Deadly Fascination: The Allure of Game of Thrones

  1. The Allure of Psychopathy

Why are people so fascinated by psychopaths? Judging by the runaway success of the HBO series Game of Thrones, which features a cast largely populated by psychopaths, the allure at this moment in history seems greater than ever. Right out of the gate with season one, “the box set sold over 350,000 units within the first seven days of its release, the largest first-week DVD sales ever for an HBO series,” according to Wikipedia. “Illegal downloads grew to about 7 million in the first quarter of 2015,” with a single episode in 2012 downloaded 4.2 million times. This kind of multi-media success qualifies it as a genuine cultural phenomenon. As the Wikipedia entry notes, Game of Thrones expressions such as “sexposition” have entered the lexicon. But in all the hoopla, it begs the question: What does it say about us as a culture that a TV series so dominated by sexual violence, objectification of women, and vicious brutality is so universally popular?

Game of Thrones: HBO’s most successful series ever.

My argument is that when you depict a society in which 90 percent of the characters are grasping, vicious psychopaths, you not only reverse the actual order of things, you normalize psychopathy. In reality, psychopaths attract attention not only because of their brutal crimes but precisely because they are such a deviation from the norm. Probably less than one percent of the population could be assessed as fitting the American Psychiatric Association’s checklist for psychopathy in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). Good thing too, or the human race wouldn’t last very long. Of course, not all psychopaths are murderers like those depicted on Game of Thrones. Many of them are heads of our most prominent corporations.

But the point remains. In his book, Without Conscience, Robert Hare writes: “To give you some idea of the enormity of the problem that faces us, consider that there are at least 2 million psychopaths in North America; the citizens of New York City have as many as 100,000 psychopaths among them. And these are conservative estimates. Far from being an esoteric, isolated problem that affects only a few people, psychopathy touches virtually every one of us.” While we may not have the misfortune to meet a psychopath, we’re personally affected by the many corporate products that pollute the environment or destroy health simply for profit. By definition, psychopaths lack the capacity to feel regret for their actions or empathy for others, so the potential damage they can do is disproportional to their small numbers. There’s also the related phenomenon of sociopathy and narcissism, equally capable of leaving destruction in their wake. In fact, psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell argue in their book The Narcissism Epidemic that the condition is rampant in our civilization. “In a June 2009 national poll of more than 1,000 college students, 2 out of 3 agreed with the statement, ‘My generation of young people is more self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident and attention-seeking than previous generations.’”[1]

Filmmaker Max Stossel calls time on making murderers famous. Image: USA Today

It’s an especially relevant point in the aftermath of mass shootings like Orlando, which prompted filmmaker and storyteller Max Stossel to produce a short film titled Stop Making Murderers Famous. He might well have used Murray McLaughlin’s song I Hate Your Gun as his theme song, from the overlooked classic 1982 album Windows. McLaughlin wrote it out of grief for the murder of John Lennon. Prefiguring Stossel’s argument by some three decades, McLaughlin sang: “May you die alone / Without publicity / Without sale of biography / A nobody for eternity…”

In part Stossel bases his appeal on research done by psychologist Sherry Towers and her team in concluding that, “We found evidence that killings that receive national or international media attention do indeed inspire similar events a significant fraction of the time. … The researchers did a statistical analysis of 176 mass shooting events in the U.S. from 2006 to 2011 and 220 school shootings between 1997 and 2013.”

Psychologists Twenge & Campbell get to the root of the matter.

It’s a point reiterated in The Narcissism Epidemic. Social media has been gasoline on the fire of the sociopathic personality. Like Stossel, by Twenge and Campbell argue: “Given the upswing in the narcissistic values of American culture since the ’90s, it may be no coincidence that mass shootings became a national plague around the same time. …The first step toward severing the link between narcissism and antisocial behaviours is to make socially inappropriate behaviour go unnoticed and unrewarded.”[2] Granted, this is reality, not fiction, and the argument about causation or lack of it as a factor in real-life violence seesaws back and forth. But why take the risk of poisoning the well? Why not err on the side of the angels? Of course, that’s not as likely to make you a fabulously wealthy TV producer…

  1. The Fiction of Medievalism

The most common argument I get when I ask people about the deadly fascination of the series is, “Well, it’s set in a medieval society, and that’s how things were then.” Really? Are any of the creators or even viewers of the series that well versed in medieval history that they can say this with authority? In recent decades there’s been a number of revisionist histories written about the Medieval or ‘Dark Ages’ period. The good news? It was nowhere near as bleak as typically believed, and certainly nothing like the hopeless world depicted on Game of Thrones. Monty Python alumni Terry Jones has written an excellent and much-needed revisionist history, Medieval Lives, one of many such books published in recent years that shed light on the period. Jones, who studied medieval history before going into show business, writes: “An unholy alliance of 19th century novelists and painters with 20th century movie-makers has created a period of history which never existed.”[3] That said, Jones acknowledges that, “Chivalry was a fantasy, used to put a respectable gloss on the horrors of war.” And certainly, in the early post-Norman conquest period of Britain, the system was “totally based on violence.”[4]

Was the Medieval period as “dark” as we’ve been led to believe?

By the time the chivalrous knight of courtly fiction and poetry arrived, the Medieval period was already blurring into the Renaissance. It’s an ancient trope in literature: by the time a tale is finally committed to print, it’s already so old it’s in danger of passing into oblivion, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh—probably a thousand years old before the first versions were committed to cuneiform tablets somewhere around 2400 BC. Gilgamesh is now known to have been an ancient Mesopotamian king of the city-state Uruk. All legends begin with a kernel of truth. But you can imagine the distortion that enters the tale over that stretch of time. Artistic license is a legitimate creative tool, of course. The problem begins with a culture like ours, steeped in 24/7 entertainment and steadily losing its legacy of critical thinking. As our educational system shifts ever more toward utilitarianism, the broad knowledge of classical literature that informs our reading of these stories has largely been lost.

What’s often overlooked about Medieval Europe is the fact that in the vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman Empire, communities had to pull together to survive. So far I’ve yet to see this better elucidated than in Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Kropotkin, known best as a writer of anarchist works, was a disciple of Darwin and set out to study examples of mutual aid in nature, in contrast to the “nature red in tooth and claw” theory advanced by Victorian social scientists. “Sociability and need of mutual aid and support are such inherent parts of human nature that at no time of history can we discover men living in small isolated families, fighting each other for the means of subsistence,” wrote Kropotkin. “On the contrary, modern research… proves that since the very beginning of their prehistoric life men used to agglomerate into gentes, clans, or tribes, maintained by an idea of common descent and by worship of common ancestors. …when the bonds of common descent had been loosened by migrations on a grand scale… a new form of union, territorial in its principle—the village community—was called into existence… Far from being the fighting animals they have often been compared to, the barbarians of the first centuries of our era… invariably preferred peace to war.”[5] The arbitrary and twisted notion of justice depicted in Game of Thrones is a far cry from these Medieval European communities. “The new occupiers of Europe evolved the systems of land tenure and soil culture… (and) worked out their systems of compensation for wrongs, instead of the old tribal blood-revenge… the deeper we penetrate into the history of early institutions, the less we find grounds for the military theory of origin of authority.”[6]

As part of that new social structure, guilds—the historical predecessors of labour unions—were formed for craftsmen and routinely provided for their widows and children in the event of their death.[7] Some Medieval communities had city charters stipulating that the necessities of life—coal, wood, grain, etc.—were to be offered first to citizens before retailers could purchase them to be marked up for profit. In many European cities, trustees bought goods from merchants to ensure their citizens would have fair access, stipulating in law that only an ‘honest profit’ could be made. Usury—the charging of excessive or compound interest—was illegal. In that respect, modern society has a lot to learn from the so-called ‘Dark’ Ages.[8] 

  1. Nihilism as Catharsis

Game of Thrones as 21st century gladiatorial games? Image: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, Game of Thrones is neither history nor legend but fantasy, based on popular genre fiction. And a rather bleak, nihilistic fantasy at that. On another level, the series may be a 21st century equivalent to the Roman gladiatorial games. Since the Romans the principle of ‘bread and circuses’ as a mode of state control over a population has seldom been lost on rulers. And I’m sure no one since the promoters of gladiatorial games has ever gone broke promoting this kind of public spectacle. But this too is a form of narcissism or sociopathy that ignores the potential harm to the public good. The question left unexplored here is to what degree a fiction like Game of Thrones acts as cultural catharsis, a means of both reflecting and purging current conceptions of society. Certainly there seems to be a sense of civilizational decay in the air wherever we look, whether in the current presidential primaries in the US or the profusion of dark visions of the age in everything from movies to popular music. I make no creative judgments about Game of Thrones. However, reading between the lines, we may be seeing the same kind of right-wing solipsism as the one that promoted the false view of evolution as a bloody, inevitable struggle. At a time when the lines between fiction and our perceptions of reality seem increasingly blurred, it’s important to take in a little historical and sociological context. Without that, the old principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ is likely to predominate, to everyone’s detriment.

NOTE: It’s worthwhile, if you’re interested, reading some of the debates on just the issue of sexual violence toward women in Game of Thrones. It seems a massive step backward to the cause of feminism to me, but hear what these women critics have to say:

The Atlantic has so far been the only major media outlet to provide in-depth commentary on the sociological implications:

On the issue of historical accuracy, read what Live Science has to say about Game of Thrones’ depiction of Medieval life:

So far, only one media review outlet has chosen to no longer feature reviews of Game of Thrones based on its objections to the graphic violence and sexual degradation of women:

ESSAY SOURCES[1] Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009, p. 34.

[2] Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009, pp. 200, 207.

[3] Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Medieval Lives, BBC Books, 2005, p.13

[4] Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Medieval Lives, BBC Books, 2005, p.70

[5] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 153, 154.

[6] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 155, 159.

[7] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 169–176.

[8] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 181–184.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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3 Responses to Deadly Fascination: The Allure of Game of Thrones

  1. A fascinating analysis, Art. I have to admit that I haven’t had a TV for more than a decade, so I’ve never seen the Game of Thrones. Yet you make a compelling case for the great harm done by glorifying and romanticizing psychopathy and narcissism.

  2. Lulu says:

    The deliberate introduction of glorifying absurdities and scrapping of social norms in the media have really been pushed since the 80ties. From critical Rock music to silly Pop is just an example.
    I noticed that this could not have happened by chance nor by demand. I always found it puzzling that people did not notice this, as it was rather obvious. Same with the movies, all of a sudden we had this dark sarcasm and dirty jokes. People showed no character and just kept dropping their morals as the decades went by. This world would be so great when people would just co – operate instead of tying to outperform each other all the time. Look around you and find distrust and pretense, people trying to fit into what, a system that is crumbling anyway? Why participate in this dishonorable game of unnatural survival? The successful social engineering techniques have placed man at odds with each other and that’s exactly what they want. Man divided is weak and vulnerable, his psychological stability is eating away his immune system and real drive. He cannot really believe in anything unless he believes the lie. Sad state of affairs and I can tell you, we are made for so much more. Just close your eyes………think of your real dreams, the kind that feed the soul, have the bloody guts to follow those instincts and if enough people do that the entire system will change and put the balance right again. Remember that without the participation of enough people nothing will change as at the end it is all our own doing.

  3. Thoughtful commentary, thank you! As a lifelong fan of rock and blues I part company with you there, as many great rock bands from the classic era used their lyrics to expose injustices or give us a mirror to look at ourselves more critically. But I too see an ethical slide over the past four or five decades so it’s no wonder we can have a Trump for a presidential candidate now.

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