From Marvel’s supervillains and Darth Vader to the (slightly) more realistic Walter White in Breaking Bad, villains are fascinating; you can’t take your eyes off them. But why? What is it about those so clearly, classically wicked that makes them so compelling to an audience? One possibility is that, in experiencing these villains on-screen, we can face our own inner dark side.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung believed everyone has a darker side, a shadow-self, within their personality. This shadow consists of everything the person considers unacceptable to express: envy, rage, selfishness, the desire for power and baser animal instincts. It’s not something that the person is consciously aware of but something they must acknowledge and face in order to grow as a person.
This is where villains come in as archetypes, representing the clearest forms of those negative aspects of one’s personality. With their bad traits on the forefront, villainous characters allow for easy access to the audience’s shadow self.
The Ego Of Walter White
As discussed in a prior piece, Walter White is the epitome of narcissism. He is vain, selfish, ego-driven and self-centered to the extreme. While most never reach his severity, that doesn’t mean we do not share certain characteristics with the man. Lots of people are competitive, they want to be the best, and have a need to feed their egos. Everyone’s caught themselves in a self-centered moment thinking others are looking at or talking about them. It’s completely normal, but it’s not socially acceptable. It’s not something people are proud of, it’s something that they frequently deny — even to themselves — and thus becomes part of the shadow-self.
By watching Mr. White grow into Heinsberg before falling to his own hubris, a person can face their own ego-driven shadow. They can both acknowledge it as they cheer Walt on and see where it may lead, only to see it denied as Walt denies his own selfish motives and is taken over by the worst parts of his narcissism.
The Rejection Of Loki
From time to time everyone’s felt like they didn’t belong, as if they were being left out or rejected — a belief that frequently leads to feelings of insecurity, betrayal, hurt, envy, and anger. Emotions mostly don’t show because expressing such things isn’t something we’re naturally comfortable with, and so it becomes part of the shadow-self. That’s where a character like Marvel’s Loki may become a worthy stand-in.
In a world of physically dominant alpha males, he’s a clever, slim-built, sorcerer — a nerd in a world of jocks. He doesn’t fit in and its easy for us to relate to that. Even after he attempts to take over Asgard and Earth we sympathize because we understand the underlying pain that fuels him. Forming a bond of understanding and empathy with Loki is akin to accepting this form of shadow-self, which is what Jung encouraged to develop as a healthy individual.
The Fear And Anger Of Vader
In the immortal words of Star Wars Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” One of the clearest explanations of Jung’s own warnings about the shadow-self that goes unacknowledged, with Darth Vader being the clearest example. He is a classic cinema villain, possibly for this reason. He begins as a frightened boy, later, an angry teen who never addresses those negative feelings, so that they build and feed off each other until whatever goodness in him is overcome by his shadow-self.
In the original trilogy he appears, almost literally, as a massive shadow gliding down halls bringing darkness wherever he goes. As an audience member, one may admire the powerful presence he has, but also despise him for his cruelty. In Vader’s final scene in Return of the Jedi, people cheer his saving Luke because (not only is it the right thing to do) it symbolizes, a final balance between the light and dark side, the self and shadow-self.
So often in their denial, people project their negative aspects onto others. They see others as selfish, insecure, outsiders, afraid, angry, and, by doing so, are able to avoid acknowledging it in themselves. By watching a villain so openly play into the shadow-self there is little to project, but a lot to recognize and acknowledge. As audiences connect to and cheer on villains (or their defeat), they subconsciously relate to them in the same manner as they would have to face their shadow-self in therapy — all while being entertained.
What villain have you connected to on a personal level?
(Sources: Psychology Today, Star Wars in Mythology)