Her: Why are we watching this, these are awful awful people.
Me: They are terrible. But we have to finish the last two episodes.
A quick survey of Netflix, Amazon prime, and HBO Max ‘top 10’ lists demonstrates the popularity of shows with morally ambivalent or reprehensible characters, terrible deeds, and downright diabolical behavior.￼ From the numbing excess of bling nation, docudramas about killers and con artists, story lines featuring sociopaths￼, unchecked greed, cruelty, and corruption, and even superheroes gone bad, the sheer numbers show that we are fascinated by turpitude.
Humans have long fixed a penetrating collective gaze on evil and disaster. We rubberneck in the wake of car crashes; we pore over biographies of serial killers and tyrants, and horror movies and crime shows are a consistent staple of entertainment. Bad people hold our interest.
Does our curiosity about the malign serve or hinder us?
*Awful people help us look at our own dark side.
Psychologist Carl Jung was among the first to call for exploration of the human dark side. Dr. Jung spoke of a personal “shadow”—a representation of everything flawed, selfish, and base in us, and argued that an intimate knowledge of the shadow is essential for growth. By making our own darkness conscious, we have more awareness and insight of our potential for good and evil.
Evolutionarily speaking, familiarizing ourselves with that which is most fear-inducing probably pays dividends for survival. Earlier in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous, and negative people and threats was literally a matter of life and death. ￼A research study in 2010, conducted by the department of psychology at the University of Illinois, found that young women are especially drawn to crime shows and books.
Anecdotally, I have found that my own patients, particularly teens or young adult women, frequently favor true life crime/forensic shows and horror movies. They report that ‘watching’ the crime, perpetrator, problem solving process, and often, the outcome, is satisfying, especially when justice is served at the end.
Being able to identify potentially dangerous situations and people can provide self-protection. After watching the docuseries, ‘Inventing Anna’, featuring a protagonist who leaves destruction, socially, financially, and emotionally, in her wake, one of my clients remarked,“why didn’t they see her for who she was?” Watching awful people can be a life lesson.
Negative events and people have a greater impact on our brains than positive ones. Psychologists refer to this as the negativity bias. Neuropsychological￼ evidence has shown that there is greater neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli. Studies that involve measuring event-related brain potentials (ERPs), which show the brain’s response to specific sensory, cognitive, or motor stimuli, have shown that negative stimuli elicit a larger brain response than positive or neutral ones. Our brains literally find awful people/situations to be stimulating.
*Learning from terrible people
Understanding awfulness can serve as a kind of inoculation against it. A 2012 study found that reading books about dastardly deeds as part of a university course increased participants’ desire to make positive changes in the world around them. Fascination with the human dark side can obviously swing in either direction. But we take a look.