October 20, 2016

Why Do We Feel Sympathy for Revolting Horror Film Monsters?

They're nasty. They're slimy. They're hellbent on killing us. So why do we love them so much?

Think about your favorite horror film monster. Is it the slow, lumbering serial killer Michael Meyers? Or the witty, pizza-faced Freddy Krueger? Or what about the Frankenstein monster, Godzilla, or King Kong? One thing all of these horror film/action/fantasy/sci-fi fiends have in common is that, for some reason despite their grotesque appearance and intentions to harm the innocent, viewers identify and sympathize with them. Why? In this video essay, Tope Ogundare explores the strange sympathetic response many of us have to horrible, often times revolting characters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Explaining exactly why audiences sympathize with villainous characters would be a project and a half, since there are so many theories out there that give different reasons as to why this happens. 

One interesting theory comes from a USC study conducted by Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, which suggests that the part of our brains associated with empathy becomes more active when we watch the demise and suffering of villains (or characters we don't like) than when we watch that of heroes (or characters we do like). Aziz-Zadeh explains:

When you watch an action movie and the bad guy appears to be defeated, the moment of his demise draws our focus intensely. We watch him closely to see whether he’s really down for the count, because it’s critical for predicting his potential for retribution in the future.

'Frankenstein' (1931)

Now, while this study speaks mainly on how human beings process pain in general, it doesn't get to the root of why we feel empathy for villainous characters—why we can feel sad when we see Godzilla being shot at, why we can relate so much more to the Joker than to Batman in The Dark Knightwhy we can root for one psychopathic serial killer over another (Silence of the Lambs).

Maybe it's because we see parts of ourselves in the villain, especially if their backstory explains what led them to a life of evil-doing, a narrative mechanism known as the Freudian Excuse. Essentially, giving a villain a reason for being evil does two things: it allows the villain to be as evil as it wants without "villain decay", and it gives the villain enough depth to inspire empathy. So, let's put the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the test.

  • Is the Creature villainous? Yes, it attacks innocent people.
  • Are you repulsed by the Creature at this point? Oh yes!
  • Why is it attacking innocent people? Because people are encroaching on its habitat.
  • Is that a good reason to attack innocent people? No.
  • But do you understand why someone would? Yes.

There isn't really a perfect answer or explanation, and the good thing about the video is that it leaves things kind of open ended. At the very least, it's a great jump off point for further research into the psychology of character archetypes, namely when it comes to villains.

To learn more about how to create interesting, and yes, even relatable, sympathetic antagonists, check out some of our other articles on the topic.     

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