Believe It Or Not, Dark TV Helps Cope With Real Life

Jordan Claes
Jules and Roo in 'Euphoria'.

Have you ever wondered why TV audiences are drawn to series like Euphoria, The Walking Dead, and You? What is it about the horrific plotlines and despicable characters that we find so captivating?

The answer to that question is complicated, filled with many facets and caveats. Believe it or not, dark TV shows such as these can actually be good for our overall mental health and even help us to cope with the stresses of real life.

The history of television is ripe with heroes.

Jon Snow wearing his long black cloak in 'Game Of Thrones'.

Characters like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones or Jack Reacher in Reacher are shining examples of moral fortitude. Like the time-honored fable "The Scorpion and the Frog," these characters will always do what's right — because it's in their nature.

However, the only thing that audiences love more than a hero is a villain.

Negan holding Lucille in 'The Walking Dead'.

Take Negan from The Walking Dead. He's easily one of the most amoral reprehensible characters in TV history, yet paradoxically one of the most beloved in the entire series. How can that be?

This is because human beings are instinctively drawn to the dark.

Masked workers in 'Squid Game'.

Fear, lust, anger, greed, and vengeance are powerful forces. Throughout history, we've been taught to quell and subdue these natural instincts because they are damaging and damning to society. But what if we could experience them vicariously in a safe and controlled manner?

This is where dark TV shows like 'The Handmaid's Tale', 'Euphoria', and 'You' come into play.

Offred wearing a gag over her mouth in 'The Handmaid's Tale'.
Hulu | Hulu

These series, and many others like them, allow audiences to live out their darkest fantasies vicariously from the safety of their own home.

When we witness horrific acts of violence and depravity in these types of shows, it enacts what Sigmund Freud referred to as our "Death Drive."

Joe Goldberg in 'You' sitting in the basement of the bookstore.
Netflix | Netflix

Freud theorized that human beings are driven toward death and destruction, famously declaring that "The aim of all life is death."

The only thing that tempers our "Death Drive" is an intrinsic instinct towards life.

Dexter Morgan asking "Am I that predictable?" in 'Dexter'.
Giphy | Dexter

A person of sound mind, therefore, does not act upon their "Death Drive" as it is counterintuitive to their nature. Seeing horrific acts of violence play out on TV, in a controlled and fabricated environment, actually works to subdue our natural instincts to harm ourselves and others.

This explains why audiences are drawn to the dark — they see more of themselves in the villain than they do the hero.

Mr. J in 'Gotham'.

Human beings, left to their own devices, are nasty, brutish animals. We are only ever as good as our society allows us to be.

Deep down, we long to be set free from the social contract and to break the chains of oppression.

Negan pointing Lucille at Glenn in 'The Walking Dead'.
Giphy | The Walking Dead

This is why we can't look away when we witness Negan mercilessly beating Glenn with a baseball bat in TWD; why for some sick and deranged reason, we empathize with Joe Goldberg in You.

More so, we actually feel better after having witnessed some terrible act or event.

Holding up the stencil cookie in 'Squid Game'.
Netflix | Netflix

Did you know that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most popular films streaming on Netflix was Contagion? Were you aware that Squid Game, a show whose whole purpose is to exploit society's most vulnerable and depraved individuals, became Netflix's most-watched series of all time?

This isn't a mere coincidence. Rather, it's human nature playing out on the small screen in a controlled manner.

Roo high, lying on her back in 'Euphoria'.

It's not at all dissimilar to why we enjoy riding roller coasters or watching a scary TV show — because it allows us to experience these emotions without fear of self-harm or reprisal.

In turn, this makes us feel more confident, strong, and emotionally intuitive.

Bill Skarsgård staring blankly in 'Castlerock'.
Giphy | HULU

Nietzsche once famously wrote that "When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you." The abyss, therefore, reveals who we truly are, and can even allow us to discover our own heroism among monsters.