“I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.” – The Joker, The Dark Knight
There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs in cinema (and almost every other medium of artistic expression) in which the viewer, or audience, will find themselves rooting for the story’s villain. I remember watching the movie, The Dark Knight, in theatres on opening day… and distinctly recall the hooting, hollering, cheering and applause as Heath Ledger’s masterful performance as the Joker unfolded on-screen.
We were cheering for a character who’s only ambition was to “watch the world burn.”
And yet this seems to go against everything we’re taught about our own inherent human decency.
As children, society instills into us the idea that deep down we are “good people.” We’re taught that humanity is steeped in love, acceptance, fulfillment and compassion. We’re taught to live our lives as good Samaritans, and that each of us is a unique manifestation of universal grace – the embodiment of purity and light.
So… why do so many of us take vicarious enjoyment in watching an on-screen portrayal of cold-bloodedness, animosity, and unforgiving villainy? Doesn’t it seem odd that a group of strangers, all of whom likely self-identity as “good people,” can sit in a theatre and cheer for the most devious and sinister of cinematic bad guys?
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung had an explanation for this… he proposed that deep down, within each of us, there is a darker side, an unconscious identity he called “The Shadow.”
At face value, “the shadow” is a natural human characteristic – born out of our own human experience of pain, suffering, conditioned thought, and deep emotions. And yet, according to Jung, many of us will fight to deny the existence of this darker side… we will resist it, suppress it, and attempt to distance ourselves from it – an egoic defensive mechanism designed to protect the “goodness” of our constructed identity.
The problem with this defensive reaction, as Jung theorized, is that to deny our “shadow” is to deny a part of our own humanity. After all, human beings can not be conceptualized in terms of black and white, or good and evil. In reality, to be human is to exist along a spectrum of experiences, far beyond the categorical simplicity of “good” or “bad.”
In essence, this resistance to the nature of being human is a destructive force, often leading an individual to fall out of a delicately held balance. And according to Jung, the further we strive to deny our shadow, the more likely we are to succumb to its encompassing darkness.
There’s a lot of talk about balance in today’s society. But do we truly understand what this entails? Many of us see our attempts at finding balance as a means to a better life. As a way to experience greater happiness, greater fulfillment, and greater inner-peace.
And perhaps that’s all possible.
But first, we have to be willing to face what frightens us most. We have to face that darker side, and come to a place of unconditional acceptance.
We must be able to acknowledge the full extent of our very flawed human existence. We must find comfort in looking in the mirror, and embracing the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And maybe, there is freedom in facing the darkness within.
As Carl Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious.”