As we use December to reflect upon on the year, it would be easy to think that the last twelve months have been overflowing with harrowing conflict, terror attacks, celebrity deaths, and general political upheaval. In these mysterious times, it’s easier to sit on your sofa and watch a film or TV show that takes you out of the reality of life – even if it’s at least for ninety minutes.
Do me a favour for a minute, would you? I want you to close your eyes. Think about your happy place for a second…whether it’s a sandy beach with azure skies or Leatherface’s dungeon, just clear everything from that juicy noggin of yours for a moment.
Are you thinking about nothing? Give it another second or two. Breathe in for five seconds. Now breathe out for seven seconds. Get into that zen-like frame of mind. Now…think about your favourite television show. There’s quite a few, right? Just pick the first one that popped in there. Now think about your favourite character from that show. Is he cooking meth in an RV truck? Is she teaching a class about how to get away with murder? Or maybe you’re thinking about a motorcycle gang member or a mobster family. The point is, you’re likely rooting for these characters, right? Over the course of the season, you became invested in their emotional struggles, conflict and strife. You want that mobster to get over his panic attacks, you want that meth lord to bring home the bacon and make everything right with his family.
“You want that mobster to get over his panic attacks, you want that meth lord to bring home the bacon and make everything right with his family.”
In the last decade, there’s been an unprecedented rise in the number of movies and TV shows with flawed characters and anti-heroes that have taken the mantle as the main protagonist of the series instead of the typical hero archetype. But why do we love them? Why do we find ourselves rooting for the ones who steal, lie and cheat? Why do we support the ones who sell meth and murder innocents? The ones who betray their lovers, alienate their friends and get even at any cost. What does this say about us?
According to Albert Einstein, “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious”. Villains make the most out of this notion. They are often secretive, malevolent and conduct their business in the shadows. In fact, the more mysterious a villain is, the more potential they have to scare the audience. Take Thomas Harris’s character Hannibal Lector, for example. In The Silence of The Lambs, he’s presented to rookie FBI Agent Clarice Starling as an emotionless, almost Dracula-like figure. Unblinking. Pale. Ghastly. But as the film nears its third act, we, the audience, have begun to invest into the weirdly nuanced relationship between Starling and Lector.
By the time the credits roll, Lector has escaped and is planning to exact revenge on an unsuspecting Dr. Chillton, but we don’t find ourselves horrified by this. In fact, in most cases we find the opposite. We want Chilton to get his comeuppance by the hands of Lector. It’s the dark, reptilian side of our own brains relishing in the ‘what if’ scenario. What if we were Lector, uncompromising and cold-blooded? What if we could commit heinous crimes, get away with them and not feel guilty?
Since our childhood, a common culture chases us all into the rigid frames of behaviour and morality. Unless you’re displaying sociopathic tendencies, even when you have rebelled or played up, it’s not usually without regret or remorse. Our conscience will not let always let us play the bad guy, because we know there are consequences in the real world. Fail to do that homework, you’ll be reprimanded by your folks and teachers. Fail to do the dishes, then they’ll pile up and in time you’ll have more to do in the long run. Don’t get that article in on time to Nightmare on Filmstreet? Then Jonathan and Kimberley will come over to the UK with a red-hot branding poker with the intention to use it with swift and righteous execution. [Editor’s Note: We call it “The Tingler”]
“We live in an age of ultra-fast news and digital relevance, layered with divorce, corruption and celebrity meltdowns, and the age of realizing that no one is perfect and heroes are fallible creatures.”
In comparison, a movie or TV villain neglects all society’s rules and restrictions and enjoys the windfall of their actions. There is a part of us that admires that, even if we don’t condone it. But are the lines blurring between what makes a bad guy…bad? Let’s take Walter White in Breaking Bad. As a form of entertainment, Vince Gilligan’s story of a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer who turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s future is at times hauntingly tragic, brutally visceral and tinged throughout with black comedy.
On the surface, Walter has a plan to get to a certain amount of money before quitting and thus ensuring the financial safety of his family. But as he starts to build his empire, he begins to find it harder to relinquish control over his newfound enterprise. An entire nation was found rooting for a meth lord who turned to murder and betrayal to keep his empire functioning. We watched in earnest at the dissolution of his marriage, friendships, and career to gain power and wealth. Now, what if you found out that Walter White was your Uncle, or brother?
Admitting that someone close to you is a bad person who has committed a heinous crime isn’t always easy to do, and it certainly doesn’t ring well with the social etiquette we’ve been raised on by our elders. We see it frequently on the news when parents are unable to come to terms with the crimes that their children have committed, when a wife is unable to accept that her husband has cheated on her, or when someone is astounded that their neighbour is actually the local serial killer. This is also the case with the anti-hero characters that we see on our screens.
We live in an age of ultra-fast news and digital relevance, layered with divorce, corruption and celebrity meltdowns, and the age of realizing that no one is perfect and heroes are fallible creatures. Unlike the shows of our parents’ generation, when the main characters were virtuous examples of the ideal citizen, housewife, husband or child, the characters we find onscreen now are the disenfranchised: the flawed and the evil that encompasses our true culture, not just projections of what we want it to be. We want to see people like us, the freaks with flaws and mixed morals. We want to watch people who don’t know how to behave correctly and don’t always make the morally correct decision.
“We love watching antiheroes onscreen because, secretly, we want to be those characters […] t’s a compelling phenomenon based on the concept that we are rooting for someone who is violating everything we’ve ever known as right.”
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler is a man with questionable morals but has a fervent zealous determination to ‘make it’ in the news industry, whatever the cost. One could argue that his approach as a self-sufficient player in the role of crime journalism is entrepreneurial and cutthroat, whilst others would shy away from the lengths he goes to in order to ‘get the story’, but that’s what makes his character so intriguing. It’s the anti-hero who does not have the traditional qualities of an admirable leading man or woman.
As an audience member, we don’t know what lengths they’ll go to in order to achieve their goals. He or she lacks courage, kindness and nobility, but most notably, moral goodness. We love watching antiheroes onscreen because, secretly, we want to be those characters. Even if it was for a few hours, or a few days – a character wrought with flaws and demons, disregarding the normal societal processes for his or her own agenda, well- that’s something interesting, isn’t it? It’s a step outside our regular, routinely life. It’s something away from the 9-5, the microwave meals and the rat-race. It’s a compelling phenomenon based on the concept that we are rooting for someone who is violating everything we’ve ever known as right.
We follow these characters throughout their journeys because sometimes we don’t always want a happy ending. Sometimes, it’s cathartic to see the bad guy win. Sometimes, it makes us feel better about our personal regrets, and the lies we tell friends and family so we don’t have to feel so bad about our own mistakes and flaws when we see others doing the same.
If you love anti-heroes and good guys that just can’t help but be bad, let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!