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Why we can’t look away from a fall from grace

A promising young swimmer is about to achieve his dreams of sporting glory, but just as his fingers are about to take hold of the prize, it slides out of his reach. He struggles to cope with the failure and his life spirals out of control; his talent and ambition become his curses.

In Christos Tsiolka’s Barracuda, adapted for television by the ABC, the fall from grace of Daniel Kelly is heart-wrenching, yet compelling.

It is a downfall that is common to some of our most popular stories, both in books and on screen. But what is it about this narrative of defeat and despair that we love so much?

Two of the world’s greatest books according to Time magazine, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, depict dramatic and ultimately, tragic, falls from grace. In both novels, the main character is beautiful, rich and privileged. Yet both embark on affairs that ultimately lead to their destruction.

Is it the very tragedy and heartbreak that we are attracted to when we read these stories? In the same way that we watch weepy movies, or are drawn to books that we know will pull at our heartstrings (The Fault in Our Stars, anyone?), do we love these works because they make us feel?

Research in the US revealed tragic stories help people feel happier, because they cause their audiences to think of their own loved ones and consider themselves fortunate.

“People seem to use tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own life, to count their blessings,” the study’s lead author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick said. “That can help explain why tragedies are so popular with audiences, despite the sadness they induce.”

Alternatively, in classic stories of downfall, is it the sense of retribution that these stories present that readers and audiences so enjoy? Rather than misfortune being visited upon Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary randomly, the women are punished for their decisions, or perhaps their very natures, leading to their ultimate demise. While we might pity the women, both for their circumstances and their choices, from our perspective we have the comfort of believing that we would not make the same mistakes.

In Barracuda, while Daniel is a victim of some of his circumstances and restrictive social constructs surrounding class, sexuality and masculinity, there is an underlying sense that he, too, held some responsibility for his own downfall. There are glimpses of his self absorption and unwavering determination, perhaps necessary in competing at the highest level, that suggest he is not entirely undeserving of his punishment. As his sister tells him, Danny is always thinking of himself, whether he is winning or losing.

In real life, the public downfalls we see might not be as tragic as Tolstoy and Flaubert imagined, but are also undeniably captivating. The sporting world is a natural breeding ground for these stories, in which the mighty fall. James Hird, Wayne Carey and Tiger Woods leap to mind when we consider sporting deities who came crashing down to earth.When their misdemeanors were uncovered, many of us of lesser sporting prowess and attractiveness, with less photogenic wives and more humble homes, watched in unrestrained glee.

Similarly, as a society, we seem to have an insatiable desire for political downfalls. In Australia, we aren’t content to vote politicians in and out of office. Instead, we delight in tearing apart their characters, sifting through their histories, no matter how far removed from their political lives, and dwelling on their smallest, most flippant utterances. It is always surprising to me to hear a former political leader talk, long after they have been shunted from office, and to finally recognise their humanity. These demons, liars or incompetents are actually normal, thoughtful and above averagely intelligent people; facts that seemed impossible to see when they were in office.

Is it envy, or a distrust of power that we are exhibiting when we relish the stories of the failure or downfall of our powerful politicians or sportspeople? We even have a term for the phenomenon: the tall poppy syndrome. And when a tall poppy falls, we revel in the real life denouement as wholeheartedly as we would if it was played out for our entertainment in the pages of a book, movie or television drama.

In German, the emotion of deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune is referred to as schadenfreude. A Princeton University study revealed that experiencing some joy in others’ failure was a biological response when the person who failed was previously envied.

“We were interested in the conditions under which people fail to empathise with one another and how, for some of those people, they experience happiness at another’s expense,” lead author Mina Cikara said. The research found by measuring brain activity and the electrical activity of cheek muscles, that people smiled more when someone they envied experienced misfortune or discomfort. This goes some way to explaining our enjoyment of the story of a fall from grace in fiction and everyday life.

Another study, at the University of Kentucky, looked at the response of students to bad news received by rich, good looking students and less fortunate students. It revealed, perhaps predictably, that the bad news received by the fortunate students was greeted with more glee and delight by the study participants.

“If someone is out there that you envy, it means that they are advantaging in some kind of way that is important to you, and it’s creating a very powerful emotion. What misfortune would logically do is create a pretty powerful psychological dividend,” study author Richard Smith said.

Perhaps the only redeeming aspect of our fascination with witnessing others’ downfalls is our parallel appreciation of triumph over adversity. As much as we are captivated by a slide, we adore a positive change in fortunes or position, both in life and in fiction.

The Power of One is the story of a South African boy’s triumph over bullying and loneliness became an international bestseller. Memoirs like Angela’s Ashes and Mao’s Last Dancer make our spirits soar. And it has become a point of ridicule that reality television producers zone in on contestants’ heartbreaking back stories, making their eventual success even sweeter.

Perhaps all of this fascination with stories of downfall and triumph point to the human desire to see our own hopes, dreams and fears played out by someone else, removed from our own lives. That way, can experience the highs and lows, without having to deal with the pain of the fall from grace, but gaining some of the joy from the triumph of others.

And in Barracuda, the evolution of Daniel Kelly provides us with the rise, the fall, and the hope of a better, although more modest, future.

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