"You dance with the devil, the devil don't change. The devil changes you."
This line appeared in an altogether forgettable Nicholas Cage movie called 8MM. Forgettable, at least, to the extent that a Nicholas Cage movie about snuff films can be wiped from your memory. Although the film itself was fine, this line--delivered by Joaquin Phoenix's character, Max California (yes, really)--always stuck with me. 8MM was released in 1999, and as an impressionable 18-year-old, I probably originally just thought that it sounded pretty cool. During graduate school, however, I kept thinking of the line as I began work on narratives and how they affect our beliefs, attitudes, and even behaviors. It occurred to me that the persuasive power of stories could have a dark side; that individuals or groups with harmful intentions could use them to change audiences in a manner consistent with their goals. This assumption jump-started some of the research I've performed, and has served as the basis for some work intended to fight back against this kind of persuasion.
That said, over the last several weeks, I have considered another possibility: What if narratives not only influence what we believe and what we do, but also help us to realize exactly who it is we are? Can engaging with and being transported into narratives show us our true selves? And most troubling, can narratives reveal to us the destructive things we're capable of?
These questions didn't appear out of thin air. Like most random thoughts, the emergence of these questions came from my own engagement with a narrative--HBO's Westworld.
For those that are unfamiliar, Westworld is a serialized, Sunday-night, sci-fi drama that debuted this past fall. And as anyone who has access to HBO knows, HBO Sunday programming is fantastic. Westworld has been no different. It would take far more time and typing endurance than I have to describe everything about Westworld. But, the basic premise of the show is that rich "tourists" can visit a Western theme park populated by robotic hosts who they can kill, rape, or otherwise abuse in any way that satisfies their desires. The show raises interesting questions about the morality of artificial intelligence, the ethics of acting on base instincts, and which modern songs would sound best on a player piano. It has joined other excellent shows (like two other great HBO dramas: The Leftovers and True Detective) as topics of online speculation and debate and is the kind of show that makes you want to immediately connect with others to discuss what it is you just watched and how it affected you. The show's elaborate plot points and complicated questions have even been used to spur critical thinking about media effects and persuasion (for a cool example, check out Dr. Sahara Byrne's Twitter feed, which she uses for a class). In short, Westworld is awesome.
Clearly, Westworld addresses some entertaining, if complex themes. But beyond the "fun" of the park is a deeper question that gets at the root of human nature. As I said, the park is ostensibly a playground within which people can satisfy their basest of desires. Want to see what it feels like to kill a man? Shoot one in the street. Want to enjoy a night with three escorts in a Western-themed brothel? Pony up the money. Want to go on an adventure to capture an outlaw in the frontier? Go get a few horses and ride him down. For the majority of tourists in Westworld, the purpose of the park is to get some impulse out of their system, and then go back to the real world where they can't ethically or legally do these sorts of things. For these individuals, visiting Westworld means getting involved in a story and then disengaging from it.
However, there is a character on the show whose actions raise a question that got me thinking about how narratives affect us, and more importantly, what they say about who we are.
[BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD]
Without going into too much detail, this character, William, is initially shy and tentative when he enters the park. He seems to be uncomfortable with the norms of Westworld, and is unwilling to "play the game" as others think it should be played. He doesn't kill, abuse, torment, or otherwise mistreat the hosts. He is polite, timid, and for me... relatable. As I watched the show, I identified most closely with William, thinking that I wouldn't abuse the hosts to satiate some base goal. The hosts, though artificially intelligent robots, are too much like humans. Like William, I found the actions of many of the park's visitors to be disgusting, even if they are encouraged. William and I would have been buddies sitting in the corner of a saloon in Westworld, avoiding a bar fight with awkward looks on our faces.
As the show progresses from William's first appearance, he comes to fall in love with one of the hosts, Dolores. He is separated from Dolores, and quickly learns to "play the game" to make his way back to her. He gets more aggressive. He seeks out dangerous situations to help him achieve his goals. He kills a few hosts... and then a few more... and finally engages in full-scale slaughter and turns on his supposed brother-in-law-to-be, Logan. I watched this transformation occur over the course of 10 episodes, and by the time William transitioned into the cold, driven character we see here, I came to realize something about myself that caught me by surprise. I understood and sympathized with his motivations and actions.
I put myself in William's position (identification! perspective-taking!) and came to realize that if I had been subjected to the same events, I could very well have lashed out in the same way he did to achieve his goals. "Big deal," I thought. "William was pushed to violence. It's completely understandable that he would do whatever he could to get back to Dolores, especially if it meant attacking non-human hosts." In subsequent episodes, however, it's suggested that William didn't change because of Westworld. Westworld just showed him his true, darker self. In this way, the show raised a question that has resonated with me: What if William didn't transform as a result of his engagement in the Westworld narrative, but instead, he shaped the Westworld narrative because he is truly cold, violent, and sadistic?
This question seems innocent enough on its surface, but it made me think about my own engagement with stories, how I reacted to them, and whether the stories influenced me or I was simply reacting to the stories as a function of who I really am. Do narratives change us or does our interpretation of narratives change based on who we really are? Of course, research suggests that both occur. However, the fact that our understanding of narratives can be based on our personalities has some chilling implications, particularly if "who we are" is unknown to us. What if we identify or sympathize with a violent character? What if we are transported into a story and imagine ourselves doing something that we would normally condemn? What if our minds transport us into a world where we can picture our darker selves?
Although there are no easy answers to these questions, I certainly do not believe that imagining yourself as violent or sadistic necessarily means that you are a violent or sadistic person. But it's an interesting thought exercise to consider whether engaging with a narrative could serve as a barometer for measuring your true self. What is the more accurate representation of who you really are: the flesh-and-blood person holding the book open, or the transported individual experiencing narrative events in his/her imagination?
Either way, it seems like Max California had a point.