Man is cruel by nature

Fearfulness: Why we are so fascinated by evil

Why do many people watch extremely brutal films? And why do we so often crave the details of perfidious murders? The psychiatrist Borwin Bandelow on the attraction of horror

GEO WISSEN: Professor Bandelow, most people reject violence. And yet many of us pursue cruel crimes - such as that of a murderer - with full fascination. Why is that?

PROF. DR. BORWIN BANDELOW: Everyone feels a certain pleasure in fear - in being afraid, in being scared, in indulging in the illusion of danger. It's not about real fear: Nobody wants to meet a serial killer face to face or stand on top of a burning skyscraper.

It's about the imagined horror, the staged fear. In English there is the term thrill for this. This thrill attracts us. We voluntarily expose ourselves to it because we can trust that things will end well - at least for us.

If we know the danger is not real, why are we even afraid?

Our fear system is very primitive, it cannot distinguish between reality and imagination. This is why we sometimes fear for the lives of the protagonists even in a fictional crime story - although we know that the situation only arises from the imagination of an author or film director.

For the same reason, people shiver and sweat when they sit on a roller coaster or jump off a bridge on a bungee rope. Their fear system suggests to them: you are guaranteed to fly out of the curve or hit the ground. The brain is then flooded with hormones and terrified.

What is the enjoyment of such a state for a person?

In every fear or stressful situation, the brain always releases euphoric substances, endorphins. They ensure a feeling of elation, freedom from pain, and make us feel strong and happy.

This mechanism was vital for our ancestors: Anyone who was wounded in a fight with a predator did not give up immediately because of the released endorphins, but kept fighting. Without a desire for risk, for fear, our ancestors might never have tamed the fire or would never have set out into the unknown. No success without a thrill.

Are the endorphins stronger than the fear?

The amazing thing is: When the danger is averted, for example when we get off the roller coaster again, the fear subsides immediately - but the endorphins continue to circulate in the blood for a while, like after an orgasm. This is the real reason why people voluntarily expose themselves to the supposed risk, fear. They pay for it at the box office or in the amusement park. It's all about the intoxicating kick of the endorphins.

Does it make a difference whether a crime is real or fictional?

The more genuine the description, the more effectively the fear system is alarmed - and the more endorphins ultimately circulate through the body. This increase can either be achieved through effects - for example through a powerful sound in the cinema. Or just because I, as a reader or viewer, know: this crime actually took place.

The bottom line is: Our intelligent brain is very talented at generating images, based on information to fire the imagination. The more facts we know, the more concrete and gruesome the events unfold in front of our inner eye. This explains the current success of true crime stories.

Shouldn't we be ashamed of enjoying the suffering of others?

Of course, we judge crimes such as brutal murder on a rational level to be hideous. Ultimately, a form of fear is also responsible for this: social fear. It ensures that we behave according to the valid norms and values, to a certain extent not step out of line and turn others against us. It appeals to our morals, is a voice of our conscience.

But at the same time we have to admit to ourselves: Our fascination for evil is always based on the fact that the satisfaction that the criminal experiences in his act is also to a certain extent our satisfaction as a reader or viewer. Every now and then we thirst for every disturbing detail: How exactly did the murderer torment his victim? Was it still conscious when he severed the ear? Was he using a hatchet or a razor blade? Why did he catch the blood in an Erlenmeyer flask?

We admire the perpetrator because we would like to be a killer ourselves?

I'm not saying that everyone is a killer. But it is a legacy of evolution that violence is associated with exhilaration. Because among our ancestors, those who were particularly intoxicated by the brutal killing of predators and enemies prevailed. They had the best food resources, had the best chance of reproducing.

So it happens that an archaic lust for violence is anchored in each of us. The counterbalance to this is - as mentioned - social anxiety. If that is taken from us, violence inspires us all the more frankly.

This is an abridged version. You can read the entire interview in "GEO WISSEN - The Psychology of Evil" - order here in the GEO Shop.