Slapping Society in the Face: Why We’re Fascinated with the Dark Side

“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours; and maybe you can even sense that our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.”  The above quotation, spoken by the infamous Patrick Bateman, chillingly portrayed by the incomparable Christian Bale in the 2000 film of the same name as the novel written by Bret Easton Ellis; sent chills down my spine the first time it crossed my hearing.

What is it about those who are rebels to the societal norm that attracts our attention? Make no mistake about whom I’m referring to, I don’t talk about the people who spray graffiti on walls, or who choose to wear bright orange clothing with pink hair. No, the people I refer to have a much darker way of turning their backs on society. Why is popular culture seemingly obsessed with films, literature, music and even news about men and women who snap and make it the mission of their lives to commit murder and torture?

Though popular culture of the new millennium embraces it, it is not a subject that has just started receiving attention in the last twenty years. The prolific horror and crime fiction writer Edgar Allan Poe displayed a fascination with the psychology of people who commit murder, calling the reasoning behind their atrocities, perversity. In two of his short stories, The Imp of the Perverse, and The Black Cat, both narrators commit murder, and claim that there was something inside them that compelled them to do so. The murderer in the Imp of the Perverse claimed that his confession was driven by an incredible compulsion inside of him that he couldn’t control. This compulsion, the narrator claimed, was perversity. The argument that Poe makes within these two texts is that there is something perverse that exists in all of mankind; it causes us to do actions or create situations due to the fact that we cannot control them. We all have darkness within us, and there will be a time where it will be unleashed and control us all.

Could the same argument then be made for a serial killer such as Patrick Bateman? Is it the perversity inside him that drives him, or some innate evil that he was born with, that he alone controlled when to unleash it? Or was it the incredible shallowness and self absorption of those in his social class that motivated him to make the first kill? I believe that it was the emptiness of his life, the emptiness of people around him, and the fact that although Bateman wished to fit in, he simultaneously wanted to be recognized. He killed indiscriminately those who he believed didn’t deserve life, from the men he worked with, whose lives were hollow, shallow shells, to those he thought lacked the will to do anything with their lives, such as bums on the street. He killed in order to fill the hollow emptiness within himself, and in his desperate confession was still amazed to find that no one knew him. No matter what he chose to do, in his world, he, Patrick Bateman was invisible to those around him. Could his reasons for killing still be attributed to Poe’s argument and belief in perversity?

And what about the famed Dr. Hannibal Lecter? What could a psychiatrist want with murder? Is it the knowledge and the power to lord over his patients and his would be captors? Is the ability to manipulate thoughts and feelings until they cause their own deaths what Lecter craves for? I believe that Lecter craves the power, he craves the psychological puzzles that cause his would be captors and his victims to run in circles towards insanity. He is the perpetrator and the creator and the one who forces answers to surface that were previously dead and buried not too long ago. It is not perversity in his case; it is the innate pleasure derived from manipulation, from control, a game that Lecter believes must be played in the game of life.

Why then, do we as the public and consumers of popular culture continually immerse ourselves in such darkness? Fascination is simultaneous with fear; we are consistently fascinated by what it is that we do not understand, yet at the same time fearful of it; for no reason other than we fear to see it within ourselves. Poe certainly makes the argument that that darkness exists within all of us, and it will be unleashed because we do not want it to be. We fear becoming depraved, evil, heartless, and most often, we fear being ostracized for atrocities against our fellow man. And yet, same as individuals such as Bateman and Lecter, we crave notoriety, recognition, and to some extent, fame. Our curiosity betrays us in an elaborate maze, searching for the answers and the justification behind the minds of such brutal killers, if not for self-preservation, then for the seeming façade of science. The riddles of human mind enslaves society as a captive audience, compelling us to discover, to understand, the meaning behind madness; because fear brings an excitement, an adrenaline unsurpassed by anything else.

The actions of such fictionalized serial killers as Bateman and Lecter attract us, because they do not care about the bounds of society. Laws are there for them to rip apart, to bend as they wish in order to serve their purposes. There is a part of all of us that wishes to rebel, to cast off the restraints and boundaries in society and live our lives the way we wish, and the extreme in which these killers destroy the law in murdering their victims excite the rebels in us who wish for a taste of that rebellion; even if it is through the pages of a novel, or the silver screen of a film. The dark side of humanity does not only extend into literature and film, but also into music and world of graphic novels.

Individuals and bands such as Marilyn Manson and Evanescence pen songs dealing with blood, death, pain, and suicide, invoking the dark side of pain. Marilyn Manson’s own stage name was combined to illustrate the duplicity not only of Hollywood, but of society. The Joker of the Batman comic universe deals his cards of murder and mayhem concurrently with laughter. Indeed, his victims die of laughter. We celebrate the glitz and glamour of those who are beautiful, talented and famous, while also training the relentless spotlight on those who we consider evil, the fictionalized murderers, and their real-life counterparts.

How many publications, both for research and pure interest purposes have been written on the lives, crimes, and motivations of serial killers? How many hours of news coverage, interviews, and breaking investigations, such as those on Dateline or 48 Hours Mystery; have been devoted to killers such as David Berkowitz, or Aileen Wuornos? What about the names that still brings chills to those of us who remember, in Ted Bundy or Ed Gein? Indeed films have been made to glamorize the actions of such depraved, disturbed, and cold individuals, Monster, and Summer of Sam, to name a few.  As our fascination extends beyond the realm of fiction and into reality, the question must be asked: where do we draw the line?

The answer is not a simple one, and as such cannot be summarized in neat one or two sentences. However, it is certain that so long as there is fame, and there exists the continuing supply of such blood, torture, murder and brutality against our fellow man, both in fantasy and reality; human nature will continue to be curious about it. It is a belief that should we succeed in understanding these individuals, we will succeed in understanding ourselves. And, then, perhaps, there will be no need for fear.