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.