Why are people so attracted to tragedy?
Why are humans so attracted to tragedies that exist in their own immediate surroundings? Fiction is inspired by real-life tribulations, and much of fiction is tragedy. Beyond that, much of fiction is also set in a period that correlates to the time it is created, therefore merging it into the world as it is known by the audience. Although this attraction poses a broad question, with both historical and global reach, in the case of Ancient Rome, I believe that the example of Julius Caesar’s story and how it permeated through time shows that people are attracted to the dramatic tale as long as it is plausible; it need not be completely true. We do not know the accuracy of every detail in Caesar’s story because in Ancient Rome it was acceptable to litter nonfiction texts with falsehoods as long as they were believable. After being stabbed a number of times, Caesar whimpering “et tu Brutei” is conceivable and dramatic. Furthermore, this thesis is strengthened when we compare accounts of Caesar’s death, from Roman historian Suetonius and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with the modern example of Heathers by Daniel Waters, a movie written and set in the 1980s. It got a second wave of attention more recently, in the 2010s, when it was adapted into a musical. As Suetonius wrote Caesar’s story for fellow Romans, Heather’s is meant to appeal to teenagers who share the protagonists’ privileged backgrounds. Also like Caesar’s story, Heathers is full of full of murder, suicide, and betrayal. Furthermore, Mean Girls, a film directed by Mark Waters, also shows how people are so attracted to malevolence, in more ways than simply physical violence. My paper examines humanity’s morbid curiosity and intrigue in the context of both Ancient Rome and the modern world to help better understand how fiction lets people get in touch with parts of themselves that are unacceptable in real life.
If you think people don’t like violence, you are lying to yourself. Just one look at modern-day media will provide an example, and so do games of the past, such as gladiator battles. People from past and present flock to violence. We may not be keen to share this truth about ourselves but it is true nonetheless. Every single human has a dark side; for some it is darker than it is for others, but it is there in every one of us. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar shows Caesar getting stabbed from all directions. Blades go into him thirty-three times.1 That is nothing if not needlessly violent. It is also quite close to being historically accurate as it is believed, though not undeniably true, that the real Julius Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times. Julius Caesar is a play that is still enjoyed by many even today. In Heathers, murders disguised as suicides litter a suburban high school as students drop like flies, death following the spotlight. Those who have wronged Veronica, the main character, have sealed their fates: They are hunted and destroyed. This is a movie focused on children and the violence they do unto each other. And it was, and still is, a hit. There are many other kinds that we have all have either faced ourselves or known someone who has in some degree. Stories, fictional and otherwise, are full of these intricacies of humanity. While the pure brutality of murder is not the only draw to these situations. The other side to it are the examples of social dynamics we have all experienced to some degree, even if only by seeing it play out in social groups near our own. Audiences are drawn into the complexities of power dynamics that express themselves through revenge, humiliation, and betrayal.
One aspect of the murders in Heathers that are staged to look like suicides are revenge, just as Caesar’s mission to hunt down and execute the pirates who wronged him was. Suetonius describes how Caesar and his men nailed the pirates to crucifixes. It was more than an execution. It was public embarrassment. In Heathers, the deaths of Curtis and Ram, a pair of friends, are also intended as public humiliation. They are made to strip before being shot, and in their suicide note, Veronica wrote of their secret love affair. It is not okay to be gay in their world, and there is much humilliation in their death due to that information, though false, being revealed. Claiming they are homosexual had even more of a humiliative effect on them as they were known to prey on women, including Veronica, and would never be the type of person one would assume to be gay. It is an even larger shock and more interesting gossip that would spread for them than it would have been for any other characters. In the musical there is a come-to-Jesus moment when the boys’ fathers learn to love their sons despite them being gay; there is a whole song devoted to this, titled “My Dead Gay Son.” Unlike the other murders, this tends not only to eliminate but to shame. There’s always something society demonizes, something that makes people fear being honest. Coming out is still incredibly difficult for most LGBTQIA youths in America and across the globe.
Humiliation is just one part of realistic interpersonal relationship dramatics that people desire to see performed; another is betrayal. Take Shakespeare’s “Et tu Brutei,” a quotation that has lived on and will continue to do so for centuries. It is the epitome of betrayal, Caesar’s best friend quite literally, albeit worse, back-stabbing Caesar. What could be worse than back-stabbing you may ask? Shakespeare’s Caesar looks into the eyes of his friend as he is stabbed. He is fighting off his attackers until he sees a man he trusted among them. In that moment, he loses all instinct to fight. His body saggs, not with the wounds of his flesh but with those of his soul. That betrayal is mimicked in Heathers when Heather Duke takes Heather Chandler’s scrunchie. Throughout the film, the clique of girls all named Heather (Chandler, Duke, and McNamara) each have their own color, which is shown through their costumes, most notably their scrunchies. Heather Chandler is the head girl and she wears red while Heather Duke is just behind her, in green. When Chandler dies, Duke takes her red scrunchie and uses it to replace her green one. The red scrunchie is a crown worn by the group’s lead. There is barely any time after her supposed best friend’s death before Duke takes the scrunchie, and thereby, the power. There is no time given to mourn. There is no sadness that needs the time. Just as Marc Anthony takes over Caesar’s rule, so does Heather Duke take Heather Chandler’s. Just as Brutus stabs his best friend to death, Veronica signs Heather Chandler’s name at the end of a suicide note.
Using interpersonal relationships to make something more dramatic is by no means unique to ancient Romans; both fiction and nonfiction still commonly use the characters’ entanglements to force people to emotionally invest in the story. Heathers is full of examples of this. For now let us focus on one: “Dead Girl Walking,” a famous line from the film that becomes an entire song in the musical. Veronica laments over what Heather Chandler has declared would be her future, singing, “Monday, 8:00 a.m., I will be deleted. They’ll hunt me down in study hall, stuff and mount me on the wall.”2 In summary, Veronica’s life as a “somebody” in high school will end, and she will go back to being a nobody. As she is digesting this news, Veronica goes to her boyfriend’s house, sneaks in the window, and has sex with him. In the song JD, her boyfriend, asks “How’d you find my address?”3 but the question is never addressed. Everything about that situation is mysterious. JD is considered the mastermind behind all of the duo’s crimes, and yet Veronica is obviously in charge in that scene. She goes over to his house—where she has never been before, nor has JD given her the address—and is clearly commanding throughout the song. That adds a layer to their relationship because Veronica is no longer as innocent and oblivious as she seems in other scenes. There is also, of course, still the looming threat of school “deletion,” that is, until Chandler’s “suicide.” In other words, before JD kills her and Veronica forges the suicide note, which ties it all back to revenge.
While the intricacies of human relationships prove to make creative works more engaging, that is not their only purpose. While people of course enjoy violence, otherwise we would not have anywhere near the media we have today, there is a line. Social institutions, morals, and norms all dictate that violence should not be used in most situations. Fiction allows people to explore these things that interest them without going against society’s standards or their own moral codes. However, because those standards and codes exist, there needs to be some type of disconnect between the fiction and reality. People want what they are reading or watching to seem real, but not so real that it is indiscernible from real life. The focus on interpersonal relationships, while also adding intriguing depth to a story, can help to create that disconnect from the pure violence and despicable acts. It is able to lighten the darkness that these pieces have a great deal of. Imagine: A young woman teary eyed, waiting for her lover to return from war, a baby growing in her womb whilst the young soldier’s face is stretched in agony as a sword is plunged into their heart. Knowing they have a pregnant partner waiting for them adds sadness to the story and makes it more interesting; whilst doing that, it is distracting people from the blood that would be dripping over the sword’s blade. The relationship serves two purposes: to entice and to distract. Another tactic that is often used to create distance between a work and its audience is time. When a story is set in a time period in the past, the audience can accept the events as realistic for that time but not for their own, which allows viewers to enjoy the violence without it affecting their outlook on the world day-to-day. Disconnect is incredibly important for most people in order to stop their emotions from getting too intense while enjoying stories. In fact, it is known that the human brain has trouble discerning the emotional difference between real life and fiction—it is why people can be so upset when their favorite character dies. They get emotionally tied to fictional characters, and the more disconnect there is, the less likely people are to legitimately be hurt by the story. The less disconnect there is, the more likely it is that the effects will be truly disturbing as well as long term.
Take Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for example; it was enjoyed by many people at the time of its release and is still popular today. It was written at a time when Ancient Rome was similar enough to the way they lived—in the sense that if one were to look outside they could imagine ancient Romans standing in the same natural-looking streets, the same yells of other people being the noise that climbs above the rest, the stench of bodily fluids that had nowhere else to retreat to, making it a similar atmosphere to the ancient roman cities—that it could be realistic to the audience but, centuries later, not so similar that it could be something they walked into the very next day. Caesar’s is a dark and tragic story full of bloodshed and betrayal. The disconnect between his context and the audience’s own allows the audience to look at the tragedy with wonder rather than worry while still being able to indulge their inner beasts in inappropriate, morbid fantasies. Modern portrayals of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar have been points of controversy for quite some time. The play has been used to comment on modern politics by drawing associations between Caesar and the other characters as relevant political figures. The most recent example would be when Caesar was portrayed as Trump in Shakespeare in the Park’s 2017 production of Julius Caesar. These depictions tend to cause much controversy; people either hate or love them, with little middle ground. When the disconnect is lessened through this kind of direct parallel, it has a much greater impact on the audience, and the play’s events can become too real. Instead of being a release and a way to explore their darker natures, it causes inner turmoil which spreads through a population, often causing tension between people and fights both large and small.
Heathers also used time in order to create a disconnect. The movie was written and released in the 1980s, and while it was appreciated then, it had a real spurt of popularity in the 2010s, when the musical was released. The target audiences of both the film and musical, teenagers in or around high-school, were very familiar with what the characters were going through as they were experiencing the same things, though, likely less traumatically. It covers topics that are, at best, sensitive, but really tragic, dark, and morbid (that is, the suicide and homocide of high school students). When it hit its second wave of popularity in the 2010s, there would have been enough disconnect in the time to make the tragedies seem less brutal to the audience. However, school shootings and gun violence had also become much more commonplace, so while the time difference did allow for a disconnect, the other methods that were put in place for the 1980s audience were still useful. While Heathers has always been considered dark, because it is, it is also considered a fun movie. This is because writer Daniel Waters used literary techniques to make the horrific events seem lighter through comedy. He also crafts the character of James Dean, otherwise known as JD, very well in that JD is able to do horrible things while convincing Veronica, and in turn the audience, that his actions are not all that bad. Veronica is able to serve as a stand-in for the audience in many parts of the movie, acting as a filter. Her thoughts and dialogues with other characters pad the violence. When she normalizes something or ignores it, so too can the audience. So, when she, for example, goes back to school the day after a murder as if nothing had happened, the audience can so too move on and put the acts of the night to the side. However, identification with Veronica also links the audience’s love for violence. If she is to be representative of the audience, then when she chooses to go along with the killings, the audience does as well. Veronica does not kill anyone on her own, nor is she a willing and knowledgeable accomplice in most interpretations. That degree of removal is needed for a character that represents the audience as they, in most cases, would likely not want to kill high school children or their classmates. However, Veronica is more than willing to forge the suicide notes that protected her and JD from police investigations. If she is to be the audience, then that can be interpreted as the audience giving them a pass on the murders, in them saying their behavior is okay, or at the very least not so deplorable that justice needs to be served to them.
When it comes to Suetonius’s history of Caesar, there was some temporal disconnect but not much. Writing less than a century after Caesar’s death Seutonius relied most on other methods, specifically the use of gossip-like stories about Caesar’s life to buffer the violence and brutality. One example being that Caesar was rumored to have been a prostitute to king Nicomedes. It was a tantalizing scandal that Caesar, someone so powerful, had, as a young man, been on his knees before the king. Everyone makes sacrifices to get what they want, but some are more rebellious than others, more interesting. It is said that Caesar was made to be a prostitute. We already know that Suetonius’s works had fiction weaved into them so, would it not be plausible that Caesar was merely having an affair with the king? Why would Suetonius claim an affair, be it true or not, if falsities are so easily at his disposal? In other words: Saying Caesar was a prostitute would have been much more tantalizing than saying that he had a simple affair. Suetonius wished for his works to be read and that type of dalliance was intriguing to say the least.
There was not enough disconnect through time for Suetonius to focus on the darker side of Caesar’s tale, which is likely very accurate in Seutonius’s account, so he dramatized Caesar’s romantic life, making the piece more like a gossip magazine than a dramatic retelling of history. That allowed the writing to still be entertaining to people. There was enough darkness there to satisfy morbid curiosity but it was not the main focus, allowing the audience to be put at ease. It is a common tactic used today: comedic relief. In dark stories, there is often a character that’s main purpose is to lighten the mood and cause the audience to laugh. That strategy is often criticized as bad character building, as a character should not solely exist for comedic relief. That being said, having comedic relief is still important and will continue to be used. Works that are not criticised for the use of a comedic relief character simply flesh the character or characters who provide it into a full representation of people, someone three-dimensional.
In Mean Girls there is another form of disconnect shown: dreams. The movie has scenes where characters act insanely violent and are attacking each other only for it to be revealed that it is all in Cady, the protagonist’s, mind. At one point in the movie she goes to a mall and says it “reminded [her] of being home in Africa by the watering hole when the animals are in heat.”4 The movie shows Cady ripping into another girls’ throat, depicting how the situation would play out in the animal kingdom, before having her state that “in girl world, all the fighting had to be subtle.” These comparisons clearly show the kind of attitude that governs the characters in the movie: violence without violence. They rip each other to shreds without a drop of blood. The audience is quite literally told that what they are seeing is not reality, it is one of the easiest ways to have a disconnect and Mean Girls is not alone in using this strategy. There are countless pieces of fiction that use the “it was just a dream,” to the point that it became a cliché. In most cases, dreams are used as a deus ex machina which in most cases is annoying as it disrupts the story and causes the audience’s attachments to the characters to shred. In such instances, dreams do not make the piece enjoyable; they create too large a disconnect. There is no specific amount of disconnect that can be generalized to every piece as it is always a walk along the tightrope that straddles gripping emotions, unstomachable discomfort, and never ending boredom.
People draw a line when it comes to violence and morally wrong acts in fiction. There needs to be a disconnect so that they do not see the actions of the characters in a negative light and still enjoy the piece. In other words, so long as they do not see themselves in a negative light, they can still enjoy the piece. But there cannot be too much disconnect or it will be impossible to gain anything from the experience. If the audience is unable to weave their own emotions into the works then they get nothing out of it and genres such as tragedies and action would have little, if any, audiences. Even romances would be much less enjoyed if the audience’s heart couldn’t feel for the couple, if they couldn’t feel the overwhelming joy and love. One of the few, if not only, genre that would be able to withstand complete disconnect would be comedy, and not even all comedies. Likely the only thing that could truly still survive is comedy along the lines of stand up because the audience does not need to care. A joke, as long as it requires little to no background knowledge, can be found funny by almost anyone. There is no investment needed. That is the only type of entertainment media that would survive complete disconnect. So, while it is important there is a line on both sides. There can’t be too little nor too much.
The reason the balance between disconnect and identification is so important and so hard to strike is because, at the end of the day, fiction not only explores fantasy but also reality. Everything can be generalized until it is something that you, dear reader, have had to deal with. Caesar was stabbed. It was tragic and violent. But it can be broadened. Caesar was hurt by someone he cared about, someone who he thought cared about him. If you were to bring to its simplest, most general, broadest terms: Caesar was hurt. There is no one on this earth who has never been hurt in one way or another. And that is the truth within fiction. We feel because we can relate. We can relate by thoughts and desires or by experiences or all combined. The world is not a gentle place, and homo sapiens are not a gentle species. The stories we share reveal that truth, no matter how much we, as a society, try to deny it. Still, we can control ourselves so that we are as harmless to the world and each other as possible and stories help us to do just that. They are invaluable.
In conclusion, people are drawn to a violence that lives within them. Fiction allows for that violence to be released. Suetonius took reality and molded it into a piece people would enjoy reading. Shakespeare took the tale and stripped away the unneeded niceties, focusing on the betrayal of Caesar and his violent death. Waters took the knowledge from all his predecessors to create a movie centered around the violence, betrayal, and relationships of a high school girl. Through these works, people are able to access parts of themselves that are not tolerated in civilized society. It would be wrong to kill that person you hate, but there is a part of you, however small, that wants to entertain the thought. These works allow the audience to feel some kind of release. We hear of people watching porn to satiate their sexual desires so why should any other type of media be different? There is a part inside each and every one of us that many wish was never there, that others refuse to admit is. It is a part of us that enjoys the violence. A part of us that makes the amygdala shiver and send excitement through our nerves. If it wasn’t for stories, fictional and otherwise, that allowed people a release, a catharsis, then I have no doubt that the world would be a much more violent place.