What is our cultural fixation on romanticising psychopathic behaviour? Grant Morrison touched on this at his drug-addled DisInfocon lecture many years back.
“John Wayne Gacey?” He said, “John Wayne Gacey’s a fucking prick, killed a bunch of innocent people and did some shit paintings.”
And yet people pour over these admittedly shit paintings, hoping to gleam some dark kernel of insight from the artwork of a madman who butchered children. What are they hoping they’ll find?
The human being is predictable. We’ve had about 4000 years of civilisation to get to know the human, and hir behaviours haven’t changed that dramatically. We eat, we sleep, we procreate, and in one of nature’s little flourishes we also developed an advanced consciousness that allows us to consider ourselves and our place in the universe. To pull a quote from True Detective:
“I believe human consciousness was a tragic misstep in our evolution. Nature created an aspect of itself separate from itself.”
Perhaps our fascination with the macabre habits of our darker representatives is rooted in the “unheimlich”, or what we call the uncanny. We’ve gotten so used to the human that it really spooks us when they throw a curveball at us. Did WE do that, we ask ourselves? One of US? Us guys, who painted cathedral ceilings and built nanomachines and discovered that if you tug on pork a little people will pay fucking bank to eat it in a dusty focaccia roll?
We’re horrified/obsessed by our own capacity for inventive cruelty. People describe brutality as “animalistic,” but animals are far more to-the-point in their bloodshed. You won’t find any SS officers among a herd of hippos, and no capuchin monkeys ever formed their own adorable version of the Tonton Macoute. There aren’t any bears performing Mengele-esque experiments in dank operating rooms.
We’re the worst animal, and we love/hate being reminded of such. Perhaps this is why media always paints the psychopath as a cultured artiste. Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan: these are charming, personable eccentrics with an inventive flair. We like to remind ourselves that with all of our potential for expression, beauty and critical thinking, we nevertheless retain a capacity for unimaginable malevolence, and it is this very creative aspect of ourselves which grants us the ability to devise horrific means of violence and torture, both physical and psychological.
There is another potential angle to all this, though. Quick question; do you play video games, reader? If not, congrats, I’m sure your life is very fulfilling. But to anyone who answered “yes,” let me ask you: How many virtual people have you killed? This is a rhetorical question, and I’d be pretty unsettled by anyone who could actually give me a confident answer. If you’ll continue to indulge this tangent, let me ask; how many people were disposed of like so much cannon-fodder in the last action or horror movie you watched?
This is a round-about way of pointing out that ours is a society desensitised to violent death. It’s popcorn stuff, entertainment. Hell, ask any crime reporter: “The gorier the better,” they’ll tell you before getting into a fistfight with the guy from Channel 6 about who gets the closest shot of the crying, blood-drenched students outside the community college.
We’ve had so much blood, gore and war for breakfast that we start to crave something a bit ‘spicier’ for dinner. So we make the killer’s inventive. We give them layered personalities. We give them complex motivations and a modus operandi to die for.
It seems kind of dull, in the long view. A room full of coked-up semi-creatives trying to figure out the most sensational kind of violence for this week’s episode, for this year’s series title. Hopefully we’ll eventually get over our violence-obsession, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.
Anecdotally, many of my friends are making the shift towards veganism lately. I myself am sort of dabbling with it. I don’t think I’ve eaten meat or dairy in a week, and that’s without even trying. But even within these conscientious, kindly people beat the black hearts of warlords, assassins and and butchers. My girlfriend hasn’t eaten meat in years and won’t even let a balloon fly into the air because it might (read: probably will) suffocate a dolphin one day, but she loves her some Game of Thrones. A good friend of mine is a hardcore vegan with a huge axe to grind against the military-industrial-complex, but during our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns he regularly bathes his dark god’s amulet in the open, sucking chest-wounds of the recently slain.
I’m no different. I’m probably worse, because I’m not even trying to make the world a better place in my day-to-day. It’s just unsettling to think about: we’re so tied to our bloodlust that we can comfortably manage the cognitive dissonance of adopting a position of pacifism while racking up 1000 kills in about 15 minutes in a game of Dynasty Warriors.
An end note: I don’t have any research to back this up, so blow me, but I read somewhere that generally speaking, horror movies and violent media don’t tend to sell well in nations that have recently or are currently experiencing genuine war and upheaval. It brings to mind the part in Girls where Lena Dunham’s character is freaking out about STDs at the clinic, and somehow brainfarts her way into thinking that her obsession with AIDs might be an unconscious desire to contract the virus, which earns her the most withering fucking stare of all time from her doctor, who gravely asserts that “No, you do not want AIDs.”
All this artificial violence. When the real thing suddenly slams down into the street, leaving tattered, bloody rags and shoes that might/might not have feet in them strewn about, will we still want to watch Samuel L. Jackson blow someone’s brains out? It’s been a century since the Great War, which heralded the mechanisation of the war-machine. Up until that point, war was still seen by many as something ‘glorious,’ ‘noble,’ ‘honourable.’ It was only when people received news that “Your son has been chewed up like fucking hamburger by artillery, his death served no purpose, nothing was learnt, God Save The King,” that we realised the terrible corner we’d backed ourselves into.
We learn nothing.