(this was originally written during my class last year, but has been edited to better fit a blog post)
So, studying the Stanford Prison Experiment in my Psych class last year after the Milgram experiment, I immediately think of moral disengagement (and indeed, I'm sure this is where the concept came from).
It's especially interesting to me because the first book I completed was about Stockholm Syndrome, but the more I learn, the more I see other psychological concepts in play. I talk about moral disengagement later, but I realize that it happened fairly early on in the first book (since the series is about becoming/being the villain's flunky).
So when the professor said "You may think differently about 'evil,'" I couldn't help but think that I already do. Also makes me think about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. And fans of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles -- Lestat is a despicable creature, yet beloved by tens of thousands of fans.
We're not looking at the various series' vampires who choose not to kill humans (Being Human, for example, before people start in on the conformist Twilight bashing). Lestat can't choose not to kill. "...they killed two, sometimes three a night." But as he's the protagonist, that's okay. (Yes, it started with Louis, but Lestat was Anne's "dark prince" -- the character that she was in love with). In the fourth book, he rapes a woman with absolutely no real consequences (including no major loss of audience).
It also makes me think of the shift of what we look for in a hero historically to now. For instance, going from Superman to Batman. Superman is this bright, optimistic character who derives his power from the sun, stands for truth, justice, blah blah blah.
Batman, though, comes from the darkness. He was created through an act of violence. He prowls the night. He is the darkness come to protect us.
What do these two have in common? They're criminals. Vigilantism is illegal; it's a crime. But they still engage in it (Spiderman obviously has a lot of focus on this, but Batman does as well). They stop major crimes whenever possible, but they do it without any authority, and they employ violence (early Batman killed, but sometime in the 80s, it was decided that he shouldn't do that, or use guns, etc.), break and enter, etc. But it's okay for them to break the law and hurt people because they're doing it in the name of justice.
The very existence of the Punisher really drives this home. He's not serving justice--his entire existence is devoted to revenge and death.
I love me some Deadpool. Who else loves him? Now, who would willingly subject themselves to an entire 24 hours with him? How about going on a mission with him? (I'm scared of anyone who wants to do that last part unless they're suffering the delusion that they can somehow stop him from wholesale slaughter with whatever amazing powers Hypothetical Person has).
We're taught moral disengagement from a young age in this way. Depending on what we choose to read, it becomes reinforced.
Heck, I forget how dark the material I'm writing is until I'm confronted by my readers. My two best friends -- one is my editor, the other is my oldest friend -- both have given me direct feedback to this effect. My oldest BFF won't read another book after the first. It disturbed her too greatly. Just to write this stuff takes a certain (mild though it may be... until you take into account that I believe in multiverse theory) amount of moral disengagement in and of itself.
That said, you know what disturbs me? The main 'romance' in the book is a classic domestic violence situation with one partner being blatantly abused by the other (nothing subtle here; if these were your neighbors, you would either be calling the cops on them or wishing someone else would), and people (including myself, to be honest, but I'm the one who dreamed the whole thing) love that pairing. The antagonist-turned-protagonist (as the protagonist falls in love with him) is presented as a sociopath, and people love him. People want to classify my first book, which is psychological horror, as romance.
"We like him, so it's okay if he does evil things like rape the protagonist, strive to create a dictatorship and kill people. We'll just not think about that part." On the plus side, that tells me that I wrote the character well. He's doing to the readers exactly what he did to the protagonist (and I love it).
This fiction entreats us to not only suspend disbelief, but also our morals. More, knowing all of this does not banish the effect. I still love me some Deadpool.