Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Why We Love Hannibal

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (AP)
Anthony Hopkins
as Hannibal
Lecter (AP)

Why are evil figures so fascinating to us? Why do audiences cheer when Hannibal Lecter cleverly escapes by chewing off someone's face? Even Osama bin Laden exudes a charisma that keeps us watching even when we despise ourselves for doing so.

One answer is that evildoers support our cultural myths and somehow complete parts of ourselves while offering the illusion that they are separate from us. We then exploit that illusion to create frames in which we can act out a scenario of conquering the monsterwithout having to explore our own capacity for evil.

To explain this, psychologist Michael Apter offers a theory. Once something is labeled dangerous, he says, it exerts a magical attraction. That in turn produces arousal, which makes us feel alive. However, it may also make us anxious, so we develop "protective frames." That is, we use stories about the evildoer and mentally create a buffer of safety: The monster rises up and we have the weapons to bring him down. Now we can experience the arousal of excitement without being overwhelmed by anxiety. Within the frame, we welcome risk and we'll go to the edge to experience the exhilaration. We can actually enjoy danger and allow ourselves close.

Book cover: Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream
Book cover: Bad
Men Do What Good
Men Dream

Yet some people take this further. They seek out the excitement of danger just to stimulate themselves and may transform the protective frame into a reality. Psychopaths, for example, appear to be born with a need for greater stimulation than the average person and they will often act out their fantasies of harm. The fact that antisocial activities escalate, says psychiatrist Robert Simon in Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream, indicates that they do fulfill a need for stimulation. So the larger-than-life deeds of the psychopath or thrill-seeker feed images into the protective frames of people in search of the same stimulation. There's a kinship that one acts out and the other enjoys.

Book cover: Dark Nature
Book cover: Dark

It's only natural, says naturalist Lyall Watson, author of Dark Nature. He believes that evil is inherent within the natural order and that the behavior we see in serial killers, sadists, and genocidal dictators reflects certain natural principles. It's not that these people are monsters set apart from ordinary people, it is that they manifest something in the system gone awry. In other words, nature is tentatively balanced at best and when anything within the status quo challenges the equilibrium, what might be considered good in some contexts can become bad, or evil.

Watson believes that evil is commonplace and widespread, not uniquely manifested in the oddball person. It's also not confined to the human species. He himself has observed cruelty in animal behavior with finely honed predatory skills and even the killing of offspring. Starting with the notion that evil involves overstepping bounds or going beyond due measure, Watson thinks that at the heart of evil are influences that destroy the integrity of the whole. Thus if "good" is defined as whatever encourages that integrity, then whatever pulls it apart is evil.

Living systems constantly change. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, systems tend to run down, grow disorganized, and eventually disintegrate altogether. Entropy, or disorder, devolves into chaos, which spells death for the system. Systems attempt to protect themselves, but capricious forces are part of change. They help to redefine the system for growth, but may also act as a black hole that sucks up a universe and then recreates it.

Goodor integritycoexists with this capriciousness and both forces can influence the system. Some things contribute to the order and cohesion of life and some things subtract from it.

Evil, then, can be equated with a morbid condition, such as a pathogen, that enters or exploits some aspect of the system to knock it off balance. Watson sees three primary ways for this to occur:

  1. Something good is removed from a context where it works and is placed in one where it doesn't work, so it then becomes destructive.
  2. Too much or too little of a good thing becomes disruptive.
  3. Elements of the system cannot relate in a coherent manner

These elements provide the biological frame through which to understand how we can view evil as a force within a system, he says. People like Hitler, Ted Bundy, and bin Laden are pathogens that arise from within the system, contributing to its disintegration. They represent one of the three principles of natural disorder listed above. Perhaps the instinct for survival, which is good in one context, becomes exaggerated into a virulent self-centeredness that diminishes the importance of others.

Along these lines, in Speaking with the Devil, psychiatrist Carl Goldberg uses a multi-step theory to explain the deformed personality from which evil emanates. To his mind, the devil represents "individuals who have transformed themselves into beings capable of extreme brutality and atrocity." It's a developmental sequence that involves:

  • shame and humiliation during childhood that impairs self-esteem
  • protecting their own "defects" by developing contempt for others
  • adopting belief systems that allow them to rationalize and justify their actions
  • losing empathic bonds with others
  • acquiring a habit of treating others without respect
  • learning to enjoy the infliction of cruelty
  • losing the ability to be self-aware
  • magical thinking'I can make it happen if I can imagine it thus'

People who go through this process can then create a frame through which they can inflict deliberate cruelty on others without seeing how they themselves have regressed as moral beings. They can identify with monstrous acts and behave in the same manner. It's a series of logical steps from point A to point Z that evolve in the direction of antisocial destruction rather than social integrity and repair.

Yet even with a theory intact, we still need a better language for dealing with evil in certain practical contexts, such as the courts. To be able to determine sentencing - how long an evildoer, whether sick or just bad, should be locked away from society - they need to determine just how depraved an act of brutality might be. That's where another psychologist is attempting to make a contribution. Let's take a look.

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