Why do we feel so fabulous when the famous go on the skids?
Why do bad things happen to posh people? And why don’t they happen more often? Seriously, is there anything more satisfying than reading the gory details of the latest celebrity crackup? First you are shocked that someone so wealthy could be so stupid, or that somebody so glamorous would let herself be photographed looking like that. (For instance, in a lineup photo by some weary Florida sheriff.) Or that the public persona of a glad-handing movie star would crack into dozens of pieces, and behind the mask you’d get to see the real face of a basket case who has traded his Armani suit for a baggy orange jumpsuit. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! That will teach him to be so worldly, so handsome, so… arrogant.
When we read such a story, at first we are simply curious, perhaps even mildly shocked. We might even feel real anger at what this A-lister has gone and done. But we aren’t sorry he did it, and we certainly can’t stop reading about it. And as we do, a warm sense of satisfaction floods our soul. The worse the atrocity is, the better we feel. Millions of Americans who watched as O. J. Simpson fled the police on California highways were profoundly disappointed when he went and surrendered himself, instead of going off a cliff in a blaze of glory (Thelma and Louise) or making the cops gun him down (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). And they savored his trial day by day, like an ultra-slow motion train wreck, then took a bitter glee in his acquittal — only to have their sense of justice satisfied when he was sent to prison for stealing back his own sports memorabilia. More recently, we have been able to read all the details of the following high-profile dysfunction:
– Justin Bieber getting busted for drag-racing, without a license, while stoned, in a residential neighborhood.
– Alec Baldwin melting down yet again and accusing a reporter who was harassing him of various sins that cry out to heaven.
– Miley Cyrus performing, um… various acts… on the VH-1 Music Awards.
– Charlie Sheen “winning” (that is, having a protracted psychotic breakdown) over the Internet.
– Lindsay Lohan leaving the house.
Older scandals that have warmed the cockles of our stony hearts include Mel Gibson’s rants against Jewish cops and Russian gold-diggers, Woody Allen’s marriage to a girl he raised as a daughter, and the drunken or drug-addled antics of countless actors over the decades — detailed in popular magazines, TV gossip shows, or splashy tell-all books with titles like Hollywood Babylon.
Of course, the pleasure is sharper when we can think of some legitimate reason to dislike the given celebrity. Perhaps we don’t like his politics, or disapprove of the moral content of movies he helped to make. Maybe he set even set some appalling fashion our children have adopted. (One of the authors heard his mother react to the death of John Lennon by saying, “Good. After all those kids he helped to get hooked on drugs. I’m glad he’s dead.”)
There’s a word for the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of other people, and unsurprisingly, it is a German word: Schadenfreude. The language that gave us the works of Luther, Hitler, and Kafka gets the credit for naming it, but that bitter glee we enjoy is timeless and universal. Milton tells us that Satan targeted Adam and Eve in part because he envied them, and Genesis firmly states that Cain murdered Abel because he was jealous that God seems more pleased with his brother. We hear tales of saints who were persecuted even in convents or monasteries by lesser brethren who envied their ecstasies. If someone who possesses greater natural gifts than us is annoying (see Amadeus), then a person who is supernaturally singled out for blessings is simply intolerable (see anti-Semitism and anti-clericalism while you’re at it).