Evil Within

Nirvaan Nadeem considers why we are so drawn to stories about the “bad guys”

Evil Within
I am having a great time these days, watching content on Netflix. Not just any movies. Not the classical tales of romance and tragedy, fictional tales of heroes and human achievements, not comedies of the Friends and Woody Allen type, but movies full of crime, horror, weird sex, drugs and serial killers. There have been so many lately.

I now know how to plan a bank robbery, how to be a serial killer and get away without detection, how to become a drug baron or a mass murderer. Or if I want, to join the ranks of zombies or the lovely evil dead. My laptop (and smartphone) are a DIY guide to crime and evil.

I am sure all the young people around the world are benefiting from the boons of technology. No one will ask why they are watching this stuff or why it is being churned out.

Why does enchanting evil, sophisticated crime and insane violence sell? Why do we find the darker side of ourselves or our societies so attractive?

But that begs a more fundamental question: are humans, by nature, good or evil? The question has remained since the birth of philosophy itself, and has split those who believe we are a naturally peaceful species corrupted by society, like the followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while others agree with Thomas Hobbes in us being naturally aggressive, only civilized by society.
One of the very first parts of the human brain to be developed was the R-Complex, responsible for our most primitive, basic emotions

Let pop culture be the judge.

Netflix is swarming with drug lord series. First came Escobar: El Patrón del Mal. Then there was the iconic Narcos and then Narcos: Mexico, leading to the spawning of a whole new genre. We now have El Chapo and even some guy called “Al Cheema” (El Chema) whom I had never even heard of. Farina/Cocaine Coast, The Drug King and not to mention the aptly titled docuseries Drug Lords. Moreover, Money Heist glorifies exquisitely planned and executed robberies while Sacred Games wallows in sick minds bent upon destroying the world. The list goes on.

We come now to video games. From the Donkey Kong and Super Mario that I used to play as a child, they have now transformed into open-world maps where you can mindlessly kill and destroy any one and anything, for no reason at all. You don’t get any points, neither is it even part of any storyline. You just kill and beat up people for the fun of it.

Even music, that most uplifting of art forms, has turned into profanity-ridden gibberish. And we even have “Audio Porn”.

Now I’m aware that I might well sound like one of the “holier than thou” crowd, staring disapprovingly at the moral contamination that our youth is surrounded by.

Scene from 'Narcos'

But I must confess to the very opposite! I loved Narcos. I watched El-Chapo in one grand binge. I am currently on a Pablo Escobar binge. That profanity-ridden gibberish I mentioned earlier is part of my musical playlist. Even on my mobile phone, I regularly play Narcos, a video game in which you are a drug lord!

Why is it that not just the “impressionable youth” but an increasingly large majority of people enjoy watching, listening and playing things which are quite obviously morally wrong - even sickeningly so?

Is all this really a recent phenomenon? Or is it just the age old cycle of things always being better in the “good old days”? After all, hardly a product of our times, the Godfather trilogy is arguably one of the most famous and critically acclaimed film series in the world. Scarface, a film about a coke-sniffing murdering machine, has become a cultural phenomenon. What it is about these films and stories that draws us?

I think it is because most of us live a hopelessly mundane existence. Our childhood dreams of flying up into space and fighting robots are all but over. We have mostly a set routine. The pinnacle of excitement in our lives is usually a night out with friends, a friend’s wedding or perhaps a pay raise. We meet and greet every one with a smile, and always try and strive to be the best versions of ourselves. But there is no light without the dark, no ocean without the sand. Our contemporary notions of what it means to be “civilized”, in the grand scheme of things, is a relatively recent phenomenon. A tiny blip in the story of mankind, in fact. Hardly a hundred years ago people challenged each other to duels in the U.S and France, killing off each other over some “breach of honour”. Go back a couple more and you find kings conking off people at random. Chattel slavery and even human sacrifices were considered an acceptable part of everyday life. Our own Turkic conquerors in South Asia have proudly admitted to erecting towers of human skulls. The innovative ways of torture adopted by the English kings, preserved at the Tower of London, are a great tourist attraction.

There is always a part of us that wants to let go, to break free of norms and conventions, to finally be able to embrace our primordial, animalistic and instinctive nature. A nature that existed long before other systems came to the fore for societal harmony.

In theological terms, the explanation is, so to say, simple. God made us in His image but then Satan was unleashed upon us. The dialectics between the all-powerful Almighty and the challenger Satan has been the constant theme of human existence. But the way our theologians have explained these concepts makes it very easy for us, the faithful, to blame every evil deed on poor Satan. One thing is certain from the era of Adam and Eve; that we humans are extremely vulnerable to the Great Tempter. We have great fascination and attraction for things Satanic. But let us leave it to the priests and mullahs to save our souls.

One of the very first parts of the human brain to be developed was the R-Complex, responsible for our most primitive, basic emotions. Even our anatomy seems tailor-made for specific purposes. A 2015 research paper from David Carrier, head of the Evolutionary Biomechanics Lab at the University of Utah, showed that a closed fist, one with the thumb against the index and middle fingers, provides a safer way to hit someone with force. Given that our primate ancestors did not have the same ability to make fists, it can be assumed our hands evolved specifically to turn them into more effective weapons. Our foot posture was found to be an adaptation for better fighting performance. More robust male facial features were seen as specifically evolved to better withstand a punch.

In biological and evolutionary terms, it makes perfect sense. The primitive man who would kill his competition would get more female partners, and subsequently more offspring. Violence also meant more food and better shelter.

Fast forward a few millennia and the essential concepts remain the same, only more indirect. Other, more “civilized” tactics are used to attain food, shelter and status. But the caveman still lives on in our personal and collective unconscious.

We can embrace that side in the movies we watch, the songs we listen to and the video games we play. As the old philosophical question goes, would we ever hesitate in committing a crime if there was no punishment? Or the philosophical thought experiment: if a tree falls in a forest, with no one to hear or see, would it really have fallen? Similarly, if one commits a crime and no one ever finds out, will it really qualify as one? Most of us (hopefully) would never want to be gangsters, but through various media we can experience the rush a drug dealer has during a deal, the adrenaline from escaping the police, excitement from robbing a bank or the feeling of power from taking a life.

Apart from being able to experience forms of emotion that are deeply a part of the human psyche, whilst averting the consequences, there is also a deeper, perhaps more positive result. As the world opens up more and more, the lines between black and white have become a blur. The grey area is becoming more and more apparent. In Netflix’s Money Heist, a group of bank robbers become darlings of the public by insinuating that while they were stealing only millions, the financial system stole billions every day. In Narcos, while the main drug lord Pablo Escobar is caught, the politicians, bureaucrats and military officials who supported him all get away scot-free.

We might view these drug lords, murderers and thieves as a great evil on Earth, but who is the greater criminal? A murderer who takes a few lives, or the politician whose actions result in the death of millions? A bank robber or the banks which have the power to start entire wars and trigger famines? A drug lord or the generals carrying out genocides? The biggest criminals, indeed, do wear suits!

So perhaps, I find myself thinking, humans are neither good nor evil. Like a chimera, we have the graceful body of a goat and the fierce head of a lion. Violence may be in our genes, but so is peace. The penchant for adrenaline rushes and power binges may be embedded in our psyche, but so is the need for love and friendship. Our evolution is still ongoing, and every day we all face a choice. To follow the primitive caveman inside of us, or to aspire for a higher form of evolution, a deeper aspect of creation.

To become a disciple of Satan or follow the diktats of You Know Who!

“There surely is in human nature an inherent propensity to extract all the good out of all the evil.” (Benjamin Haydon)

The writer is Director of Ajoka Institute and a core member of Ajoka Theatre Pakistan. He has been involved in spreading awareness of social and political issues through theatre