Does Reading About Evil Make You Evil?

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I love dark fiction. I’ve always been fascinated by the problem of evil, and literature that grapples with diabolical themes gives me an opportunity to explore this very difficult subject in all of its many facets. I get to enter into the minds and souls of those who do evil, and am able to witness first hand the torment and destruction wrought by their wicked hands.  Is there something wrong with me? Is my fascination with evil the sign of a disturbed and demented mind?

Critics of dark fiction argue that stories which address sinister themes outside of a strictly didactic context necessarily glorify evil, and conclude that the act of reading such literature is, by extension, also evil. Conversely, proponents of dark fiction argue that evil is an inescapable part of life, and that we should not be afraid to tell the truth about it in literature. Which of these two voices should we listen to?

A distinction must be made.

Critics of dark fiction make the mistake of conflating two separate and distinct desires. They argue that because one hungers for an understanding of evil, that they must therefore hunger for evil itself. This is a non sequitur. Is a police officer evil for his fascination with the criminal mind, regardless of the fact that his motivation stems from a desire to prevent further criminal activity? To the contrary, his desire to know evil is rooted in a desire to do good.

FIctional characters enable us to know the mind of evil without becoming evil.

A desire to understand is an inextricable component of our human nature. We don’t just want to know what people do. We want to know why. What motivates someone to make certain choices? Why does one man decide to save a life while another decides to commit murder?

By entering the mind of a fictional character, we can discover answers to these questions. We are privy to their thoughts, their emotions, they’re motivations. We aren’t just exposed to the evil deeds they commit. We’re exposed to the rationale behind those evil deeds. This is very important, because only when we understand the causes of evil can we ever be in a position to do something about it.

Learning about evil teaches us how to be good.

One of the most potent ways to learn is by example. When we see a person act a certain way and observe the result, we take that experience with us as if it were our own. When a person’s actions have a positive outcome, we’re conditioned to emulate their behavior. Conversely, when a person’s actions have a negative outcome, we learn to avoid it.

An accurate portrayal of evil will necessarily showcase the consequences of bad behavior. Sometimes, these consequences will be practical in nature. A bank robber, for example, might slip up during a heist and leave behind clues that eventually lead to his arrest. Sometimes, the consequences will be more spiritual or psychological. A character in a novel might, for example, get away with murder. But if the author has a firm grasp of the human psyche, he will, simply by knowing his character well, reveal the terrible transformation that takes place inside his mind, now irrevocably tainted. From this devastating case study, we are given an opportunity to reflect on what evil can do to us if we allow it into our own hearts.

And, we witness first hand the pain and suffering that evil inflicts on others. We see lives reduced to ruin by greed and malice. We feel a deep sense of desolation and loss. We walk through a desert of despair, barren of all things good, and our hearts howl from their deepest depths for something better. Prolonged exposure to darkness makes the most miniscule act of kindness blaze like the sun. It makes us more sensitive to a right way of living.

In short, reading about evil makes us better people.

Encountering evil in stories reminds us that evil exists outside of stories.

It’s easy to drift through life, comfortable, complacent, apathetic to the suffering of others. Unless we’ve experienced hardship personally, it’s difficult for us to sympathize with those who have.

But when we encounter terrorists, thieves and murderers in fiction, we are reminded that these same criminals also exist in the real world. We are forced to confront an uncomfortable truth that we would otherwise prefer to brush aside. We are forced to watch as innocent characters weep and wail and gnash their teeth in unending agony at the hands of evildoers, and we are reminded that the same thing happens to real people. This awareness breeds empathy, which in turn breeds a genuine love for the rest of our human family and a desire to act against the injustices that afflict them.

Refusing to acknowledge evil is untruthful.

The world is not all pink fluffy bunnies, sunshine and rainbows. Art that intentionally ignores or attempts to sugar coat the darker realities of human life is a distortion, a twisted half-truth that is not only deceitful but dangerous. A selective view of the world through rose colored glasses enables us to look away as innocent people suffer. It allows us to pretend that the world is better than it is, that it’s ok for us to withdraw into ourselves and ignore the plights of others who are less fortunate.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with art that zeroes in on goodness and innocence, any more than there is something wrong with art that doesn’t. A balanced outlook is essential to a healthy understanding of the world, and we need also to be reminded of all the things that are good and right. But we must never turn a blind eye to evil. We must be willing to stare it down, to meet its malignant eyes gaze for gaze.

There is tragic beauty in dark literature.

When characters suffer, we cry for them. When an evildoer gets away with murder, we flush with anger and outrage. A good balance of light and dark allows us to explore the full spectrum of human emotions, which in turn leads us to a better understanding of ourselves. This is why the ancients devised great epics that dealt regularly with death and loss, as well as why great tragedies like Romeo and Juliet resonate so strongly and continue to persist throughout the ages.

Conclusion

Critics of dark fiction misunderstand us. They perceive a great multitude of maligned individuals prancing through the streets, approving of and even praising evil deeds. But nothing could be further from the truth. As lovers of dark fiction, we are those who are most sensitive to the devastating effects of evil. We are those who are most profoundly disturbed by its manifestation in the world. We are those who recognize more than anything else the terrible evil within ourselves. We are the ones who desire most of all to be better than we are.

We can respond to evil in one of two ways. We can bury our heads in the sand, sing Kumbaya and foolishly hope that evil will someday pass us over, that we can somehow wish it away, conquer it simply by refusing to acknowledge that it exists. Or we can face it, study it, try to understand our adversary so that we can better prepare for the task of striking it down. Which will you choose?

Author: Jeff Coleman

Jeff Coleman is a writer who finds himself drawn to the dark and the mysterious, and to all the extraordinary things that regularly hide in the shadow of ordinary life.

32 thoughts on “Does Reading About Evil Make You Evil?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this. I love dark fiction….not for the evil but for the light that is found in the darkness. It gives me hope that in darkness…..mine or someone else’s, light can be found. I am a huge fan of serial killer documentaries…..not because I am wanting to glorify them, but because I want to understand their minds and what drives them…because I myself cannot fathom what drives a person to such horror.

    1. Exactly how I feel. Have you seen the show Breaking Bad? The last season was very dark and started to get hard to watch, but I loved every minute of it, because it made me want to seek out the good in the world.

  2. A fascinating discussion. Is broadcast news guilty of glorifying evil? Sometimes. Does it make us more evil? Sometimes- when it manipulates the truth and fear-mongers. Fear is a evocative tool of evil. And most effective in the hands of the powerful

    As a writer, I’m often inside the mind of sociopaths and murderers. I become them, think and speak for them. I commit terrible cold-hearted deeds. Yet, in my “real” life, I’m a gentle, peaceful person. If anything, the evil I portray in my books is a reflection of evil I witness every day in the news. I have a responsibility to portray it in all it’s horrible glory in hopes that a reader will see the connection and speak against it in the real world. Evil in literature is provocative; evil in real life is evil – that’s where the critics should focus their attention.

  3. The answer to the question as stated is obviously “No”, or all mention of Hitler would be removed from history books and I would not have been able to visit Auschwitz.

    I would say that there is a duty and a need to understand evil and that can best be through both non-fiction and fiction. The best fictional treatments of truly evil characters (say Steerpike in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books or Captain Simonini in Umberto Eco’s “The Prague Cemetery”) makes them understandable but not admirable (there is something admirable about Steerpike’s dogged persistence, but it doesn’t make me want to BE Steerpike). There is, though, some writing about evil characters that invites you to admire them and share their pleasure at pain, say, while pretending to condemn them – and that too applies to non-fiction as well as fiction.

    Of course it’s also important to show that evil can be done by people who aren’t basically bad, just good at turning a blind eye or deceiving themselves or being deceived). The Himmlers and Idi Amins need people who make trains run on time and whose basic interest is in trains, not torture and mass murder. Plenty of war criminals have been good and apparently loving husbands and fathers.

  4. I typically prefer dark fiction because it feels closer to reality. I like the stories that will kill a favored character and leave you utterly shocked. That is reality. Everyone has their preference, I simply prefer the darker side of things.

    1. I’ve been through a lot in my life and have experienced plenty of my own darkness, so I tend to feel the same as you. I think it’s important to balance the darkness with some realistic good, but I don’t enjoy fiction that regularly turns a blind eye to the reality of evil.

  5. I am also fascinated with the aspect of a good’ character who falls to the temptation to do evil. How does ‘he/she’ reconcile those actions with their beliefs? Or an evil characters who finds himself preforming an act of goodness.

  6. Reblogged this on kendunning and commented:
    I have observed for some time that one way people who perform truly evil acts get away with them is that the average person cannot believe they would actually do such a thing. Some of the worst offenders spend considerable time cultivating a socially acceptable persona.

  7. It’s like exposing oneself to any other toxic or dangerous substance; what kind of protection do you have? It is important to be aware that evil can and does exist. I have witnessed for some time that one way that those who perform evil acts may get away with them is that the acts are so incomprehensible to the average person that, well, they can’t believe anyone would do that.

  8. I think its a matter of the person. There are some kids who play shooter games and are fine while a minority of kids who play, shooter games may lead them to violence.

  9. I like reading dark literature but most of my friends find it disturbing at times. I think there is just a need for them to take a moment and understand me (and dark stories) at some point. I hope that people would see these types of stories in a different way. I personally learned a lot from these stories but do not automatically reflect the way I act in public.

  10. I think we should listen to both points of view, because that makes for a balanced discussion and forces us to justify our own position. Personally I think that reading about something informs you about it, it doesn’t make you into it – otherwise we’d all be reading about genius to become one, and be experts in whatever we’re interested in.

    1. I agree on both counts. Learning about something doesn’t therefore force you to become that same thing. It’s also true that in our artistic pursuit of human understanding, we should take a balanced approach. Always reading about evil and darkness and never giving the good any attention would lead us toward a jaded view of humanity.

  11. it is good to understand the dark side,what could be wrong is conceptualizing it coz it can lead to fear-once it is understood then people will need not bury their heads

  12. It’s close to the argument that violent video-games make kids/adults violent. For the majority of us this is just an outlet,a way to experience something new without actually hurting others. Same with porn, as far as I know when it became accessible the number of rapes went down… So I see no evil in dark stories, dark art.

    1. I don’t completely agree with this. There’s a distinction to be made between reading about evil and revelling in evil. One allows themselves to be transformed into the evil they read about when they choose not just to be informed by or to appreciate evil for artistic reasons, but to fall in love with it, to partake in it because they desire it. This is especially true of porn, which incites desire for the kind of evil that should repel us. There is a world of difference between art that deals with an evil subject and material that’s evil itself.

  13. This is very interesting.
    When reading, dark fiction, or any other genre, it is usually the bad guy or character the reader is supposed to hate that I think is the most fascinating.
    I do not believe that this is a bad thing, as by studying and reading about evil in fiction, one can gain a firm grasp of right and wrong, and be able to recognise the possible underlying psychological signs of evil.

  14. I suppose it’s a little late to be commenting, but I love this essay. I wish more people (and more readers especially) understood that dark stories are no less worthy because of their darkness, and in some applications, they may even be counted as more worthy. I know that for me, reading dark stories (both in fiction and nonfiction) helped to give me a fuller picture of who people are, who I am, and what’s to be done when we encounter evil.

    1. Hi Hanna, thank you 🙂 I agree. Like you, dark fiction has helped me gain a better understanding of humanity. One curious thing I almost always walk away with after reading something dark is the powerful urge to be good.

  15. I believe in happy endings, but you are right that evil must be looked square in the eye through the lens of fiction. Could we appreciate what happens to Oliver Twist if not confronted with Bill Sykes’ heartless murder of Nancy? Dickens knew. How could a writer like Harper Lee convince us of the wrongness of “killing a mockingbird” if not for the contrast between Boo Radley and the mob who lusted to slay Tom Robinson? You have hit upon a conflict in the human soul that makes fiction useful and necessary. Well done, sir.

  16. This is great. Especially in connection to all the darker stories in our Contemporary time by some of the best authors of short stories as seen in the Best American Short Stories 2012 issue.

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