Murder, She Read: Why Bad Deeds Make Good Fictions

One of the great pleasures of reading a good novel, watching a compelling movie, or going to a well-acted play is getting to experience things that our everyday lives don't offer us. Sometimes these experiences are grand and terrifying, like the battles portrayed in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869) or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King (1955). Sometimes they are less exalted but no less satisfying, like the witty, cutting dialogues and observations of a Jane Austen novel, an Oscar Wilde play, or a Neil LaBute movie. Sometimes they are even downright immoral -- what pleasures would romance novels or cable TV shows offer, for example, if they didn't allow readers to indulge secondhand in sexual escapades that would be unacceptable in real life?

What makes something that would be uncomfortable, unpleasant, or even downright scary in real life become pleasurable when viewed on a stage, screen, or page? In critical terms, this is the difference made by mimesis -- the representation of reality, rather than reality itself. Aristotle coined the term catharsis to describe the emotional release experienced by the audience that witnesses representations of fallen nobility in tragic drama -- the self-mutilation of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, for example, or the final-act deaths of so many of Shakespeare's heroes. The tears that we shed at Hamlet's death, so the theory goes, provide a kind of workout for our feelings that leave us happily exhausted, emotionally speaking.

To achieve this effect, of course, the tragic event must seem real enough to move us, yet not actually be taking place. Witnessing someone die or be killed in real life is traumatic, especially if we are in danger too. By contrast, when we watch or read about the death of a character whose existence we know is not real, even if we have become emotionally attached to him or her, we intuitively maintain enough distance between ourselves and the fictional, dramatic, or cinematic event taking place that we can draw meaning from it even as it takes place, or shortly thereafter.When first Romeo and then Juliet take their own lives, for example, we may be dismayed and even upset, but we are also encouraged by the necessarily removed nature of the representation to ask ourselves what (if anything) Shakespeare's famously star-crossed lovers could have done to avert their unfortunate deaths. The play's ability to spark untold numbers of conversations about the respective roles of fate and free will in human existence is proof that tragedy in its mimetic form redeems itself intellectually as well emotionally.

The same principle holds true, although perhaps on a less intellectual level, for literary genres like horror and suspense. In reality, being chased through the woods by an ax-wielding madman intent on decapitating you seems unlikely to be an enjoyable experience, to put it mildly. Generations of readers and moviegoers, however, have thrilled to the vicarious experience of such terrors, presumably because their real safety allows them to enjoy such scenes aesthetically. Edmund Burke, better known for his denunciations of the French Revolution, remains a key figure in the history of aesthetics for theorizing this principle in his A Philosophical Enquiry into ... the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).

As Western societies moved from being organized on the basis of rank (i.e. birth) to being organized based on class (i.e. wealth), moreover, audiences learned to appreciate the deaths of heroes who were bourgeois rather than noble, and to enjoy the perils of protagonists placed in situations within the realm of possibility even if frequently outside the ambit of everyday life. Most readers do not possess the powers of deduction granted to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, for example, nor do we expect to find ourselves matching wits with villains bent on grand crimes. But we all encounter quotidian mysteries -- Where did I leave my car keys again? Can I figure out which cards are probably held by the other poker players? -- which allow us to identify with Sherlock Holmes' adventures as well as to admire his intellect.

But what about the other type of dramatic or fictional pleasures I mentioned above: those that stem from witnessing or reading about representations of acts that are cruel, illicit, or illegal? Why is it generally considered not only acceptable but even pleasurable to read about adultery and murder -- probably the most popular illicit/ illegal acts to appear in popular novels and Hollywood movies, although of course they frequently show up in more highbrow works too -- when society doesn't tolerate them in real life? Here, in addition to Aristotle's catharsis, we can introduce Freud's related but distinct idea of sublimation: the concept that pent-up psychic energy, especially of a sexual or aggressive bent, can find a harmless and even productive release in more elevated expressions. According to this theory, authors write -- and, for that matter, readers read -- about acts of violence, cruelty, dishonesty, or aggression precisely so that they don't actually commit them in real life. For Freud, sublimation is the basis of civilized society itself. For the rest of us, it might just be the ticket to a perfectly harmless day of beach reading.