The Vader Effect; Our Fondness for Fictionalized Evil

Why do you enjoy seeing a little kid dressed up as a brutal murderer?

Well, you might not, but at least fifty-seven million of us – and I include myself in that number – certainly do. If you missed it, check out this wonderful Volkswagen ad. It features a small boy dressed as Darth Vader wandering around his house trying to use the Force. It’s clever and cute, evoking both the magic of childhood and the ability of parents to prolong that magic for their children.

It’s also, if you pause to think about it, a little strange. After all, Darth Vader is a genocidal maniac. He is the right hand of a totalitarian empire responsible for the murder of billions. He stands by during the destruction of Alderaan, and, though he does not give the order, he is obviously complicit in the act. If we were to search for a real-world analogue, Vader might be the equivalent of Heinrich Himmler, one of the highest-ranking members of the Nazi party and commander of the Gestapo. And you’ll notice that Volkswagen isn’t making ads of little kids dressed up as Himmler.

Please don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some sort of call to arms or expression of outrage at Volkswagen. I watched the VW ad half a dozen times while writing this, and I enjoyed it every time. I don’t feel guilty about this, and I don’t think anyone else should either. The phenomenon does, however, raise an interesting question: Why are we so willing to cozy up to fictionalized portrayals of evil?

Before answering, let’s be clear that this “Vader Effect” isn’t limited to the PR folks at Volkswagen. Dick Cheney, in an interview with John King, said that people figured him to be the “Darth Vader of the administration.” The Washington National Cathedral includes a gargoyle of Vader high on the northwest tower. There are thousands of t-shirts portraying Darth Vader, including one reading “World’s Greatest Dad.” Most strikingly, some people evidently feel comfortable slipping into a little Vader lingerie in a way I suspect they would not for, say, Pol Pot or Stalin.

Clearly, our relationship to fictionalized evil differs from our response to that same evil in the real world, and in a way, this isn’t surprising at all. Books and movies are made up; their villains can’t really hurt us. On the other hand, wouldn’t we expect fictional atrocity to elicit something related to real-world outrage and horror? Wouldn’t we expect to loathe Jaime Lannister and Hannibal Lecter in the same way, although with less intensity, that we loathe bin Laden and Adam Lanza?

We might expect this loathing, but, oddly, we do not seem to feel it. Jaime throws an innocent child out a tower window at the start of Game of Thrones and yet his character remains a fan favorite.

I can suggest two possible explanations for the Vader Effect. The first is that fiction often brings us into the lives and motivations of villains in a way we rarely encounter in the real world. We get into Jaime Lannister’s head by book three, but we never get into Lanza’s head. This explanation for our willingness to accommodate Jaime (and other characters like him) strikes me as compelling but incomplete. Even were we somehow to know what passed through Lanza’s brain, I can’t imagine our condemnation of him would be one whit diminished.

I suspect the more powerful reason for our attraction to some fictional villains is that they are more interesting than workers of evil in the real world. Hannah Arendt, a German Jew who lived through the Second World War, argued famously for “the banality of evil.” In Arendt’s estimation, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Writing of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, she argues, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

Whatever one might say about Darth Vader, Jaime Lannister, or Hannibal Lecter, they are not normal. They are preternaturally talented, or strikingly good-looking, or devastatingly witty, or incomprehensibly brilliant, or all of the above. We forget, while reading about them or watching them, that most real-world perpetrators of evil are stunted little people with small minds and small hearts. In the wake of yesterday’s tragedy in Boston, it’s important to remember that there is nothing interesting about people who set bombs or kill children. They are vile, but they are not remarkable. They need to be killed or locked up, but there’s no point listening to them. Real evil is not sexy or exciting.

In the real world, the only characters worth following are the good guys.

4 thoughts on “The Vader Effect; Our Fondness for Fictionalized Evil

  1. Pingback: Galaxy Crushers and Miserable Shits; the Binary World of Villainy | Brian Staveley

  2. For one thing, Vader turned good at the very end, stopping the Emperor, and his spirit stood beside Yoda and Obi-Wan; although I don’t think that’s why kids dress up as him on Halloween. Also its funny to see a little, almost powerless kid dressed as Darth Vader. If he’d been dressed as Luke Skywalker, that would have been more appropriate, but most people would not recognize the costume immediately.
    Part of what is interesting about evil characters is that if someone knows of the danger and understands it, then they can better deal with it in real life, should you encounter that danger. Say a kid watches a documentary on bears, dresses up as a bear for Halloween, and then goes around acting like a bear. He will have compassion for bears, and in a fun and interesting way. Does a bear root through the trash? – Yes. Does a bear steal personal information? – No. Does a bear growl and claw at a barking dog? – Yes. Does a bear mess with people psychologically like Hannibal Lecter? – No. Would a bear grab as much candy as he can? – Yes. Would a bear steal more valuable but non-edible things? – No. I think this is partly why tribal people dress up as the dangerous animals around them: to better understand them, to be prepared to deal with them, and, yes, to gain some of their power.

    I think there is a lot of wisdom in the line:
    In Arendt’s estimation, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

    I really like your line too:
    “In the real world, the only characters worth following are the good guys.”

  3. Thanks for the interesting article. The answer to your question of why we like evil characters is simple: mythology. And thats tied to psychology and religion and a bunch of really intersting stuff Joseph Campbell can explain in his books and studies of mythology. Lucas was a close friend of campbell and read his The Hero with A Thousand Faces when he wrote the fairytale that is Star Wars. Vader like any antagonist is based on the archetype of the self and the personal spirit or shadow self that lives in us all. When you read or watch movies with stories of villians you are reflecting yourself onto the screen unconciously. Every evil fictional character you connect with is a connection to a part of yourself. Its not that you are a genocidal killer but in all of us is the lower brain and the will to survive. All archetypes we see, evil or good exist because those things exist in our brains. So we are fascinated to see a dark side of ourselves articulated on screen before our eyes in human form. But our minds symbols are much more than human representations. They are much darker and richer. So Vader is a very pallatible or easy to embrace reflection of the many sides of our selves we can grasp. Its why respond to the image of Christ, those of us who are Christian. We need the icon, story, and imagery to trigger the same villian or hero in us. Thats what fairytales do, Hollywood does, and religion does. So next time you find yourself loving an “evil” character its nothing to be marvelled at….its just psychology. Good writers, good story tellers and even religious and political leaders know all this myth making and psychology and use it quite often to manipulate people. Thats how Hitler came to power…helping people reflect their own pain and anger onto him and the world using it to create a living myth of himself to further is political goals. The key is to remember that next time you find yourself loving story characters ask yourself what part of your imagination or self is excited by that and how do you see you good and evil archetypes in your own inner subconcious self battling, and for what hidden causes because all that is a part of your brain. Without that Darth Vader doesnt live right? Hes just words on a page and pixels on the screen.

    • Thanks for the analysis, Mitch. I read Campbell voraciously when I was younger — your post is a good reminder that it would be fun to go back to his stuff. The Power of Myth, in particular, made a big impression on me…

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