The Hero’s Journey: Light Within Shadow


Illustrated by Gustave Dore

Part 2 in a 3-Part Series

Fight Club Movie Poster (1999)The Hero’s Journey deeply resonates with audiences. In real life — and in the way we interpret our lives metaphorically and spiritually — we turn to this pattern again and again. We see ourselves in the character of the seeker, who must embark on a quest to uncover his true identity or previously unrecognized capacities. Leaving behind all that is familiar and safe, taking risks and meeting challenges, the hero is changed forever, both in how he sees himself and in how he views the world.

Yet, not all narrative heroes are entirely admirable. Some may make us uncomfortable in their moral ambiguity. Skirting the edge of darkness, these anti-heroes typically inhabit the shadows, their actions and motives subject to debate.

Good Versus Evil

There’s something inherently fascinating about the struggle between good and evil. Since ancient times, this dichotomy has fueled myths and legends, religious parables and philosophical debate. Whether we describe the clash in terms of psychological phenomena (the id vs. the superego), moral imperatives (right vs.  wrong), or religious teachings (God vs. Satan), this thematic convention remains timeless.

Good versus evil can manifest as a struggle entirely outside of the self (the Dark Lord vs. the races of Middle Earth) or as a conflict between the individual and society (Easy Rider). However, inner conflicts of light vs. shadow are particularly engaging. Watching characters struggle with their own demons creates an arresting narrative with implications for the human condition.

Edge of Darkness

Selene in STILETTOHesperidian Productions first investigated light within darkness in “Awakening,” a short film where the main character, a raider, experiences enlightenment amidst a world of destruction. [Watch “Awakening” here.] In “Stiletto,” Hesperidian’s second short, the characters dove deeper into a world of darkness. Selene, the anti-heroine of this Neo-Noir, is a madame of a high-end Chicago brothel. Her actions throughout the film run the gamut of immorality: manipulation, seduction and, eventually, murder. Yet, Selene captivates the audience and wins our sympathy. Why do viewers love her so much?

[Watch the trailer to “Stiletto” here.]

Selene lives on the edge of darkness. Her power exists not within the world of light that her lover, District Attorney Pete Davis, inhabits, but rather in the shadows. It is because she lives in the darkness that nothing stops her from exacting her own brand of revenge — or is it justice? — when the force of law is stymied.

This motif has long been popular in story-telling of all kinds. Literature explored anti-heroes before cinema even existed. Lucifer, from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is painted as an anti-hero. Jay Gatsby is another. “The Dark Knight” film trilogy, directed by Christopher Nolan, as well as “Fight Club,” directed by David Fincher, revel in presenting societies on the edge of chaos where the lines between good and evil are often murky.

Anti-heroes represent the choices we all face when we are forced to balance shades of grey. In “Stiletto,” all of the characters must form and follow their own rules of justice. We identify with the characters’ dilemmas as they face complex situations where the choices are far from perfect.

Anti-heroes, like all humans and the societies we create, are flawed. When conflicting values and motives are brought into the open and addressed within the anti-hero, we are drawn to their struggle. Even though their actions are morally questionable, we perceive a redeeming value in their decision to do what they think is right — especially when no one else will. As a result, the anti-hero has become a modern day archetype that inspires audiences all over the world.

We crave anti-heroes. We embrace them. Above all, we are fascinated by them. Anti-heroes may not always seem “heroic” on their Hero’s Journey, but their struggles with the dark side of their natures often make them much more fun to watch.

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