Schadenfreude, or why do we like to watch bad things happen to good people?

Surely we've all wondered!

In reality, I don't like to hurt people, and I am often outraged at the violence committed against people by other people. And yet, I watch horror film after horror film in which innocent people get butchered one by one by some raving lunatic.

It is, of course, pure fiction, and I have no problems separating reality from fiction. Nor can I say that I really enjoy watching people get hurt, not in the way that I enjoy watching something like porn. There is no sensory stimulation associated with pleasure in the viewing of horror films. Nor do I like gore in particular. In movies I can tolerate it, but for example, in the kitchen I won't even touch raw meat if I can help it.

And I can't say that it is the thrill of being scared. Horror movies don't scare me at all, nothing does really, though sometimes I do find them suspenseful.

So why is it that I'd rather watch a slasher film over a Disneyesqe feel-good family film? What are your opinions and experiences?

Tags: blood, cinema, film, gore, horror, movies, schadenfreude, thrillers, violence

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Replies to This Discussion

What does IRL stand for -- irrational?

I'm very morbid too, and I have a lot of books and things on death (yet I still won't touch raw meat). I also have my sado-masochistic moments, especially related to sex. But sex is a different realm as far as I'm concerned.

I'm not sure how I feel about the fusion of horror and humor. I've seen quite a bit of it -- such as Tales from the Crypt, etc., but it is not my favorite. Like you, I really like gothic/supernatural/suspense horror over slasher, but I'll watch either.

Have you ever read "The Hound" by Lovecraft?
Good question. I don't personally enjoy slasher or gore movies though. You included a pic from Saw (?), and I am disappointed with the recent trend of movies like that in current horror. Can't they like, return to good ol' suspense? Generally horror movies don't scare me either unless they got some really good suspense in it, something I generally only feel when watching psychological horror/thrillers. I like when we cannot tell what is real or not in a horror movie, but ultimately I believe we watch because we want to see the things we absolutely don't want to see or experience in real life.

I have often fantasized whether my life is real or not, and sometimes I can feel my life as very surreal, and maybe I am just scared to one day realize I woke up and the life I had been leading up until now was just a dream :)

I also totally love psychopatic characters, characters who are just completely out of their minds. Not just in the sense that they go hack people to small bits and pieces, but they have no fear, no hopes, no love. The Joker character in Batman is a good example, especially his portrayal by Heath Ledger. I think the reason why I enjoy them is because they are free in so many ways normal people aren't: they can basically do whatever they want and still somehow always get away with it.

Normal psychopaths like in Saw, etc, don't impress me much since their role as such in the movie is just to inflict as much pain as possible to others but we never get to know them as characters.

I believe the reason I am drawn to these characters is a wish that I want to be like them. I think Tyler Durden in Fight Club is a good example of this: he is the epitome of free of what the narrator simply isn't, something he himself also comments on.
@Leah: That image is from Hostel. You've touched on some important points that I want to address, but I can't do that right at this moment. I'll get back to you on this. Thanks for replying.
An addition of what I wrote earlier: a major point with good horror I guess is the part where it says "it could be you". I guess that's why gore and slasher movies never amaze or surprise me much: I cannot personally feel for any of the characters (that many times are so archetypical and cliché you wonder whether the screenwriter has any imagination of his or her own) and feel that this indeed could be happening to me; in comparison to the movies having a psychological basis which can be related to my previous mention that I sometimes feel the world being very surreal at no given basis.

I believe I would have it a lot easier to develop say, a psychosis or schizofrenia than being slashed up by someone who suffers it so to speak.

Speaking of comedy and horror, have you ever seen Tremors? I actually think it managed to merge horror with comedy elements quite well. Unfortunately, the comedy made the movie completely unbelievable as a horror and rather made it funny than scary. It basically ended up as a comedy movie with gory elements. There are also of course typical splatter movies such as Bad Taste or Brain Dead; but then again, the gore is so unrealistic it becomes rediculous and thus funny.
Sorry it took me so long to reply to this. I kind of forgot about it. Honestly, I don’t think most people can do suspense any more, and I kind of think we’re not capable of experiencing it either. We’ve desensitized ourselves too much.

What is suspenseful?: When you can see something about to happen to a person, but they are unaware of it. Basically, that is it. If you don’t know, it’s not suspense, it is surprise.

Forty years ago when someone was watching something like Rear Window, that was suspenseful, but mainly because in many ways the culture was so naïve. Just imagine, these people never saw a movie where someone was disemboweled, decapitated, and then screwed.

Like you, I can take or leave the gore. I do like the psychological thrillers best, but I also like supernatural ones if they are not cheesy and overdone. I also like “when we cannot tell what is real or not in a horror movie”, as I think that is an important feature.

You know the last movie that really surprised me was The Sixth Sense, because like so many other people, I did not see that that guy was dead all along (it was written so well). But people that can pull that off are few and far between, and Shyamalan just got lucky with that one, cuz his other movies are awful.

“…I believe we watch because we want to see the things we absolutely don't want to see or experience in real life.” Agreed.

I have not seen the Batman movie with Ledger yet, but I have seen the previews. Maybe that is why the Joker has had such lasting value as a villain. He is by far the favorite of the series.

“…they can basically do whatever they want and still somehow always get away with it.” Our culture loves this in our heroes as well, as we live in the age of the anti-hero. Just think of all the movies where a reformed bad guy comes to work for the good guys, but still gets to use all his bad guy means to achieve the good guy ends.

I agree, I’ve seen Saw, but it is not that impressive.

Like you, I also really like characters (good or bad) that are in such inner turmoil. I think that is what I liked about The Machinist. Did you like Memento?

“…Tyler Durden in Fight Club is a good example of this: he is the epitome of free of what the narrator simply isn't, something he himself also comments on.” Everybody loves Tyler Durden. Everybody wants to be Tyler Durden. I have always been drawn to, and impressed by, free spirited people like this in arts, music, philosophy, etc., though I am not that way myself. I’m very uptight in many ways, I guess. I just can’t be that open and free and confident. This is OT, but I think that that is one reason I like traditional Flamenco music, as they are so open and expressive in their singing and dancing. I just can’t do that.

“…you wonder whether the screenwriter has any imagination of his or her own.” I don’t think they do any more.

I have not seen Tremors. Not sure I’ve heard of it. Never seen Bad Taste or Brain Dead either.
Last great suspense movie I saw was A Tale of Two Sisters. Korean horror. I'm glad to see that Asian screenwriters picked up where we Westerners sort of left it, and that Asian horror in general much more rely on atmosphere than on gore, and this is probably the reason why I find Asian movies to be so much more delightful right now. With that said, not all Asian horror is void of gore, a movie such as Ichi the Killer (Korochiya Ichi) added it as a form of very dark humor.

I think great atmosphere is very important, one of the latest atmospheric movies I saw were Pan's Labyrinth and Let the Right One In. They were atmospheric in very different ways, but the atmosphere added a lot to the storytelling by just being there. I found both to be great movies with somewhat surprising and to an extent, open endings. Especially the scene with the pale man left a deep mark within me. Despite Pan's Labyrinth not generally being horror, I found that scene horrific, in lack of a better term. It scared the shit out of me, and several nights after I still imagined the pale man entering my bedroom after going to bed (I easily get paranoid I should add, but only great scenes leave that impression). I guess the reason why the scene affected me so, was because of the suspense you so clearly laid out. It was obvious the pale man would ultimately chase her.

I don't mind supernatural movies that are well done either, and a psychological thriller can very well for me involve supernatural phenomena, later explained scientifically (and thus no longer remain supernatural in nature) or remain as they are for me. I think the latest movie I enjoyed within the horror genre mostly relying on the supernatural was White Noise which I actually enjoyed despite to my belief. It had some elements which I would define a part of classical horror, and most of all it was pretty void of gore or blood in general, which proves to me that a movie can still be good without it.

I have not seen The Machinist nor Memento. I guess I should.

As for Tyler Durden, the thing he is doing is that he is defying the culture he is living in as opposed to the narrator, quite nicely laid out by the narrator's line when he was told by the police officer that they didn't know who blew up his apartment: "No, no, you don't understand! That condo was my life!". The narrator is so sucked up by the consumerist culture he cannot even perceive himself as an individual without the things he buys: the items he buy defines him, whereas Tyler is not.

As for anti-heroes, I agree about them. I personally cannot stand the true hero either, such as Super-man who uncoditionally saves others despite risking himself times over without any other reason than he can. It makes him a very simple character grounded in some kind of absolute altruism I don't agree with, because I believe the world is more complex than that. I think my favorite anti-hero must be Spawn, who ends up saving the world no matter how much he tries not to.
I just requested A Tale of Two Sisters from the library. Thanks. I was not wild about Pan's Labarynth as a movie, but it was imaginative and neat looking. Was the pale man the one with the eyes in his hands? Yes, that was a creepy scene. You enter it with everything looking harmless, but you know that something is wrong.

I have not seen Let the Right One In, and what I remember of White Noise is that it was okay, and had some great scenes, but I just don't recall enough about it to really have an opinion. That was some time ago, and I watch a lot of movies.

Have you ever read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirely Jackson? That is rather suspenseful at times.

I know very little about Spawn, but like you, I don't care for Superman or Spiderman that much. Did you ever read the comic, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac?

Have you joined the Atheist Cinema group?
The pale man was yes the thing with eye-sockets in his hands. I thought it was a great suspense-scene.

I have not read the Haunting of Hill House. Books have not the same scare effect ever when I read them in comparison to when I watch a movie. I have gone through a majority of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, as well as some H.P. Lovecraft, Charles Dickens et al, but I found none of the material actually scary. When I write myself however, I can get into a mood where I have issues writing further because I scare myself, which is rediculous, especially with thought that this never happens when I read something.

I have read very little of the graphic novels world. I like some Marvel comics like Spider-man and X-men, but that's about it.

About the Atheist Cinema group, nope, I have not.
The Haunting of Hill House, and Shirley Jackson's writing, are nothing like King or Koontz. I can't stand those guys, to be honest. I recommend that you read the first chapter or two of HHH and see if you aren't hooked.

You might also like the short story, "The Upper Berth". Here is a PDF.
Right-o. When I have time then.
"why do we like to watch bad things happen to good people?"

Because we're glad those bad things aren't happening to us.
Relieved maybe. But glad? I'm not sure. Gladness is not one of the feelings I have when I watch horror movies. In fact, they don't make me feel happy or glad or positive at all. Nor do they scare me. Sometimes they make me feel uneasy, as long as I suspend my disbelief and put myself in their shoes.


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