01/23/2014 04:58 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

On '12 Years a Slave' and Why We Enjoy Watching Others Suffer

I saw 12 Years a Slave last weekend. On Monday, a friend asked me whether I enjoyed the film and I honestly didn't know how to respond. The story, of a free black man from New York, kidnapped and sold into slavery, was compelling. The acting, from Chiwetel Ejiofor's quiet defiance to Michael Fassbender's unhinged sneering, was superb. I was absolutely gripped from beginning to end. But did I enjoy the film? It's hard to say.

The film was unrelentingly grim. When slaves were punished, it was visceral, graphic and so very, very bloody. The violence was so unrelenting that I found myself treasuring those few scenes where the characters and the audience were given a respite from the constant torment, even if it was short-lived. There's one scene in the first half of the film where the film's protagonist, Solomon Northup, is nearly lynched; it is probably the most agonizingly long scene I have ever experienced. By the end, several members of the audience were left tittering with discomfort.

Part of you wants to see Northup fight back, assert his individuality and cling to his freedom. Part of you wants him to obey and submit just so that you don't have to see him flogged again. I began to feel like I was somehow complicit in his oppression; so desperate was I to see him yield to the slave-owners in an effort to end the bloodshed. When the film was over, my friend and I walked to the bus stop in complete silence, not yet capable of articulating our thoughts.

Did I enjoy it? Probably not. Am I glad I saw it? Absolutely. I can't remember the last time I have felt so thoroughly uncomfortable while watching a film, and yet I found 12 Years a Slave utterly engrossing and supremely moving. I can't stop recommending it to everyone I encounter.

I am now left wondering why droves of people would willingly, and maybe even eagerly, go to the cinema to experience something so relentlessly bleak. Of course 12 Years a Slave is not the first film to assail its audience with a harrowing tale of human suffering. As demonstrated by the commercial and critical success of films like Schindler's List, No Country for Old Men, The Selfish Giant and Blood Diamond, audiences seem to relish disturbing and bleak tales. What is it about unsettling and grim portrayals of human cruelty that makes us want to hand over our money?

To answer this, I think it's useful to take a look at romance novels. As a part of my undergraduate degree I studied the sociology behind romance novels (because this is the kind of knowledge that is going to give me an edge in today's highly competitive job market) and there are a lot of similarities between romance novels and bleak, gritty tales such as 12 Years a Slave. Numerous sociologists, such as Ann Douglas and Janice Radway, have noted that romance novels can be pretty brutal. While looking at the most popular romance titles, both sociologists were startled to discover that they frequently involved graphic descriptions of rape or violence perpetrated against the protagonist of the story. Since the women these authors interviewed claimed that they read romance novels as an escape from their everyday lives, it seemed odd that graphic brutality featured so heavily in these escapist fantasies.

One could perhaps conclude that women read novels depicting horrendous violence against women because they secretly, sadistically condone such behavior. However this is a somewhat simplistic (and immensely pessimistic) interpretation of human behavior. According to the sociologist, Geertz, we seek out disturbing art (whether books, plays or films) so that we may experience something frightening and challenging without having to fear the consequences. We can face up to the darkest, most violent parts of humanity and humanity's history without actually exposing ourselves to personal risk. The horrific becomes comprehensible and, therefore, surmountable.

For the women Radway interviewed for her book, Reading the Romance, it was important for them to read about the stories' heroines experiencing something terrible but surviving and coming out of the ordeal as stronger individuals, still capable of loving and being loved. This theory also makes sense when applied to 12 Years a Slave. As the title itself suggests, we know that Northup's suffering is temporary. He may have to endure the most atrocious physical and emotional trauma imaginable but eventually he will be reunited with his loving family. The audience can perhaps imagine that in enduring and surviving his ordeal, Northup has somehow emerged as a more determined, heroic individual (indeed, the film's coda informs the audience that Northup went on to play a vocal part in the abolitionist movement). It is comforting, and maybe even thrilling, to see people face monstrous suffering and come out triumphant.

Watching harsh, disturbing films allows the audience to experience something harrowing without having to face any real peril. Since watching 12 Years a Slave, I have repeatedly wondered how I myself would fare in Northup's situation. Would I fight? Would I stoically endure? Would I crumble and shrivel with fear until I no longer recognized myself? Dark, challenging films let us ask ourselves these questions while shielding us from the consequences of inhumanity.