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Why Do We Root for Psychos?

In 1974, Stephen King released his first book Carrie, launching his career. Carrie was actually the fourth book he had written but his first to hit the market. Since then, it has been made into two theatrical films, one for television, and one sequel. If you’re unfamiliar with the story I’ll try my best to paraphrase it here, as it would be a kind of pointless to elaborate further without you understanding the point. This will be a Spark Notes condensed version.

Carrie is a shy, introvert girl who has an overbearing mother. Her mom’s a psycho, to put it mildly. She basically creates her own religion to protect Carrie from the ‘evils of the world’. Kind of like Bobby Boucher’s mom from Waterboy, except not funny. Carrie experiences her first period in her high school’s locker room shower and rightfully flips out. All the girls there make fun of her, and in the newest version, film her tirade. But Carrie learns she has special powers; she can control things with her mind and over time she gets better at controlling this power.

Later on, she goes to the prom with a nice boy named Tommy, but some of her biggest bullies have other plans. They fill a bucket full of pig’s blood and place it above the stage. Then they rig the voting so Carrie and Tommy win king and queen and have to stand on the stage, where eventually, all the blood is dumped on her. In the new film, they also play the period video on two large screens. Most of the people around laugh and mock her. The bucket accidentally falls, killing Tommy.

Carrie, fully taking control of her powers, traps everyone in the gym and electrocutes, burns, and kills pretty much all of them. She also destroys half of the town and ends up killing her biggest bullies by crashing their car with her mind. She ends up going home and killing her mom too, but that’s not really important here for the point.

So basically, Carrie is a traumatized, horribly bullied girl who extracts vicious revenge on all her attackers and onlookers. Not too different from a lot of the revenge movies we like to watch, but I want to change ONE element here and see if you get the same reaction.

Instead of having any powers, Carrie has none, and instead of causing a fire that burns everyone alive in the gym, she whips out an AR-15 rifle and picks them off one by one. The end.

Um, wait …

See what I did there? I didn’t change the main character’s struggle or the oppression she faced. I didn’t change the end result—the same amount of people died. I changed the means in which they died and suddenly, maybe rooting for Carrie isn’t what we thought, is it? Or is it still the same?

When we watch a film, context and the means in which things are achieved are everything. That’s why there is a difference between watching Saving Private Ryan and being appalled by the horrors of war and watching Saw one through a billion and cheering after each kill. Our reactions to violence aren’t always from the acts themselves, but how they’re done and who they’re being done too. It’s not really the beginning, or the end, but the event that matters.

Carrie is basically a bullied girl who kills her bullies at school. Doesn’t that sound like half-a-dozen of the shooting incidents we’ve heard about? I know some of you will say those shooters killed random, innocent people—which they did. But Carrie kills, like, the WHOLE SCHOOL. Pretty much everyone at prom. Certainly, some of those kids there didn’t deserve it, right? So how can we root for her? Why do we root for her?

First, let’s talk about the supernatural element. This alone allows you to do many things. It establishes an alternate world. Sure it looks like ours, sounds like ours, but this ‘power’ she has will make you forgive certain things that happen because this new world is different. A great example of this is the Dark Knight Trilogy. Everyone always praises those films for being dark, gritty, and realistic but a lot of times they forget that Gotham is a fake town in a fake universe. So yes, many things do feel real and are similar to our world, but they are NOT our world. The technology in those films can be fudged, and certain character motivations can be heightened because—let’s remember here—it is a comic book movie.

Second, in movie logic, revenge is 99.9% always ok. It just is. There are probably a few exceptions to this, but they didn’t make the revenge thriller genre for nothing. Just the other day I watched The Equalizer and A Walk Among the Tombstones. Pretty much the same movies; old, retired guys have hard pasts then come out of retirement to help a person ‘one last time’. They preach about love and caring and then they dispatch people by stabbing them with a wine corkscrew and hanging them twenty feet up in the air in a fake Home Depot. And boy do we love it, right? We LOVE how each kill one-ups the other, is bloodier; more graphic. We complain when new action movies are rated PG-13 because there’s no blood or gore. We want that gore man! We need those villains to suffer!

Cabin in the Woods tackled this topic in a satirical way—what is it about torturing teenage girls and boys in horror films we love so much? We crave it like a drug. We want the annoying girl to get caught by the killer. Sometimes we root for the killer, because his victims seem so foolish. You idiot, you deserve to die! Or in a big action film, when the bad guy dies—and by die I mean pulverized, smashed, obliterated—we want to stand up and cheer. But is that… ok?

It really comes down to this; movies are a fantasy, and in a movie, all our fantasies can come true. And for every Cinderella story there’s a revenge fantasy. I’m not saying we’re killers or even violent people. That’s not what I’m getting at. But when John McClane throws Hans Gruber out the window to his death in Die Hard, you kind of want to fist pump, right? That guy was soooooo mean. You almost feel like, after two hours of Hans getting the best of John and attacking him from all angles, you’re the one throwing him out of the window. Have you ever imagined what you would do if attackers broke into your home? I guarantee most of you have, and I bet it involved some Jackie Chan-like fighting. Sure, you’ve thought of the practical scenarios, but not all the time.

A movie allows us to see a scenario that will probably never affect us in real life. A movie also allows us to engage in the what if? What if a bad guy wins? We would never want that in real life–but in a movie–sure, why not. IT’S NOT REAL. We’re definitely curious about these things, otherwise, Criminal Minds wouldn’t be so popular. Yes, the bad guy usually loses, but most of the show is dedicated to showing their perspective; their way of thinking.

So let’s go back to Carrie. The entire film is built around her struggles: her psycho mom, the crazy girls at school, the not-knowing with her powers. It’s all done over and over so that when we get to that climax—when teens are being wiped out left and right—we totally accept that. We’ve been manipulated to buy into Carrie’s struggle, therefore it’s our struggle now. We’re overcoming it with her.

Manipulation is the key. It’s what separates movies from real life. A movie is made to make you feel a certain way. You don’t have a choice on where it’s going to go, what a character will say, or who will end up dead or alive. You’re not crazy for rooting for Carrie, then knowing in real life how terrible and tragic an event like that would be. You’re not crazy for helping your grandma walk to her mailbox then sitting down and watching Rambo shoot people with a 50 cal. until they turn to red goo. At least, I don’t think you’re crazy. What do I know…

It’s a fantasy. Bad Boys II is just as much of a fantasy world as Middle Earth. Is it wrong? Hmm, that’s a debate for another time, I’m just trying to get at why we root for these people. Why sometimes the villain and the hero are the same thing in movies. It’s not much different than the person who has a punching bag in their basement they occasionally spar with to ‘relieve aggression’. I don’t have a punching bag, but I have John McClane and Snake Pliskon. But those characters are made in a way where they usually don’t reflect real life. We love it when a character defies all odds or says, “Screw you,” and goes it alone because those decisions are contrary to real life decisions. They’re one in a million.

Remember, it isn’t real. Movies exist with movie logic, not earth logic. Why are Tarantino’s films so great? Because he is one of the few directors who remembers he’s making a MOVIE. Not real life. Not even close. I always crack up when certain people will question a character’s motivation or reaction when the answer is pretty simple; because there would be no movie. This is the story of that ONE GUY doing that ONE THING that ONE TIME and it’s not like any other story. And a movie is only two to three hours long, with the story sometimes spanning decades. We’re just given bits—pieces here and there—where life, as in real life, gives us everything at us at once; 24/7.

So in movie logic, it’s going to be ok for Carrie to wipe out a whole town. Or maybe it’s not ok and that’s the point of the film. Context, story; everything is key here. One specific right or wrong answer won’t suffice. The movie could be saying many things, or it might just be saying bad guys suck. Now, yes, movies can have a negative effect on certain things like violence, sex, and language. Showing a six-year-old Fight Club might make them secretly start their own Project Mayhem in their pillow fort in the basement, and you are not going to win Parent of the Year for that. But it’s all about mental maturity; being able to separate the real from the fantastical. There are so many variables at play in determining how and why you feel about a certain scene; everything from the lighting, costumes, score, and dialogue. It’s all done so you feel a certain way. You buy in and feel as though it’s real. If you think the Fast and the Furious series takes place on the same earth we walk on, please watch part six again; specifically the gravity-defying moment towards the end of the film. You know what I’m talking about. Ludicrous. But guess what, that crazy moment is earned because of everything that happened before it. That’s what a movie can do to you; it can make you root for Carrie while she’s torturing an entire school.

So don’t feel bad if you secretly want the bad guy to win in a horror film, or if you want the good guy to spend an extra five minutes torturing his victim. The movie is guiding you towards these feelings whether you want it to or not. It’s probably not the most accurate representation of a real-life scenario, nor is it making you sympathize with actual killers. Just go along for the ride—and remember—you CHOSE to watch THAT movie. Turning it off if you don’t like/agree with it is a possibility. ; )

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