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Personal Essay: Schedenfreude
Personal Essay: Pessimism

On Schadenfreude.

An essay on the subject of 'schadenfreude,' written for a personal essay workshop class. Spring 2011.

Back in the days when the VCR still reigned as king of the home entertainment system, I had a small collection of videotapes to call my own. It was composed mostly of the classic Disney movies (up to around The Emperor's New Groove) and several Wee Sing videos about brave young children bringing peace to imaginary lands through the power of song-and-dance routines. My parents, both academics, were determined to give me what they thought was a pure, intelligent upbringing. As a result, I grew up an immensely sheltered brat -- my perception of the world consisted mostly of jolly singing animals and flowers, and a shallow imitation of fairytale love.

My first exposure to proper violence in the media was when I chanced upon a slightly violent series of Japanese comics artfully titled Dai's Grand Adventure. I later learned that this was a series based off the iconic Dragon Quest videogame franchise. It was fairly standard fantasy fare, full of swordfighting knights and spellcasting mages fighting to save the world from a dark overlord. The bloodshed was neither over-the-top nor gratuitous, and was heavily censored as well -- Korean comic books back in those days tended to deploy copious amounts of white-out all over any depictions of violence. But still, it was something new.

Although I had previously been enchanted by the scene in Disney's Sleeping Beauty where the Handsome Prince Whatever-His-Name-Was was captured by the witch Maleficent's henchmen, this new brand of brutality was one that was fresh and exciting. Look, look, they're fighting!

This was, perhaps, my first step down the long road of schadenfreude, or some variation of it. Schadenfreude, of course, (as well as being a fantastically difficult word to type out consistently) refers to the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.

I wonder, though, if this is the most appropriate word.

There are a myriad of different terms used to refer to the strange relationship many people seem to weave between pain and love. The original term used to refer to someone who derived pleasure from pain was algolagnia or algophilia, derived from the Greek word for pain, algos. It was originally thought that algophilists were affected at a neural level, where the brain interpreted pain signals as pleasure signals. These concepts were later replaced by the more familiar terms sadism and masochism, taken after the works of the Marquis de Sade and the somewhat lesser-known Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, respectively. Even before these terms were coined, the concept of pain-derived pleasure was recorded as far back as in the Italian Renaissance, whereas the more platonic idea of schadenfreude was expressed as early as in the Book of Proverbs, a book of the Hebrew bible.

Clearly, the idea that people enjoy the misery of others is not a modern concept, but rather something more deeply grounded in human nature.

Personally, I've always found a rather crude pleasure in terrible B-movies whose only redeeming points are their copious amounts of gore. Watching a man's arms fly off in opposite directions followed by pressured jets of blood reminiscent of fire hoses, is cathartic in an almost therapeutic way, and the fact that movies like Piranha 3D and Saw IV are still being produced must mean that I am not the only one who enjoys these rather questionable "works of art."

And yet, despite the ubiquity of this pleasure, most of polite society treats any form of schadenfreude with a rather distinct flavor of shame.

A simple example: the groin-kick -- a common trope of films in all genres -- has lost most of its comedic value and has, for the most part, been reduced to a rather ironic callback to slapstick humor. On the other hand, there are a staggering number of videos on YouTube that show little more than some hapless idiot acquiring the same crotch-aching injury in a less-staged manner -- a lot of these videos have a formidable number of views. Perhaps people are more piqued by real injuries than fake ones?

A more serious example: the number of people who enjoy violent or sadistic entertainment in any of its many forms -- films, books, comics, video games -- is considerable. And yet, when an individual who committed a crime is found to have enjoyed these hobbies, these items are almost immediately pointed out as being the reasons behind the crime. The most famous example of this phenomenon in the United States might be the perpetrators of the Columbine High School Massacre, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. This incident also sparked a rather large video game controversy when Harris and Klebold's fondness for violent videogames like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D were named as possible inspirations for their crimes.

A similar case took place in Japan in 2004, when an 11-year-old girl stabbed a classmate to death with a box-cutter. The case, often referred to as the Sasebo Slashing Incident, caused controversy when it was discovered that the perpetrator enjoyed violent films and websites. Similarly, serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, also known as the Otaku Murderer who murdered four little girls, is said to have cast a severely negative view of nerds and geeks in Japan after his apartment was found packed full of violent cartoons and slasher films.

It is almost a peculiar form of reverse-engineering. Ignore the fact that thousands of people aren't affected by violent media, this one person was, so it must be the reason they killed five people!

Although I have never been the type to start a fight with anyone -- too entrenched in the polite, passive-aggressive mannerisms hammered into the minds of most Koreans soon after birth -- I've always relished the idea of violent conflict in a creative and academic sense. Hidden away from my overprotective mother's sight, I devoured books that portrayed all manner of unhealthy violence and sadism, not unlike the way a 13-year-old boy cannot watch a movie that does not contain at least one explosion per minute. Lord of the Flies, I remember, was one of my favorites from a rather young age, followed by a large selection of Stephen King's works and the infamous Battle Royale.

But there are many difficulties surrounding those who wish to objectively make a study of brutality. Due to the way in which modern media often associates an interest in violence with either a) an intent to commit such acts directly or b) the less harmful but more "perverted" venue of BDSM subculture, it grows increasingly difficult for one to explain a platonic, purely harmless interest in morbid matters without drawing some suspicious glances.

An acquaintance of mine was unfortunately caught by her friend while reading de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom and was rather swiftly pinned with the label of being a "closet sadist." Though she had been reading the book purely as a study of misogyny and to satisfy her curiosity, the label stuck. She once joked that she was afraid of receiving a leather crop for her next birthday present.

I cannot help but wonder how Sade scholars are treated when they go to parties. Are they given a wide berth for fear that their so-called "perversion" is contagious?

And yet, the same people who will poke fun of and passive-aggressively accuse my friend of being a sexual deviant in hiding will watch and rewatch videos of people on YouTube falling down stairs. Is there some sort of invisible threshold that one shouldn't cross? Is it okay to laugh at a person who trips, but it's wrong to enjoy reading about someone who dies? It's okay to enjoy a thriller movie about a very successful serial killer, but only if it has a good plot? A well-written book about a string of brutal murders is okay as long as a few pages are taken in between incidents to give the audience some deep insight into the human condition?

The line between acceptable and unacceptable schadenfreude is so difficult to clarify, I often feel like the safest route for one to take is to completely deny any relation to it at all. Which is why I feel there's always the sickly scent of shame lingering in the air, when one walks into a theater showing a movie that used any significant amount of fake blood for its filming.

Perhaps the very reason why I have just wasted a rather copious amount of time, ink and paper harping on about this subject is the very thing I may be discussing: the shame of indulging in schadenfreude. After all, he who commits a crime is most adamant in his denials, and upon rereading this paper, I cannot help but feel that I come across as fiercely defensive -- as if to say, "No, really, I'm not a serial killer in hiding! Really!"

When I was about eight or ten or some other age that I can't remember much of any more, I would often watch my father play games on his old Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It was clunky and dusty and often made strange noises like it was groaning about aching joints, but I spent many hours watching my father curse his way through the various Super Mario games.

I don't remember how he managed to end up with a copy of Mortal Kombat and I'm not sure if he even knew much about the games, but he still allowed me to watch as he popped the cartridge in the game and miserably lost six rounds in a row. For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Mortal Kombat (as I now know) is a fighting game series infamous for the very creative and very violent ways in which characters will murder each other. I'm pretty sure my mother would have gone into conniptions if she realized that I, sitting by my father's side, got to watch a busty woman in a bikini use a metal fan to blow the skin and muscles off a man until just a bloody skeleton remained. I think there might have also been a move that involved a man ripping another man's skeleton out of his body with his bare hands.

I've joked to friends before that this may be my Freudian excuse for enjoying terrible movies like Thankskilling now, and that I can't help the effects of this latent childhood trauma, but I doubt that this is really the case. Most people take pleasure in seeing others in pain or in misery, just to differing degrees -- there are those who will only politely titter at someone walking into a door, while others will hunt out slasher films to spend the evening with.

But what matters most would probably be balancing out this schadenfreude with a level of self-consciousness. People who unironically enjoy violent media, I feel, are often quite conscious of the way that they are perceived by the public, and will either compensate by being very friendly (sincerely so!), or will hide their hobbies. (I qualify in the latter category for the most part.) The individuals who commit the crimes portrayed in media and give the rest of us a bad name are often those who simply lacked the ability to assess themselves and separate fiction from reality -- they are the people who happen to reside in the middle section of the Venn diagram illustrating delusional people and people who happen to resonate with schadenfreude more than normal.

I guess what I'm trying to say, in the end, is that I'm fairly confident I will not end up hauling out a sharp object and murdering my classmates after a bad night's sleep, regardless of what movies I like to watch and what books I like to read. It's just a pity that bystanders often have great difficulty in placing this same sort of confidence in others who happen to have some (perfectly natural, I think, but) socially-perceived-as-shady preferences when it comes to pleasure.