What’s the worst revenge you’ve ever taken against a person who has wronged you? Perhaps you let down their bike tyres, maybe posted compromising pictures on Facebook, or possibly went all Shakespearean on their ass and drove them from Rome, cut off their hand, and then served them a delicious pie containing the remains of their murdered children.  Most people will have more experience of the first two, which might explain why the third option is the sort of graphic fantasy that has been cropping up in entertainment ever since man first learned to make a rude cave painting of his ex-girlfriend.

Humans are a petty, vicious species, as anybody who has ever been the first person at a jumble sale will tell you.  Society is merely a highly-organised façade for our seething tangle of grudges and vendettas, most of which will remain buried deep under the surface as we attempt to interact with our friends, families and co-workers without succumbing to the ever-present temptation to run amok with a sharpened axe.

Given the enormous restraint necessary just to live amongst fellow members of our own species, it’s no surprise that the elaborate revenge fantasy is something we love to read about, watch or scribble on the wall of public toilets.  Righting wrongs, settling scores, blowing things up; an intricately-plotted tale of revenge has thrilled audiences since the days of Greek myth, serving artistic geniuses such as the noble bard William Shakespeare, French serialist Alexandre Dumas and drunken mullet-wearer Mel Gibson.  Each of these names has made a study of mankind’s lust for revenge, although it must be said that only Mel Gibson has used the medium of his ex-girlfriend’s answerphone.

A burning paper bag, full of dog poo
Luckily for human society, revenge is something that most reasonable people spend more time fantasising about than actually doing, at least until you get to the divorce courts.  Whilst tabloid newspapers and moronic Facebook groups love nothing more than the story of some beetroot-faced loon who takes the law into his clammy hands (Raoul Moat), the majority of us who aren’t utter divs merely prefer to spend a few minutes each day fantasising about mundane revenge ideas like crushing bad drivers under a steamroller, firing our bosses into deep space or slaying Justin Bieber and turning him into some kind of casserole.

In everyday life, revenge is less likely to be ultraviolent, cunningly-orchestrated and unpredictable than it is to be humdrum, tedious and inevitable.  Real-life revenge is a Chinese burn in the playground, a supervisor who gives you the worst jobs or a breakup when your ex sets fire to a pile of your shoes.  This kind of thing happens every day, and every time we ignore it, the little psychopath inside just keeps sharpening his axe.

Let off some steam
The amount of time we spend ignoring life’s petty irritations probably explains we like our revenge fantasies to be so ridiculous.  Our repressed yearning for elaborate reprisal needs an outlet, and it’s better if that outlet is watching Michael Douglas spraying a McBurger restaurant with an Uzi in Falling Down than actually doing that kind of thing yourself.  

Unfeasibly elaborate acts of vengeance are so entertaining because a truly devious one is the equivalent of that crushingly witty comeback that you only thought of an hour or two after it would have been useful; you would never have really said it but you can feel a little better about life just because you were cunning enough to even think it up.  

Of course, no matter how many hours I spend thinking about dealing with noisy motorbikes with a rocket launcher, I’m too socially repressed to ever really do anything reasonable, let alone respond with the Hollywood dynamite vengeance that would probably benefit society.  In my dreams, I am Schwarzenegger in Commando, dispatching evildoers with one-liners, bullets and my steroid-powered oily biceps; in real life I am the person that quietly endures a 40-minute bus ride next to three chavs listening to N-Dubz through a phone speaker.

Murder She Wrote
This may explain why one of my favourite ways to unwind is to watch Oldboy, the deranged Korean masterpiece that sees revenge carried to such gory, twisted extremes that you actually find yourself laughing uncontrollably at a movie in which the hero eats a live octopus and performs amateur dentistry with a claw hammer.    

Even if you don’t quite have the stomach for Korean ultraviolence, there’s a whole world of revenge out there to help you sweat off a Friday evening traffic jam.  You could spend a weekend watching different cowboys kick all kinds of dusty ass – you could pretty much pick any Western released after the 60s but Once Upon A Time In The West and The Outlaw Josey Wales would be great place to start.     

If you’re ever feeling a bit stabby, I guarantee that by the time you’ve read the 1300 cliffhanger-packed pages of The Count Of Monte Cristo you’re more likely to want a nice cup of tea and a lie down than to go on a chainsaw rampage at rush hour, and it’s impossible not to feel better about life after watching Eric Cartman tricked into buying a box of pubes in South Park’s awesome Scott Tenorman Must Die episode.  

Without the safety valve offered by these unlikely revenge stories, society would undoubtedly be a more dangerous place.  You’d be lucky to finish a day at the office without poison, machine guns and daggers in the coffee room, and the school-gate traffic jam would probably resemble something out of Apocalypse Now.  This is why I’d rather watch revenge than ever carry it out, although there will always be a part of me that wonders if airlines would be less likely to keep you on hold for two hours if you parachuted into their call centres, set fire to a few desks and started tossing hand grenades at anybody who tried to transfer you back to reservations.