A few days after I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, I came across an article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times suggesting maybe the book would help raise awareness of human trafficking. And there is certainly some human trafficking in the novel, along with rape and horrific sexual abuse and more than one case of incest. But Kristof’s idea seems like an optimistic take on what readers might take from the book–I didn’t come away from it with a sense of raised social awareness.
While I thought Larsson did a great job with a compelling plot and fascinating characters, parts of the very lurid descriptions of torture struck me just like the sadism in a horror movie–oh, Saw, for instance. Deeply disturbing. Not disturbing because of the content itself, but disturbing because clearly something in us is drawn to watch torture and death and the countless grisly ways humans can hurt one another.
Sidenote: I’m willing to put Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th or The Ring and other “monster” movies in a slightly different category. I think there is some subconscious fear of the unknown, of the boogeyman we can’t see that compells us to see our fears realized. I think creative, drawn-out sadism and torture is different, though, from the sudden beheadings or sharp-edged bloodbaths of monster movies. A blurry line, I admit. But, just to clarify, it’s the torture and lingering pain and terror, not the fake spraying blood, that bothers me. I probably saw My Bloody Valentine 10 times by the time I was 12, and I’d seen Conan the Barbarian much more than that. I don’t mind silly special-effects gore in a movie.
I’d finished A Tale of Two Cities a week before I picked up Larsson’s novel. As I read Dragon Tattoo, I couldn’t help but thinking of Dickens describing people’s fascination with the pillory and the gaol, the hanging rope and the guillotine–he writes of the average citizen’s greedy eyes on the face of a character in threat of being drawn and quartered, with his insides cut out and burned while he watches. “The sort of interest with which this man was stared,” he writes, “was not of a sort that that elevated humanity. Had he stood in peril of a less horrible sentence–had there been a chance of any one of its savage details being spared–by just so much he would have lost in his fascination…Whatever gloss the various spectators put upon the interest, according to their several arts and powers of self-deceit, the interest was, at the root of it, Ogreish.”
I’m in the Ogreish camp: I think our desire to see/imagine terrible pain and horror inflicted on people is a reflection of the darkest side of our nature. I’m not sure there’s much difference between the desire to watch Saw and the desire to watch someone executed. I think plenty of popular fiction with its detailed descriptions of sexual abuse and brutal torture tap into the same impulse. Maybe reading or watching sadism lets us clear our palates, so to speak, and stay clear of the days when hangings and public floggings were the norm. I don’t know. I’d love to think it has an upside.