Fictional dark sides are fascinating; taking a glamorous hero and showing us what he would look like as a grave and dangerous villain has been a popular trope for as long as modern media has existed. Whether it’s saintly Jekyll and devilish Hyde or a dark world contacted by Christmas lights, the world around us seems to be filled with monsters of our own making. People seem to be infinitely curious about the twisted, evil versions of not only our favorite characters but of ourselves.
This dance with the dark isn’t a new fascination. Some of the earliest stories in the record of human history highlight themes of good versus evil, often taking the form of light versus dark in the literal sense. Most major religions have or had a “light-bringer”: a god or force that is responsible for delivering the ancient world from the chaos of “before” into the literal and metaphorical light of the modern era.
Take for instance the story of Aten. Aten, or Aton in some sources, is part of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. He’s honored as the sun god, literally depicted as the disk of the sun, and was praised in ancient hymns as a bringer of life and brightness as he brought the sun across the sky every day. He was pushed to popularity by the pharaoh Akhenaton, who devoted himself completely to the worship of Aten over any other god, going so far as to try and establish him as the main idol of Egypt. Of course, given that Egypt had been and would continue to be polytheistic for several centuries, this effort was met with failure, but it’s still interesting to see the level of fanaticism he achieved in such a short time.
Another famous light bringer is Apzu. Also spelled Apsu or Abzu, this is one of the primordial gods of Babylonian mythology. According to this mythology, he is the god of freshwater and growth, partnering with Tiamat to sire the gods in the era before anything existed. He’s seen as a source of not only literal light and growth, but the metaphorical rise from the chaos of creation into the order of society and civilization.
Even the God of Israel and Christianity is a form of the light bringer, as He is said to have separated the light from the dark in the creation story of Genesis. It’s an important tenant of this first story of the Bible that God saw that the light was “good” and that he separated it from the darkness of the night and founded his world in that light. It’s interesting to note that God Himself is referred to as “the light” throughout the rest of the Bible in all of its versions, synonymizing light with goodness in this ideology.
All of these myths (using the word “myth” to simply denote that it’s a story, not to comment on that story’s validity) originate from a time when there were little or no scientific explanations. People were searching for answers to such terrifying phenomena as disease, storms, and fire. To them, having an all-powerful benevolent god was a comfort in a terrifying time. It brought sense to a world that made no sense on its own.
Psychology explains this fascination in a slightly more personal manner.
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, developed the idea of the shadow, which is a persona or personality that is made up of all the things society has deemed immoral, negative, and unacceptable. Jung suggested that by creating and writing these shadows as the villains in our stories, we are able to face and overcome our own negative thoughts and emotions. It’s worth noting as well that Jung thought it was important that shadows be capable of redemption, as learning to constructively assume milder versions of them would help to make a person more whole and balanced.
This concept goes hand-in-hand with that of projection, as presented by Freud, which is the concept of taking anything that we see as wrong in our own personalities and placing them on another individual or object. The difference between these two ideas is that, while Jung intended for the shadow to be a dark mirror in which we can see the problems in our society and solve them, Freud’s projection is an unhealthy coping mechanism that blames our own perceived moral failings on other people.
The main reason I think that dark sides have held onto their popularity is simple: they’re just fun. It’s fun to feel suspense and fear in a safe, controlled environment. This is at least part of the reason that people enjoy horror movies and games; taking away the power of something dark and painful to actually hurt you makes these evil characters and places simply adrenaline rushes. People are able to explore these ideas with the outlets of creative storytelling and put them down when they are overwhelmed or uninvested in the story or world, making them an escapist piece rather than a tool for teaching or moral reflection, and sometimes, that’s all you really need a “dark side” to be.