Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ Is Horrifying – Why Can’t We Stop Watching It?

Mind It
4 min read
Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ Is Horrifying – Why Can’t We Stop Watching It?

If you haven't watched Squid Game yet, chances are you would've been asked multiple times, by multiple people, about the dystopian fiction.

According to Netflix, the South Korean survival drama is a massive hit and has become the platform’s biggest series launch of all time. It has reached 111 million viewers since its debut on 17 September.

It also knocked off Bridgerton, which gained 82 million households in its first 28 days, off the top spot.

Here's a primer about the series. It's from South Korean director and writer Hwang Dong-hyuk.

The nine-part series, tells the story of 456 people, neck-deep in debt, pitted against each other to take part in a series of children's games, by the rich and powerful for entertainment.

If they survive, 45.6 billion Korean won (approximately 290 crores) up is for grabs. If they lose, they are eliminated – the twist being they die in terrifying ways. And there can only be one winner.


While it may be the most bloody, disturbing show, it's also undoubtedly popular all over the world. Why do we find such dystopian fiction so gripping? What is the psychological appeal of such a series?

The Psychological Appeal of Squid Game

"Right now, in the pandemic, people have been feeling a sense of helplessness, frustration, which is portrayed in this show," explains Dr Ruchi Sharma, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Manipal Hospital, Dwarka.

It captures the current distress. The social commentary about the disparity in wealth in the society is also loud and clear.

"People can relate, where humanity is pitched against survival. That in itself is a very appealing concept during current times."

The show's main character is a gambling addict with huge debts, who feeds off his diabetic mother and faces the loss of his daughter.

The main crew has a former investment expert who is fleeing the police, a North Korean defector who would go to any length to provide for her family, a Pakistani factory worker exploited for his labour, and a terminally ill elderly man.

Desperation is what drives the participants to take part in the competition. While they are allowed to leave the game, they return, realising that the stakes outside of the lethal games are just as high as the ones in the arena.

"People enjoy this because they want to see something which is not possible otherwise. They have to have some sort of an outlet through which they can fantasise," Dr Sandeep Vohra, Psychiatrist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Delhi, says.

Watching Squid Game is also a visceral experience. You squint closer to the TV, arch your eyebrows, gasp, look away because it is gory. But you can't stop watching it.

"Anything which is beyond normal tends to give curiosity as well as a sense of high by a rush of adrenaline," Dr Vohra says.

The rollercoaster of emotions you experience is its appeal.

You can't just shake off the violence of the show. It pierces you, and it stays there. Those watching the show are just as horrified as the characters in the series.

"Freud suggested that horror was very appealing to people because it sort of allows the expression of feelings which are repressed by our ego," Dr Sharma says.

Squid Game's last-man-standing death game format isn't particularly new. Arena-style deathmatch has been done before in pop culture. Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Lord of the Flies, are examples.

But Squid Game grounds its premise through a real-world, contemporary setting. The humane stakes in the show are what make it tick.

"We are projecting our fear outside us and we are relating to it...Even if just one person is standing at the end of it, you know there is some sort of a positive outcome. Then there is a sense of relief at the end of it," Dr Sharma says.

"Carl Jung also talked about the concept of the collective unconscious. If we look at it from that perspective, we can see that in a lot of ways, people connect with that particular fear, horror," she adds.


It's not easy in this age of streaming to become a word-of-mouth phenomenon, at the scale and speed the show has since its debut.

Squid game has spread its tentacles everywhere, to social media feeds, to news media, to everyday discussions with friends and family – everyone dissecting each episode's twists and turns.

The series has been meme’d countless times.

"The pandemic has made us more dependent on online ways of interacting with everybody...Social media tends to drive the hype of any game/show," Dr Vohra says.

The traction it received on social media means that many of us will watch it out of curiosity or just to avoid FOMO. We don't want to miss out on knowing what's trending in pop culture, do we?

Hope is also a part of the show's appeal. Seeing the participants compete and survive, can help us overcome our fears.

Such shows can also help us handle real-life situations and face our deep-rooted fears, Dr Sharma says.

"From the perspective of the terror management theory, these kinds of series help in certain ways because they are put people face-to-face with their fears, maybe deep-rooted fears."

There is no doubt that the show is compelling and it capitalises on a lot of things. If you took the bait and watched the first episode, you'd probably not want to put it away till the last man is standing.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Netflix   Psychology   Thriller 

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