Why we love Darth Vader and other villains

For a culture that is getting more and more irreligious, we have an abiding and growing fascination with evil.

One of my cherished memories as a kid is waiting in line for hours to see the original Star Wars movie and then the spectacle itself. A thrill went through me when Darth Vader walked on screen, all black-clothed, masked, and deep-voiced with that breathy respirator. Here was evil incarnate. He was powerful. He was enigmatic. He was brutal. He was almost impossible to stop. He was a truly worthy opponent for the heroes to face and defeat.

When the Blair Witch Project movie came out, one of my co-workers went to see it and spent two hours of my day the following day telling me all about it. His retelling was longer than the movie itself! He was so disturbed by it — and loved the feeling of being disturbed — that he simply had to relive that feeling by walking me through every detail.

For some reason, our imaginations are drawn to evil. And we dream up all kinds of evil with those imaginations. I’m continually amazed by how our storytellers outdo themselves in imagining worse forms of evil.

My wife and I were watching an episode of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD recently in which there was a meta-human who fed on people’s pain. That was pretty horrifying in and of itself. But then we discovered that this villain was an innocent seeming little girl. And that twisting of what we assume to be innocent made our horror (and fascination!) go through the roof.

This is why we get up in arms when a priest turns out to be a pedophile. This man who should be holy and compassionate turns out to be a beast most despicable. And we are horrified.

And we like being horrified. It accomplishes several things for us at the same time.

1. It gives us our transcendence fix. We were made for More. We long to experience the Beyond. And though many villains aren’t supernatural, they are super (from the German über: above, beyond). They give us a sense of something bigger.

My co-worker who had to talk about his Blair Witch Project experience called horror movies “spiritual porn,” because they give us a sense to the supernatural while keeping it on the screen, not intruding in our lives.

2. It turns our eyes away from the evil inside of ourselves. We’re all sinners. We know it. But we don’t like acknowledging it. And if there’s someone far more evil than I am on the screen (or in the book I’m reading), then I feel far better about myself.

Even though it’s a logical fallacy, we like the measuring stick of comparison. I say to myself, “I may do some bad stuff, but I’m not a bad person. I’m no Hitler.”

3. It satisfies our need for good to triumph over evil. The more out of control our lives feel, the more we need to see someone on screen or in a book beating down the darkness and taking back control.

This is one of the reasons why the Lords of the Rings trilogy of movies was such a big hit following the terrorism of 9/11. (Sure, the books were amazing in their own right.) After such a blow to impenetrable America, we needed a terrible foe to fight and defeat. Although there was no attempted link between Osama bin Ladin and Sauron, having the defeat of Sauron’s pure evil portrayed on screen gave the American people the boost we needed as we faced our own evil enemy.

4. It reminds us that there actually is evil in the world. And, yes, the villains do remind us that things aren’t right in the world. Boogeymen do exist. The devil does prowl like a roaring lion.

We need the Voldemorts and the Hydras and the SPECTREs of fiction to remind us that we haven’t out-grown or out-scienced or out-legislated or out-educated evil. It’s still with us and still needs to be dealt with. And thankfully, one day it will be fully and finally dealt with. Until then, we’ll play with our villains, reminding ourselves of evil and yet keeping it at arm’s distance.