We live in a world of polarities: good and bad, freedom fighters and terrorists, East and West, rich and poor, right and wrong, criminals and victims — monsters and heroes.
The clash of opposites makes for a good story, a proven way to grab audience attention; we empathise with one side, while fearing the other. A combination of factors compels us to emotionally connect with one side, while wishing destruction on the other.
From Theseus and the Minotaur, ‘cowboys and indians’, to astronauts and aliens, and ‘cops and robbers’; stories have been told with deliberate, and dramatic, contrasts between the supposed ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. When, as a group, we listen to a story and identify with the hero, we feel our sense of belonging to the audience, being part of a community of like-minded people. We support the same cause. We identify with the hero (who has likeable, human qualities), as opposed to the monster, which is brutal, unemotional, and violent — often unthinkingly cruel — resembling a machine, or crazed animal.
In the story of Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel are in danger of being eaten by the evil witch; we identify with the two children, because they are innocent and vulnerable. They have been cast out into the frightening world, by their poverty stricken parents, and now they are in the clutches of a psychotic cannibal (with a house made of cake and candy: a trap, to lure children). Something horrible will happen to any child who trusts her. They will probably be murdered, and then eaten.
The audience will be repulsed by the witch: her creepy behaviour, and cannibalism. People normally feel a special protectiveness around children, because of their vulnerability; we remember a time when we were young, and naive, and we were lucky enough to make it through scary experiences. We want Hansel and Gretel to survive, because we relate to their predicament – it could be us. Wishing them the best, reflects our view of the world, our goodness.
If the odds are stacked in favour of us identifying with Hansel and Gretel — what would it take to switch this around, for us to identify with the witch? Basic character traits, and plot points would have to change, for example: the children murder their parents, and flee into the woods, pursued by local Police — then it’s revealed that Hansel and Gretel have been killed and, what we now see as the two children are in fact man-eating aliens, who have assumed their appearance. Meanwhile, the kind old witch, who looks after birds with broken wings, and orphaned baby rabbits, is hated by the villagers for her enlightened, pacifist, vegetarian lifestyle. When the aliens arrive at her house, disguised as Hansel and Gretel, she intuitively knows something is wrong, shortly after, the bird with the broken wing and the cute baby rabbit disappear. Where could they be? She looks around and discovers the shocking sight of their bones, hidden behind a nearby tree. Then, ominously, ‘Hansel’ and ‘Gretel’ demand to use her oven to ‘bake her a cake’…
To switch our empathy from Hansel and Gretel to the witch, the characters have to swap polarities – the innocent hero becomes the monster, and vice-versa; to carry this off, their personality, and motivations must fundamentally change. The storyteller must demonise Hansel and Gretel, and turn the witch into a character we can like: an innocent victim, who can become the heroine. The snag is, we end up with a different story.
In many modern stories — typically in the crime genre — the monster is not immediately revealed. Storytellers play with our expectations, to maintain audience interest, giving various characters reasons for us to suspect them.
An audience usually identifies with someone who defends other people from danger, and stands up for human values, like ‘freedom’, free expression, exposing the truth, family bonds, friendship, community spirit, and caring for others. Our support for the hero reflects our own identity – our aspirations and fears.
We have an almost binary way of understanding threats — and how we should react to them. A darker side. The patterns we use to make sense of fiction, we also use to make sense of real life events. We use the same simplistic, cartoon-like notions of good and bad. These quick judgements reflect the best in us, and the worst — our generosity, and prejudice. Nevertheless, we rely on these patterns, referring back to them almost unconsciously, like muscle memory, because they are easy.
We only have to look as far as the evening news to see the hero and monster polarities used to explain: politicians, leaders, organisations, ethnicity, and nations. No matter how misinformed, deluded, or plain selfish we might be, we imagine ourselves to be fighting for the just cause — battling the monsters. But, sometimes the monsters are of our own making.