This blog is part of a 12-step program to recovering from chronic dorkdom...except without the whole recovery business.
I'd consider this blog more like an outbreak of a dorky zombie virus except there will be more brains, and hopefully less of the putrid flesh smell.
Wednesday, November 3
Halloween Psych 101: Lesson III - Why You Probably Deserve to Die
I used to devour Spike TV’s 1000 Ways to Die when it first came out because I have a morbid personality and…well that’s pretty much why. For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, it’s a show that lists bizarre, embarrassing, and random deaths that actually happened. At first it didn’t bother me because the deaths were framed in a cause-and-effect manner. If you were stupid enough to do A then B would happen, but you didn’t have to worry about B happening to you if A didn’t apply to you.
Many of the deaths were caused by stupidity, arrogance, perversion, or greed so as long as I didn’t indulge in those behaviors, I wouldn’t have to worry about a bathtub falling on me because I happened to be drilling holes in the ceiling to see my upstairs tenant getting all sudsy. Eventually though, they ran out of merited deaths and started broadcasting more random deaths where the individual wasn’t doing anything in particular and then a tree fell on them or they had a sudden leak in a gas pipe and their house exploded or something.
Every 10 seconds, another American is assaulted by a renegade Mario and his great balls of fire.
Social Psychologist Melvin J. Lerner best explains this phenomenon in his “Just World” Theory:
“People have the need to believe in a just world in which all people, including themselves, get what they deserve and deserve what they get. This belief in a just world provides individuals with the confidence that they will be treated fairly by others and that they will not become victims of unforeseeable misfortune.” (Lerner, 365)**
How many times do you remember reading a news article about a random murder, rape, robbery, etc. where you thought “Well maybe she was leading him on,” “He probably was involved with the wrong crowd,” or “I bet they never locked their door.” It’s awful because our first instinct is to blame the victim for some perceived fault that invited misfortune upon them. It’s this same set of ethical-gymnastics-turned-defense-mechanism that allow us to indulge in movies like Saw where physical torment and brutal deaths are merely the characters’ punishments for past indiscretions or weakness. We can remove ourselves from the horrible events in front of us because, in a just world, horrible things only happen to horrible people. And that’s just not us, right?
It’s interesting that horror movie producers are inadvertently reinforcing the belief in a just world even though they may think they’re just scaring people and making bank while doing so. Every horror flick of the 1990s seemed to have the skank, the virgin, the douchy jock, lather rinse repeat. The virgin, the lovable nerd, and the plain all-around decent peeps usually made it to the last scene, whereas the promiscuous cheerleader, the narcissistic heartbreaker, or the avaricious movie producer more often than not, got a face full of machete before the third act of the film. Whether you merited keeping your head or not was directly correlated to the integrity of your moral fiber. Let's take a look at Paris Hilton's horror movie makeover in House of Wax, shall we?
Good call, Death. Good call.
Recent horror flicks are more frequently shirking this cookie-cutter storytelling and opting for plots where the bottom-line is it’s hunting season and anyone and everyone is game whether you’re a prostitute or a kindergarten teacher. Although I guess the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive…
It certainly explains my short-lived love affair with 1000 Ways to Die. It was all fun and games when I believed that the victims were somewhat at fault for their own deaths. Once misfortune started falling upon innocent, “undeserving”* individuals, my sense of the world being a just place was suddenly threatened. I had to break it off so I’d be able to leave the safety of my house again and actually interact with the world without fear of having a toilet fall on me from space.
Accidents. Massacres. Hauntings. Zits. Arbitrary violence or misfortune frightens us because it threatens our belief that the world is ruled by cosmic justice. When stories of injustices happen to not only be random but true, or even loosely based on actual events, it drives home the reality that the horror contained safely behind the TV screen could one day happen to us.
Stay tuned for my final installment in this series on Halloween Psychology:
*I feel like quotes are necessary there because nobody really deserves to die…even stupid people.
**I drew this quote from page 365 of The Justice Motive in Everyday Life by Melvin J. Lerner, Michael Ross, and Dale T. Miller. Long book but if you’re interested in the psychology of social justice and the just world phenomenon I’d recommend it.