Barbarians or Philosophers? What Psychology Has to Say about Grimdark Fans and Their Dark Obsession

We grimdark readers and writers are often written-off as the dark creatures hiding in the caves of fantasyland, eager to feast upon depictions of horrible gore, morally reprehensible characters, and pointless violence.  Why would we prefer what some bloggers have written-off as “splatterporn” and “a beast that will devour our souls if we let it” (Simon 2013 [references at end of post]), when there are works of heroic fantasy that have none of the questionable morality, grit or violence endemic to grimdark fantasy?

To this end, I recruited PhD candidate Victoria Bridgland of Flinders University, who studies cognition, emotion and fear responses, and we’ve put together a miniature literature review to help us answer this question. This article is by no means intended to be a comprehensive review of responses to violent entertainment. Instead, the purpose of this article is to discuss some of the recent advancements in this field of study and how they can help us understand why readers may be attracted to grimdark versus other forms of fantasy entertainment).

While at first it may appear that the allure of grimdark is in its cheap, violent thrills, Ms Bridgland and I propose that there’s a deeper reason that so many are drawn to darker, more morally ambiguous fantasy. Through looking at current psychological research, we hope to establish why grimdark fans might enjoy grimdark fantasy over more traditional heroic fantasy, and what differences there are between those who love grimdark and those who don’t like it. It’s our hypothesis that grimdark fans gain a deep fulfilment and enhanced personal well-being by engaging with grimdark fantasy, and that their particular dispositions mean that the violence common to grimdark doesn’t detract from this deeper engagement, but enhances it beyond simple thrills.

Opponents of grimdark have long written off our brand of fantasy as shallow and filled with ever-increasing amounts of grit and violence in some kind of arms-race to discover who can be the most shocking. For instance, Jesse (2013) accuses grimdark writers as saturating their works with sex and violence in order to achieve ‘cheap sensationalism’ in order to entice readers to buy books. Further, Simon argues that more wholesome forms of fantasy are being replaced by an ‘unending, ever-increasing, bloodshot craving for the pleasures of torture and the pornography of pain’. Similarly, a blogger by the name of ‘the G’ (2013) states that grimdark contains gratuitous violence that ‘exists primarily to push the envelope and to shock, titillate and excite (usually male) audiences’.  Are these writers correct? Why would grimdark readers willingly approach and, in many cases, enjoy portrayals of seemingly senseless violence, bloodshed and aggression? Notable grimdark authors utterly disagree: Michael R. Fletcher (2015) states on his blog that he ‘certainly didn’t’ set out to write grimdark, and that he wasn’t even aware of the subgenre when writing. He just wrote the book he wanted to write. Fletcher reached out to other authors, including Django Wexler, Anthony Ryan, Marc Turner and more, who all rejected the idea of writing in some sort of grim arms race, and none of them said that they set out to intentionally write grimdark. Joe Abercrombie takes this further in his essay The Value of Grit (2013), by suggesting that grimdark adds realism to fantasy, and points out that grimdark literature doesn’t stick to the dark end of the spectrum, but allows the inclusion of dark content, which is of course necessary when exploring the full range of the human condition. He says that ‘one person’s disgracefully titillating torture porn can be another’s searing examination of how far one might go to get the truth’Blogger Aiden Moher (2012) summarized the point well in his review of Mark Lawrence’s oft-denigrated as ‘too violent’—Prince of Thorns, stating that ‘Prince of Thorns is a dark novel and often hard to read, but by the end it’s not dark for the sake of shock value, or dark simply to allow Lawrence to explore some sick part of his soul; rather, it’s dark because exploring those lightless depths is central to the core themes of Jorg’s story.’ This argument has raged for some years, but so far both sides present evidence that is purely anecdotal, opinionated, and speculative. Therefore I set out to discover whether there is any empirical, psychological research that might illuminate the issue in a more objective way.

So, what evidence exists to suggest that grimdark fans are indeed bloodthirsty creatures in search of sadistic spectacles of shock and horror? For many years, it seemed that the answer to this question was that some people tolerate graphic depictions of violence and deplorable moral acts as a source of amusement, thrill, and suspense. Zuckerman (1979) for instance famously identified the personality trait dubbed sensation seeking, whereby individuals take risks for the sake of varied, novel and intense sensations. For these people, discomfort caused by negative stimuli is reinterpreted as feelings of pleasure and arousal. Alternatively, Zillmann (1980) argued that individuals endure aversive events because they understand that positive feelings of relief are enhanced in the aftermath by the remaining psychological arousal.

More recently, Andrade and Cohen (2007) found that for individuals who enjoy horror films a coactivation of both positive and negative affect is present when watching. That is, for people who reported liking horror films, both positive and negative emotions increase when watching, while those who said they disliked the genre reported an increase in negative affect only. But why would someone endure negative and positive emotions if they could expose themselves to sources of positive entertainment only? Andrade and Cohen offer a potential explanation for this;\: it may be that negative affect is a guaranteed source of psychological arousal that is converted into positive affect and enhances positive emotions. Alternatively, viewers who like horror may experience levels of uncertainty and curiosity that produce a more overall pleasurable experience than that derived by purely positive affect only. This may help explain why someone would prefer grimdark over traditional fantasy which may be a more obvious choice for a source of strictly ‘pleasant’ entertainment. It may be that grimdark readers, like those who like horror films, seek the guaranteed source of arousal that is provided by the negative themes, and that this arousal enhances concurrent feelings of positive affect, which seems to support the notion that grimdark fans do in fact just enjoy the cheap thrills provided by violence.

However, recent literature suggests that this may not be the whole story and that motivations for the consumption of negative entertainment may not be so simple.  Specifically, Oliver and Raney (2011, p.985) make the distinction between a purely hedonistic motive—derived from pleasure—and one motivated by ‘eudaimonic appreciation’—a state characterised by the desire to elaborate on thoughts and feelings and to “search for and ponder life’s meanings, truths, and purposes”. Aptly dubbed “truth-seeking”, eudaimonic forms of entertainment are focused upon realistic and socially relevant topics which force the viewer to confront painful truths about the self and reality (Bartsch & Schneider, 2014). For instance, Oliver and Hartmann (2010) found that participants who viewed dramas and more serious films—opposed to comedy or action films—“reflected on the value and fleetingness of life, the importance of human virtue and endurance, and the inevitability of sadness, cruelty, and pain as part of the human condition” (cited in Bartsch, 2012, p.8).  It would be immediately evident to any reader of grimdark fantasy, that a clear distinguishing factor between grimdark and more traditional heroic fantasy, is that grimdark includes those negative aspects of the human condition, whereas heroic fantasy tends to shy away from them.

Incompatible with hedonistic motivations, truth-seeking entertainment is typically characterized by negative or mixed feelings (Bartsch, 2012). However, studies have shown that eudaimonic evaluation of self-relevant negative information can lead to long term improvements in emotional well-being (Ryan, Huta & Delci, 2006). Further, the truth-seeking and often counter-hedonistic nature of eudaimonic entertainment can be contrasted starkly against that of escapist forms of entertainment media. Fantasy in all its forms is escapist; however, in this case escapism refers to entertainment that allows one to enjoy a “brain holiday” from everyday concerns “to worlds of ease and beauty where stories always come to a just or happy end” (Bartsch & Schneider, 2014, p.369). Heroic fantasy, unlike grimdark, allows readers to escape from the nature of the human condition, but those consuming truth-seeking eudaimonic entertainment are forced to confront socially relevant and often uncomfortable topics.

The truth-seeking nature of eudaimonic entertainment echoes what many authors have already argued about the nature of grimdark (see Abercrombie and Moher above). Grimdark confronts real themes and painful truths about the world, and is therefore more of a eudaimonic, ‘truth-seeking’ form of entertainment than traditional heroic fantasy, which seems to be more about hedonistic enjoyment and escape to a world where the nature of the human condition is more idealised. Grimdark, while still set in a secondary fantasy world, is more about exploring the true nature of life through the entertaining lens of a fantasy adventure, whereas heroic fantasy seems to be more about how ‘good’ should conquer ‘evil’. Notions of good and evil are rarely relevant in real life. Real life isn’t black and white like heroic fantasy can be, and shades of grey are what grimdark is concerned with. Thus, it appears that grimdark fantasy is a eudaimonic form of entertainment, whereas heroic fantasy is a hedonistic form of entertainment.

Grimdark also allows us to address the more sordid aspects of the human psyche. The Stanford Prison experiment showed us that normal college students could be transformed—in under a week’s time—into sadistic prison guards, capable of inflicting immense psychological distress to their faux prisoners (Zimbardo, 1973). And the Milgram shock experiments (1963), which taught us that everyday people will commit atrocious acts, if directed by a figure of authority, via the diffusion of responsibility. Collectively, these experiments also helped us gain insight into the nature of war crimes and how good people might only be a bad situation away from willingly participating in horrendous acts—making one realize, for instance, that there may not actually be that much of a difference between the nature a Nazi SS officer and oneself. Humans can’t be boxed neatly into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’—we’re a bit more complex than that. Refusing to address this immutable fact, and just escaping to magical lands where heroes are always good and never besmirch themselves with questionable morality is like putting blinkers on and shoving fingers in your ears. In a more realistic world, a ‘hero’ could easily find himself doing seemingly evil things. Like a Nazi, Glotka (Abercrombie’s The First Law series) can retain a significant position in a flawed society and avoid responsibility for his actions because he is granted the authority to perform sadistic acts. It’s interesting to get into the mind of a character like this because it helps us understand the world we live in and how people such vile people can exist.

However, it’s not only interest in real world issues and the troubling nature of the human psyche that is examined by ‘truth-seeking’ entertainment—and we theorise, Grimdark in particular—but also making meaning out of one’s own existence. People tend to carry what are called ‘justice beliefs’ regarding the nature of the world and how it should work (See Anderson, Fitzsimons, and Kay, 2013, for review). These beliefs are typically characterized by the idea that the world is a just place and that outcomes should be related to the kind of person someone is—e.g., “bad things shouldn’t happen to good people” and “people get what they deserve and deserve what they get”.  When these beliefs are challenged (for example, when a bad thing happens to a good person for no just reason), we go to extraordinary efforts to reduce the feelings of dissonance—aversive arousal created when our beliefs don’t match actual events—that we experience. This dissonance can often be resolved by simply focusing on good things that happen to the person later in life so that the negative event is “balanced out” or on aspects of the victim that justify their negative fortune (Anderson et al., 2013). However, what happens when there is seemingly no reason at all for bad things to happen to good people? When no one can be faulted and no external rewards act as reparations? In this case, in order to reduce dissonance, people tend to focus on ‘immaterial rewards such as deeper insight, social connections and personal growth’ (Bartsch & Hartmann, 2015, p.23)

This effect has been demonstrated in various ways. For instance, when people face traumatic life events with no real meaning attached (e.g., the sudden death of a loved one), they tend to report some benefit in their experiences such as personal growth and the strengthening of family bonds (Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema & Larson, 1998). Applied more directly to an experimental context, Anderson, Fitzsimons, and Kay (2013) had participants view traumatic photographs and then gave or did not give them monetary compensation for the task. Results revealed that those who were not compensated for their participation (and were thus given no external justification for their negative experience) reported more meaning in their own lives than those who were given money. Thus, because there was no intrinsic award for their negative experience, in order to reduce dissonance, participants were forced to find another justification and perceived their own lives as more meaningful.

We can apply these concepts to the appreciation of seemingly gratuitous violence and heartache seen in many grimdark works. For example, when Caine goes through hell to rescue his wife in Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die, only to end up crippled and locked in a loveless marriage at the beginning of the sequel, more miserable than he was to begin with, it’s engaging to read deeper into this, and seek meaning on the often nihilistic, unfair nature of reality. It’s far more satisfying than reading about characters who come back from their quest with riches and glory, since we know, deep down, that the world is rarely that fair.

Bartsch and Hartmann (2015) argue that this meaning-making may be why viewers are drawn to stories where likable and innocent characters come to unjust violent ends because it may help us to make sense of similar real-world happenings. For instance, it may force the viewer to search for meaningful immaterial rewards—rather than intrinsic awards—as compensation for the misfortune of the victim, such as in the example from Heroes Die, where Caine does in fact become much wiser about the nature of the world due to his harrowing experiences. This, in turn, lets us think about how harrowing experiences in our own lives may actually enrich us as people, and this is innately satisfying. There appears to be meaning to be made from, what is on the surface, seemingly senseless and unjustified violence.

This meaning-making can also work in various ways—readers might even re-evaluate entertainment that deals with issues of violence in meaningful ways as less negative in nature. For instance, Bartsch and Mares (2014) found that while perceptions of gore were found to detract from film viewing interest, this effect was no longer present when perceived levels of meaningfulness were high. In other words, when viewers believed that the depiction of violence would be highly meaningful, their viewing interest was no longer affected by any level of perceived goriness. Applying this to interest in grimdark, this could mean that once a reader ascertains a certain threshold of meaningfulness from the story—perhaps due to some of the processes described above—they’re no longer bothered by graphic depictions of gore and violence. For example, in Steven Erikson’s highly acclaimed Gardens of the Moon, there are a couple of particularly violent scenes towards to beginning, specifically the battle at Pale and the fallout from the Hounds visiting a village. These shouldn’t be written off as appalling depictions of violence by the reader, or even as titillating bits of ‘torture-porn’. Rather, the violence should be accepted as a necessary aspect of what is a commentary on the futility of war and the unfortunate way an uncaring world grinds everyday people into dust.

What then makes a grimdark fan’s tastes different from someone who hates the subgenre? An answer may be found in disposition-based theories which have previously been applied to audience attraction to various entertainment genres. In this context, “disposition” refers to virtues or moral principles that a particular individual prizes most highly. Zillmann (2000), for example, proposes that every individual subscribes to a different “morality subculture”—a “shared value system among groups of individuals who judge observed behavior utilizing similar moral frameworks”.  This work has been extended (See Haidt and Joseph, 2004; Haidt and Graham, 2007) with the proposal that moral judgements are based upon five modules: harm, fairness, ingroup/loyalty, authority, and purity.  Members of different morality subcultures place different modules at the forefront, and this can explain why some find grimdark fiction reprehensible, while others find it satisfying. The modules we’re most concerned with regarding grimdark are fairness and harm.

Tamborini, Eden, Grizzard and Lachlan (2012), found that that “justification for violence should have a greater appeal for individuals who find fairness to be particularly important”. Essentially, they found that people who prioritise fairness, but don’t have a huge aversion to violence, enjoyed and found more meaning in violent content with what they perceived to be a strong ‘justified’ or ‘fair’ motivation. Thus, it’s not that we enjoy gratuitous violence for its own sake, but while we may enjoy some violence we require meaning behind it, and a strong appeal of fairness and justice. Additionally, Eden, Oliver, Tamborini, Woolley & Limperos (2008), found that differences in the viewer’s perceived importance of these modules indicate differences in which characters viewers of films identify as heroes and villains. This can explain the classic grimdark ‘anti-hero’ and why we empathise with them. While this effect is present in films, I would go so far as to suggest that it’s heightened by the deep point of view (POV) found within grimdark literature, since we often judge POV characters not on their external actions, but on their internal decisions. The motivations for doing harm have to be justified and fair. ‘Evil’ motivations don’t produce higher satisfaction in the viewer. Thus arises the idea of ‘moral ambiguity’ – which can be defined as the conflict between notions of fairness and not doing harm. Characters just doing harm for selfish unjustified reasons are still hated by those who enjoy violent content.

What this means is that grimdark fans may have predisposition to enjoying a grittier, darker and more morally ambiguous type of fiction. While the actions of a character like, Zosia from Alex Marshall’s A Crown for Cold Steel might seem objectively morally reprehensible, grimdark fans (if they’re like me) relish seeing her mete out brutal retribution on those who have done her wrong, despite the fact that in doing so she does things like burn a young man alive. People who dislike grimdark, however, may find her actions reprehensible regardless of any justification.

In the debate between those who love grimdark, and those who hate it, there is, I’ll concede, some evidence for either side. For those who claim that grimdark fans read because they enjoy the thrill that comes with depictions of violence, there’s some research, as noted above, to back this up. However, there seems to be much more recent evidence that supports grimdark fans gaining a deep fulfilment and enhanced personal well-being by engaging with grimdark fantasy. The dark and violent aspects of grimdark help it reflect the human condition in all its complex glory, whereas heroic fantasy is limited to an idealised portrayal of good and evil. Lack of material rewards and the unfairness and violence of grimdark worlds mirror our own, and help us see that the true rewards in life are increased wisdom and understanding of the nature of reality.  Grimdark fans like the subgenre because its anti-heroes share their high regard for justice and righteous vengeance, and that disposition means that the violence common to grimdark doesn’t detract from deep engagement with exploration of humanity, in all its glorious shades of grey.

References

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Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #13.

Grimdark Magazine #13 is available for purchase from our catalogue.

 

 

Victoria Bridgland is the co-author of this article and is a PhD candidate in the School of Psychology at Flinders University. She’s interested in fear responses, expectancy effects, cognition, emotion, and memory for traumatic events. When she’s not poking around inside of people’s heads, she’s downing prolific amounts of coffee, painting watercolours, ballet dancing, or playing the violin.

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Matthew Cropley

Matthew lives in a basement in Adelaide, Australia, coming out only very rarely for food to sustain him through long nights reading. He makes films, acts, and dabbles in game development, but his real love has always been writing. Prince of Thorns introduced him to grimdark several years ago and he hasn't looked back since.