Should we really be so happy when a fictional villain dies painfully?

By Josh Kruger
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 18, 2014

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“Choke more painfully, you little shit!” I yelled at the television as the man onscreen sputtered and gasped for air. He looked pitiful, hemorrhaging and spasming as his skin turned from a flawless pink to a grotesque, vein-bulging gray. The cathartic release I felt watching grim justice depicted in such a high-dramatic, yet still pathetically human, way—honestly, it was more satisfying than some orgasms I’ve had.

This week, millions of Americans got what we’d long hoped for: the death of that turd Joffrey Baratheon on HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. And we’ve responded with macabre reveling. Huffington Post, for instance, published a piece titled “In Memoriam:  Joffrey Baratheon’s Bitchiest Moments,” in which writers Erin Whitney and Oliver Noble can’t help but observe: “King Joffrey died as he lived…like a little bitch.”

This is schadenfreude at its purest. The word is a German derivative meaning “harm joy,” by the way; it’s that cheap thrill we experience whenever someone rightly—in our mind, anyway—gets some sort of comeuppance. Nasty as it may seem, there’s a scientific basis for the feeling: Emily Anthes explains in the December 2010 issue of Scientific American that the “small, private rush of glee in response to someone else’s misfortune” activates areas of the brain in ways “comparable to that of eating a good meal.”

This meal is cheap, though—fast food, not five-star. While it provides the user with a profound sense of smug elation, it’s the exact opposite of the experience we human beings ought to be seeking every day: empathy.

Writing for io9 this week, Esther Inglis-Arkell penned a discussion on the social and psychological implications of schadenfreude, the article’s teaser image a picture of Joffrey Baratheon. In a thoughtful summation of the processes and implications of schadenfreude, Inglis-Arkell says: “We might like seeing other people brought low, but we don’t actually like thinking of what their pain realistically feels like.”

I have to agree. After a few days of dancing on that fantastic son-of-a-bitch’s grave, I’m feeling sort of guilty. The more I reflected upon Joffrey’s death, in fact, the more I started to figuratively grimace. 

“There’s a lot of a ugliness in shadenfreude,” Inglis-Arkell goes on, “there is the ugliness of the objects of schadenfreude, the people who are arrogant, spiteful, or negligent.”  Like poor ol’ Joffrey, that motherfucking cocksucker. But: “[M]uch of that can be erased when we spare a moment to think of the suffering of others,” she continues, and that “is a comparatively beautiful idea.”

This makes a lot of sense. I’d imagined the burning sensation of whatever medieval-style poison coursed through Joffrey’s veins. I paused and thought about his looking into his mother’s eyes, who, despite her son’s odious callousness and sadism, still very much loved him. What a terrible tragedy that must have been for him in that moment of his life.

His completely fictional life, that is. Which I was all jacked up about.

I shouldn’t feel too lame for experiencing real emotions over the bastard, though.  After all, it’s a very natural thing indeed to bond with—indeed, to empathize with—fictional characters. Even villains.

Howard Sklar, an English studies professor at the University of Helsinki, asks a rhetorical question in his paper, “Believable Fictions:  On the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Character” that focuses the seeming anomaly of having feelings for imaginary people and happenings. “Why, if fiction is indeed ‘merely fiction,’” he asks, “do we find offense in a fiction that violates our ethical principles… If it is ‘just fiction,’ why should we care?”

Sklar argues that “our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions” than some folks would like to admit. Rigorous analytical evidence shows that the more immersed readers or, indeed television viewers, become in these fictional alternate universes, the more real the emotional responses become. No kidding: Folks now live-tweet ongoing analyses of favorite television shows, and whole swaths of fans write their own alternate-fiction tales to elaborate on the adventures of their favorite characters.

This immersion in fantasy gives us a practical vehicle through which to convey very real philosophical and moral thoughts. Indeed, my editor at PW, to whom I am totally not sucking up here, coauthored a book titled Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture about this very phenomenon: Fiction makes us feel, and these feelings make us think and analyze our lives. In other words: Fiction makes us philosophize.

As Sklar says, “readers [and viewers] take significant elements of their experiences with fictional characters into their non-fictional worlds in ways that suggest they regard the emotions that they feel…as something more than fiction.” So, emotionally speaking, the joy we felt at seeing Joffrey die onscreen really was really, deep down, pretty much equivalent to feeling joy over the miserable death of a real human being.

No wonder I feel like an asshole.

But maybe I shouldn’t. If feeling real feelings over fiction is normal, that suggests we might actually be worse people if we just wrote off such stories as “mere” fiction without feeling anything at all.

So—I think I’m going to cut myself some slack. I mean, really, the fucker had it coming.

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