Are we Entertained by Pain?

Five reasons why we find enjoyment in the fictional pain experienced by characters.

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“It’s not real – it’s just a story.”

Words so often spoken when the events on our television screens become too much for some of us to take, and we look away or cover our eyes, while others seemingly delight in, or are unaffected by, the pain inflicted on other human beings for our own entertainment, fictional or not.

Many stories exist containing scenes of physical torture, whether inflicted on a character by other characters or their surroundings. Therefore, we as a mass must enjoy it when characters experience pain, otherwise it wouldn’t be so very successful.

But, why?

It makes us grateful

One theory is that, when we see others in such excruciating circumstances, it lifts our own lives a little, helping us to accept and be grateful for what we have, because no matter what we thought of our circumstances before watching the film or programme, or reading the book, we now know things could be a whole lot worse.

It makes us root behind a character

We do certainly appear to enjoy stories where ‘baddies’ get their comeuppance, and an element of our liking of fictional pain could be that we find this type of story arc easily satisfying. We dislike injustice, and therefore once a character has been subjected to pain by other characters, if they then manage to seek out those characters and reap revenge on them, we are satisfied.

In some stories, it could simply and coincidentally be the environment that inflicts pain on a ‘deserving’ character or group of characters, and we are then satisfied that justice has been served. An example that jumps to mind is the end that came to the antagonist of The Lovely Bones, and the deep satisfaction I felt of this outcome, because although none of his victims personally claimed revenge, his previous actions allowed me to find him deserving of death due to the pain he had caused.

It makes us feel closer to a character

When we have been part of a character’s pain, we have witnessed the scene that is likely to be one of the worst moments of their fictional lives, and we now feel much closer to them. We understand them. We have shared a deeply personal experience, us and the character, an experience that will undoubtably shape them and many of their future choices, which we understand, have empathy for, and may even forgive.

It gives us an outlet to purge our inner destructiveness

Aristotle claimed people were attracted to violently dramatic plays because it gave them a chance to purge their negative emotions – a process which he called Catharsis. So, perhaps one reason we might enjoy watching people go through fictional physical pain is because it is a release of our pent-up feelings of aggression.

We enjoy the temporary thrill of heightened senses

When we watch and read stories containing scenes that make our hearts beat faster and our bodies flood with adrenaline, we get a bit of a chemical kick that lingers for a while, and the events we experience in our lives immediately after experiencing the story, are heightened. This is called the excitation transfer process, and it happens because, no matter how very wonderful and intelligent our minds are, the mind cannot distinguish between something that is actually happening to us, and something we are merely watching.


Our enjoyment of watching pain is nothing new, and if we cast our minds back to history lessons where public punishments were opportunity for fairs and dancing, and to the death and suffering that almost always took place in every event held within the Roman Colosseum, we can see that our kind has always found a form of entertainment from being witness to the pain of others.

It seems people do enjoy watching and reading fictional stories of others in pain for a spectrum of possible reason.

Therefore, perhaps I asked the wrong question. Maybe I shouldn’t have pondered over why we attain enjoyment and entertainment from the pain of others, but if we should.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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