It’s no lie that everyone loves a villain. Admit it: even if you don’t consciously love a Darth Vader or a Voldemort, the most evil villains of pop culture still fascinate us more than they repulse us. After all, they've been a very necessary contrast in literature and media since the dawn of the written word. What would Thor be without a Loki? Or Batman be without his Joker? Or Professor X without a Magneto?
But that’s not the only reason evil villains are so appealing. According to a new study in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, there's a scientific reason we gravitate to bad guys: we desire what we don't understand, even when it repulses us.
The research, conducted by Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen at Aarhus University in Denmark, suggests that our love of evil villains is rooted in evolutionary psychology. The first explanation is relatively simple: the human mind loves a mystery, and villains are pretty damn mysterious. When we encounter the unknown, our instinctive response is fear, but at the same time, we’re undeniably drawn to it. That’s why villains are so delicious — we basically know nothing about their origins and motivations, and that makes them thrilling. If we knew Darth Vader's entire history (well, we do now thanks to the prequel trilogy), we would begin to see things from their perspective, which alleviates that fearful response and deadens the thrill of encountering an amoral unknown.
But it's not just fear of the unknown that drives us, but disgust in it. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen explains that, during the early days of human civilization, humans living in small groups needed to weed out and punish those who didn't conform to altruistic or benevolent social norms (the villains.) Keeping the bad guys around would put everyone in the group in danger, thus eliciting emotional responses like fear, disgust, and anger. It's that emotional reaction that makes encountering a source of evil so titillating, even if we rationally understand that villains are undesirable
As a result, modern pop culture villains are designed to elicit disgust at every turn. Ever notice how most fictional villains, like the deformed Darth Vader and snakelike Voldemort, are ugly as sin? Kjeldgaard-Christiansen believes that their apparent ugliness prompts the fear and disgust response that’s been with us since the dawn of man, a physical primer for moral repulsion. Leatherface in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Ugly inside and out. "His brutish roars and apish gait warn the viewer that something is very wrong with this iconic recluse. Leatherface’s foul exterior becomes the manifestation of a foul essence," writes Kjeldgaard-Christiansen.
But however heinous the villain looks, we inevitably experience empathy for other people, and empathy is one of the strongest human emotions. We’re not perfect, so we’re able to relate to the bad guy and his flaws even though he’s doing very unsavory things. When we relate, our beloved villain whispers to our subconscious, “Psst…come to the dark side.” And our subconscious says, “Sure, why not.” So we go on a little field trip to a different part of ourselves, a part we may never have understood or explored without a villain to elicit this response in us. We're attracted to villains because they can do what we can't.
This is why villains are both repulsive and attractive: by transgressing on social norms, they elicit an evolutionary response we've grown to rely on. So the next time you see the Borg onscreen, don't feel bad for feeling both disgusted and intrigued. After all, it's human nature — and resistance to human nature, to borrow a phrase, is futile.