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How Evil Are You? Horror Guru Eli Roth Investigates

by Maggie Furlong, posted Oct 28th 2011 12:00PM
Eli Roth, host of 'How Evil Are You?'Are you evil? And if so, how evil? Discovery Channel's Curiosity series tapped horror movie writer-director and actor Eli Roth -- yes, the man behind the decidedly evil 'Hostel' franchise -- to find out in their new special, titled 'How Evil Are You?' (premieres Sun., Oct. 30, 9PM ET on Discovery).

Recreating Yale professor Stanley Milgram's groundbreaking and disturbing psychological experiment from the 1960s -- which showed regular people inflicting pain on others because they were "just following orders" -- Roth came away with some fascinating insight into human nature, and a very matter-of-fact conclusion. "We haven't changed in 50 years, and I don't think we will," he said.

Here, Roth talks more about the nature of evil and why even Hitler shouldn't be completely faulted for his evil acts during the Holocaust. And speaking of Hitler, as the guy that killed Hitler (on-screen in 'Inglourious Basterds,' that is) does Roth think he has what some have dubbed "the evil gene"? He goes through a few tests himself in the special, all in the name of science and his own curiosity.

Keep reading for more on this fascinating study, and to find out which recent horror movie sequel "terrified" the master, leaving Roth and pal Marilyn Manson "squealing like teenage girls." (You're welcome.)

Of all the Curiosity specials, this one of the most intriguing to me, because it's a question everyone wonders about, but no one knows the answer to ...
Crazy, right? It's truly one of the most fascinating and disturbing but interesting things I've ever been a part of. There's nothing scarier or more fascinating than how humans react in a real situation, and what humans are capable of doing. I really am fascinated by just the very notion of evil and the idea of evil existing as a concept. The idea that you're not an evil person ... that you can do an act that's very evil without realizing you're doing it, and somehow be OK with it because you feel that someone else is actually taking responsibility for it.

The first experiment you all have people replicating is just shocking ... no pun intended.
The drama of watching these people go through the Milgram Experiment, and watching them shock another person is fascinating and terrifying. Because they're all clearly very good people, very nice people, and it could very easily be any one of us. It's not about whether or not they want to do it -- because they clearly don't want to do the shock -- but it's all about their relationship with authority and wanting to fit in. All these other factors come into play. I asked all of them: "Are you a horror fan? Do you watch violent movies? Video games?" It didn't make a difference. The woman who went all the way to the end said her father was very tough on her, and she learned not to disobey authority. Another person wouldn't go past a certain point. It was really scary, though ... we haven't changed in 50 years, and I don't think we will. I think it's just human nature.

Exactly. And you know these people said, "I would never. I could never." But then, when put in these situations, they do.
I know. Well, nobody thinks of themselves as someone who would do that. That's why evil is much more than doing some simple act. People have very specific reasons for doing things, and most of the time when they do them, they either believe that they're on the side of right or they're ultimately not responsible for doing it. That's what you heard a lot after the Holocaust: "We were only following orders." That was kind of the mantra. With a lot of these people, it's the same thing -- "I was doing the shocking because the experimenter told me to."

What do you want to be the takeaway with this special?
I want people to watch the show and come away with a different idea of what evil is and where it comes from, and what everybody is capable of doing. I don't think there is such thing as evil; I think it's human nature. Evil as a noun exists -- you can say that an act is evil -- but it truly depends on which side of the act you're on.

So you wouldn't say you're evil at all? Because you don't believe someone can be evil?
[Laughs] I think I'm a very nice person. Very conscious and considerate. But there are studies that people are doing now, trying to isolate these genes and tendencies for aggression, and it was fascinating to see my brain put under that microscope, put through the MRI test and to have my DNA examined to see if I have tendencies towards these things, and where they come from and why I might think these thoughts. I've never been in a fist fight [laughs], I've never been arrested, I don't do evil things, but there are certain things where you're so completely convinced that you're right, and that it's the right thing to do, but other people could certainly perceive them as evil.

Growing up with a dad who's this famed psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, you're probably very aware of the way people think and their motivations ...
Oh yeah. Well, I never looked at a crazy person as a crazy person. There are certain people that have chemical imbalances, but I learned very early on that you don't ever label someone as crazy. Everything comes from somewhere. Even now, you can look at anything ... like a suicide bomber. To one group, they're the antichrist, to another group they're a saint. And now there's all the videos that are anti-gay bullying, which I think are fantastic and a very positive thing, but I feel like that's putting out the fire and not looking at what started the fire. A lot of that comes from these kids being taught in various religions that homosexuality is wrong, and that it's a sin against God. So if a kid suspects that they're gay, what are they going to do? They're going to act out in the most public way to show how not gay they are by beating a kid up. Or they feel like they have permission because they've been told that this person is committing a sin. But you can't say that religion is evil, because it's not. But why would that be written into a religion? Well, back when those religions were written, there was no code of of behavior. If men and women didn't reproduce, society as a whole would not survive. So that was the first code of ethical behavior that was put into place so that the species itself could survive. There was no written moral code before that.

Even with the Holocaust, you say, "Well, Hitler told everyone to kill Jews." Well, it's not as simple as that. Because for 400 years, Martin Luther -- if you go back and read his paper, 'The Jews and Their Lies' -- it's exactly the same stuff that Hitler said. Martin Luther said you can't trust the tongue of the Jew -- he'll lie, he'll take your money. But why did Martin Luther do that? Because Martin Luther couldn't convert the Jews, so the only way he could get people to convert to his religion was by vilifying the Jews. It's not that he thought the Jews were evil; he just thought he'd never get people to convert without saying they couldn't be trusted. It all comes from somewhere. It's too simplistic of a notion, too easy to label something as evil, and it never really addresses where the actual act itself is coming from.

Eli RothYou're obviously very interested in history and human nature, but what made you ultimately decide to do this?
I wanted to make a special that would be something great, but actually something that students would watch in classrooms as a way to discuss the subject of human nature. It's not a scientific piece, so you couldn't use it as a teaching tool in psychology classes, but it's the kind of thing you could show in a classroom to spark a discussion.

Was there anything that they pointed out to you about your own brain and your own tendencies that surprised you?
Oh yeah. A lot of things! Absolutely. We'll find out the real surprises on the show, but I've always suspected that my brain works differently -- not better or worse, just differently. I kind of feel like I'm in my own planet sometimes, and the way I visualize things ... I've had girlfriends that I've had to warn because I talk to myself. When I'm writing, I go into a trance. It was fantastic to have these amazing scientists say, "The parts of your brain that work when you see imagery are completely different from most people." From the way I visualize things to the over-stimulation that's constantly going on ... it was actually really kind of comforting to see that and think, "OK, I'm crazy, but I'm not crazy." [Laughs] This was actual scientific data showing what I always kind of felt in my gut was true.

After 'Inglourious Basterds,' your dad wrote an interesting piece titled 'My Son Killed Adolf Hitler.' I'm sure he's proud to know now that your brain is this uniquely functioning thing ...
Oh, as soon as it was over ... I actually called my dad and put him on the phone with Dr. Fallon, and now they're all going to have dinner. My dad is retired now and lives in California, just relaxing, but he just so loves seeing all these seeds that were planted in me as a kid growing into these various creative projects, whether it's 'Hostel' or 'Inglourious Basterds' or now the Discovery special -- it's all an expression of my creativity. It's all stuff that I grew up with.

You mentioned 'Hostel,' which really gets credit for helping reboot that whole horror genre. Is there anything that someone else is doing now in movies that makes you think, "Wow, that's really fu**ed up!"?
[Laughs] Of course! It's fun to watch everybody try to outdo one another. There's this sort of bleeding contest amongst directors to see who can come up with the sickest thing, but for me, that's never what impressed me. What always impressed me were when things were clever. I mean, it's easy to be disgusting -- all you need is to pick a body part and pick a tool and eviscerate it. It's not hard. What's really hard is 'Paranormal Activity 3.' I mean, how do you do a movie, the third one, where people are expecting something, they've seen it twice before, and you have to surprise them, but at the same time give them what they want. It's terrifying. I think that that, for me, is the greatest. Hats off to those guys. Whether it's gory or bloodless, it's creativity and originality that I'm always impressed by.

So you've seen it?
'Paranormal Activity 3'? Yeah, I saw it. I saw it opening weekend at midnight with Marilyn Manson. We were terrified! We were squealing like teenage girls! I have bruises on my leg because he was punching me through the whole film! [Laughs]

This is the greatest mental picture I'll have all day.
[Laughs] Literally I was sitting on the seat with my legs up, kicking my feet, and he was slouched down, slamming his elbow into my leg. [Laughs] I came out of the movie with bruises from Marilyn Manson, so I know he was terrified. Both of us were. It was so scary!

Watch a preview of 'How Evil Are You? here:

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Dave Castle

So, why is it again that the pain of another human trumps authority? Isn't it true that if a physician were to follow this reasoning, that s/he could not do surgery? They have to know from "authority" that their surgical work will ultimately help and not hurt their patient. While most of these subjects of the experiment do not have a degree in logic, they still understand that authority, and especially scientific authority, trumps pain. If this experiement were modified to the point that the "teacher" was inflicting another person with agony that would not end, or that the experiment was senseless, or conducted by a person of much less trust, the experiement would end.
But given the one example of a physician (or we could say dentist or one of several other professional fields) nullifies Roths skewed "judgment" of the moral declaration of "evil" for people who inflict pain on another when they feel that they are doing the "patient" or "lerner" some greater good, or doing some good for the whole of mankind by the whole idea of a "memory/learner" experiment.

March 06 2012 at 1:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Andrea Calabrese

Love this! Eli Roth is a genius. I hope I get to work as one of his actresses someday. Eli Roth is one of my favorite film directors in the entire world. http://twitter.com/andreacalabrese

October 30 2011 at 4:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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