But lately, doesn’t it feel like we’ve gone over to the dark side? Like we’re just a tad bid obsessed with bad guys and villains?

Stories play a huge role in our culture. They always have. Whether real or fake, the story is an integral part of how we understand and experience our world. But click on the news and it’s the villains who we give the most attention—and not just the politicians (although, mostly). Sometimes winter storms are villains. Sometimes viruses. Lately it seems like it’s average people with guns. But it’s always someone or something that we fear is going to get us.

The hero, on the other hand, gets the final 30 seconds of the news. Unless he’s a really big hero—like Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed an airplane in the Hudson river. We give heroes like Sully a lot more attention because they did something unbelievable. It was so good, so heroic, so exceptionally impossible, that it’s as fascinating as evil acts are, which are also most of the time, similarly hard to believe. A governor would shut down a bridge to retaliate against a mayor? Get. Out.

Author Chuck Klosterman explores our fascination with villains in “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined).” He notes that to humans, the role of the hero is more of an aspiration. Most of us can’t relate to what it’s like to be Superman or Mother Theresa. Those are the rare circumstances. But we can all relate to the bad guy. We have it in us, even in small amounts. Klosterman explains it, through “Star Wars”:

When you’re very young, the character you love most is Luke Skywalker (who’s entirely good). As you grow older, you gravitate toward Han Solo (who’s ultimately good, but superficially bad). By the time you reach adulthood, and when you hit the point in your life where “Star Wars” starts to seem like what it actually is (a better-than-average space opera containing one iconic idea), you inevitably find yourself relating to Darth Vader. As an adult, Vader is easily the most intriguing character, and seemingly the only essential one.

According to psychiatrist Carl Jung, villains help us to confront our own shadow selves, which can ultimately help us to become stronger, even better humans.  It can also lead us down a dark path. James Holmes did this in the brutal shooting spree in a Colorado movie theater while he sported flaming red hair and told police he was the “Joker” – a villainous character in Batman. It’s also perhaps why we need to keep Hitler “alive,” according to Klosterman. “Hitler needs to be a person we hate on a one-to-one basis. He’s the worst. That’s his job.” Those who act so unthinkably evil do the shadow work for us. We need Hitler to exist, just like we need Nile crocodiles, sharks and lions. They keep us on our toes.

Sigmund Freud would say our attraction to villains and bad boys stems from another psychological condition—the fact that humans are by nature, antisocial creatures. We’re inherently selfish, and in the spirit of getting what we want, we identify with those exhibiting inappropriate and evil behavior. We love villains because vicariously, we can do our biddings.  And this is why we love Walter White of “Breaking Bad.” He’s not pure evil—he’s a family man, after all—but at some point he recognizes his inherent selfishness is more important than it is not. He’s evil only in the sense that he wants to be who he is, or who he thinks he was destined to be, and won’t let anyone stop him.

It’s also why romantically we seek out people who will never really love us because they’re too self-involved. The “bad boys” are a common phenomenon—women love the man who won’t commit. And, so is the “bad girl”. Guys love the tease, the one who uses her sexuality to get you to chase her even though she has no intention of getting involved. In both cases, it’s safe to say it is our own fears about commitment and being in a happy, healthy partnership that pushes us to seek out traumatic relationships.

Just like it’s a thin line between love and hate, it’s an even thinner line between hero and villain.

We see this in our own lives most commonly in road rage. (Louis CK illustrates this perfectly.) It’s one of the only places where we collectively agree it’s okay to threaten people, curse at them and make obscene gestures simply because they forgot to use a turn signal. We allow ourselves to be both the villain and hero here: We’re the villain because we are cruel and unforgiving, calling a complete stranger awful names. But we’re also the hero because we’re not letting them get away with their bad driving. Perhaps by yelling at them through the cracked open window at 50 miles an hour, we teach them a lesson about driving rules. We’re probably saving someone else’s life. Maybe. At the very least, we’re keeping some kind of good and evil balanced in the universe. Or perhaps we’re trying to give ourselves the opportunity to go fully in either direction. Would we be happier totally evil? Or will we spend the rest of our lives trying to be a better, kinder person? It seems likely why we’re so fixated with the bad guys in the first place. We’re hopeful they’ll help us decide.

“Avoiding villainy is not that different from avoiding loneliness,” writes Klosterman. “First you must love yourself. And if you do that convincingly enough, others will love you too much.”

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: official star wars

 

 

 

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.