“I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”
Squishy meat-related sounds.
Riotous applause and cheers echo off of murals and a high, sculpted ceiling. The old art deco theater is screening a 35mm print of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride to an adoring crowd that knows every beat. The six-fingered-man is vigorously dead. We the audience are in high spirits, undampened as Inigo---the object of his 20-year hatred now dispatched---admits that “Now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”
There is a comfortable simplicity in hatred, that primal all-encompassing cry of DO NOT WANT that can ring ad infinitum in a character’s very bones. From Inigo Montoya to Captain Ahab, Levi and Shimon to the late Agrajag, we consistently find characters driven by hatred compelling---whether or not we’re actually on their side.
Hatred is a common mechanic of humanization for villainous characters. How did the staff of Breaking Bad bring a last-minute veneer of humanity to their chicken mogul? [Vague spoiler alert, if you care about that kind of thing.] By placing his villainy in a broader context, yes--but in particular by hooking it into a longterm cold-burning hatred. On the opposite side of the same conflict, it is the reciprocated hatred of everyone’s favorite alternative percussion player that makes the gradual one-upmanship of violence so particularly arresting, up to the climactic face-off (sorry, I had to).
Is it hatred we so admire, or is it revenge? The above examples have all fallen roughly into the latter subcategory, and it can be difficult to produce narrative examples of hatred without at least a subtext of revenge. Shylock’s dislike of the titular Merchant of Venice is introduced as fairly cut-and-dried (“I hate him for he is a Christian”), but is increasingly recontextualized as slowburning riposte for past wrongs perpetrated by Antonio, who called him a “dog” and “spat upon [his] Jewish gaberdine”, as well as a sort of synecdochic revenge upon and one-up of the Christian oppressors of Venice as a whole: “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Perhaps revenge is not an alternative to hatred, but merely an explanation for it. (Why does X hate Y? Because Y verbed X. Why does 9 hate 7? Because 7 ate 9.) Revenge is a handy justification for hatred, but certainly not the only narratively viable one. Envy and jealousy are two related but distinct alternatives which crop up nearly as often. The Benjamin Franklin Effect can service just as well, although it brings up uncomfortable questions. While the absence of justification can be missed, its particular form is often irrelevant. What we are drawn to is not the explanation, but the emotion.
Against hatred’s relatability glints the terror of its marked absence. When an act of premeditated violence (physical, psychological, economic, or otherwise) is rooted in hatred, it is highly narratively palatable; that same act without passion becomes something wholly other and terrifying. (Note that acts of specific self defense fall outside the scope of this discussion.) The psychological impact of The Terminator, or Jaws, or Kristen Stewart, or The Borg is so uncannily disquieting specifically because of the absence of emotion. We are given no handle for the behavior, no relatability clause.
In Joss Whedon’s debut film, Serenity, he chose as villain an unnamed Operative who “kills and never asks why.” Without an emotional relationship, malicious or otherwise, the Operative disengages from his victims. Innocent bystanders and children make up the vast majority of the Operative’s bodycount; he is able to do this by discarding the type of emotion that restricts Inigo Montoya or Luke Skywalker from killing outside the realms of revenge or self defense.
Above all, hatred gives us a way to explain things we don’t want to dwell on---a way to turn extras into acceptable cannon fodder, or to handwave the complex questions raised by a villain willing to slaughter innocents. It is one of the simplest---and most universal---emotions, and provides characters with both fuel and focus. It is a tenacious emotional state, the opposite side of the same coin as love. While hatred creates Two-Face, it also creates The Bat, and keeps him in his tights and ears for thousands of issues.
Up on the screen, Obi-Wan Kenobi cuts Darth Maul in half. I’m ten years old and horrified by the spectacle, but I can see the hatred in Ewan McGregor’s face, feel the dark side powering his stroke, and a kind of childish catharsis lets me know that, deep down, the death was what I wanted, too. (Years later, the word hatred immediately brings to mind that very film.)
We love hate because it provides us with a narrative framework on which to hang and lampshade our uncertainty. Friendship may be magic, but hatred is a faith.