From cutting up a cheating ex’s clothes to shaming your husband on a billboard – why does revenge feel so good?

Revenge tales: Carey Mulligan in ‘Promising Young Woman’, Keanu Reeves as John Wick, and Jenna Coleman in ‘Wilderness’  (AP/Prime Video)
Revenge tales: Carey Mulligan in ‘Promising Young Woman’, Keanu Reeves as John Wick, and Jenna Coleman in ‘Wilderness’ (AP/Prime Video)

When the bright sunshine of a new love fades to a dull grey of resentment, or is pierced by the hot red flash of infidelity, you are left with nothing more than a broken heart and the sense that you have wasted years of your life on someone who turned out not to be worth it. What do you do with the roiling feelings sloshing about inside you? Where do the anger, hurt and bitterness go? Your therapist might tell you to acknowledge those feelings, to sit with them and then let them go, and trust that time will take the sting out. But pop culture tells us over and over: screw that. Get even.

Revenge has been the subject of much cultural contemplation, usually taken to a satisfying extreme. Hamlet aside, in Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan metes out bloody justice on men she deems to be capable of abuse; the entire John Wick series is essentially about getting even with a baddie who killed Keanu Reeves’s dog. Country musicians in particular have taken to the subject with great zeal, from Carrie Underwood’s trashing of a man’s beloved car in the searing “Before He Cheats” to The Chicks’ “Tights On My Boat”, which opens with the lines, “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep/Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me,” inspired by singer Natalie Maine’s 2017 divorce. The Bible is also a hotbed of fiery vengeance, advocating for “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (although we do tend to gloss over the fact that this is in a fairly heavy section that also suggests death is the ideal punishment for many crimes, and that it follows some quite intense instructions about how to deal with your slaves).

Amazon’s new drama, Wilderness, treads a similar path: Jenna Coleman plays Liv, a young woman desperately in love with her husband Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) until she discovers that he’s been cheating on her. What’s a woman to do but go on the holiday of a lifetime pretending that everything is fine and gradually plot her revenge? But the question, for those of us less in a high-budget drama and more in our living rooms mulling over past injustices, is this: is taking revenge actually worth it?

Go looking and you will find countless stories of everyday revenge. One woman filled every nook of her boyfriend’s house with glitter when she found out he’d been cheating on her, then waltzed away and left him with the sparkly reminder of what a dog he is to haunt him for the rest of time. Another took her partner shopping to buy a whole new wardrobe, then cut essential parts of each piece of clothing out so that when he came to get dressed in his jazzy new threads, the morning after she left him, he had no choice but to turn up to work in a very risque outfit. His look was distressed in more ways than one.

When Lucy, a musician from Nashville, finally extricated herself from a long on-again off-again relationship with a boyfriend whose behaviour had become increasingly toxic and belittling, she thought she was being mature by returning his favourite hat to him while he was at work. She didn’t want to see or speak to him, so she left it and some of his other belongings on his car and went on her way. “I was thinking, ‘I’m doing a kind thing by giving back something sentimental to him’,” she says. He didn’t quite see it that way. When he found his stuff sitting on the windshield he was furious, blowing up her phone with texts and phone calls reaming her out for doing it. “What are you going to do next, write a song called ‘I left your hat on your windshield?’” he spat at her. So she did, posting it to YouTube with the caption “By request :).”

“He had encouraged my songwriting so much when we were together, so when he used that as ammunition against me it just felt really petty.” She wrote the song – an absolute bop, by the way – feeling angry and betrayed. “I was just like, OK, if you want to be petty, I’ll just be petty right back.” That anger became euphoria as she posted it. “I thought it was hilarious,” she says. It gave her a sense of control over a situation that had been chaotic and painful, and turned a horrible breakup into a funny memory. Lucy has never regretted her small act of vengeance (the last time she spoke to him, the ex claimed never to have heard it. She suspects that is a lie). “Instead of doing something mean to you I’m going to do something positive for me, even if it kind of is at your expense.”

Not all romantic payback is as wholesome as Lucy’s. For every story of someone deploying glitter or devastating chord progressions, you’ll find five more about revenge sex (sleeping with someone important to the other person), keyed cars, burned clothes and the ever-present threat of revenge porn (when someone shares private selfies with others or puts them on the internet). One woman was arrested for dumping her partner’s mother’s ashes into a river after he cheated on her. Clearly, the drive to seek vengeance is a strong and potentially dangerous one.

Fade Eadeh, assistant professor of psychology at Seattle University, wanted to find out what revenge actually makes us feel. He found that previous studies had suggested that contemplating payback gives us a boost in the caudate nucleus, an area of the brain that processes reward and has also been known to light up during cocaine and nicotine use. On the flip side, Brad Bushman of the Ohio State University found evidence that people who had given in to their vengeful side had higher levels of aggression than those who had not; that holding on to the pain was not as good for us as just letting it go.

Eadeh started grad school in 2011, around the time that the US government announced that they had found and killed Osama Bin Laden – an act of vengeance for the 2001 September 11 attacks. “The cheering at the White House when his assassination was announced was fascinating to us,” he says. “We were curious; does revenge feel good, bad, or both?” Participants were asked to read an article about the assassination or an article unrelated to revenge: the study revealed that thinking about revenge triggered both higher positive and higher negative emotions. Revenge, he says, appeared to be bittersweet.

Jenna Coleman pretending to play nice with Oliver Jackson-Cohen in revenge drama ‘Wilderness’ (Prime Video)
Jenna Coleman pretending to play nice with Oliver Jackson-Cohen in revenge drama ‘Wilderness’ (Prime Video)

“The act of engaging in revenge is likely to conjure up memories of the initial event that made you want to seek revenge in the first place,” Eadeh says. But, “it feels good that punishment is done towards a malevolent actor” – proof that we like the feeling of just desserts being served. This conclusion is borne out by the larger reaction to tales of revenge too. When Lisa in Sheffield shelled out hundreds of pounds for a billboard to tell her “cheating husband Paul” that she’d be gone by the time he got home, with the pithy and endlessly satisfying sign-off, “Enjoy your drive to work!”, the social media reaction was very positive: “Good for you, Lisa!” was the tenor of the tweets. Kristina, a creative director from Scotland who now lives in the US, found that her tale of revenge also struck a chord. When she posted a video to TikTok telling her story during lockdown, it went viral. For five years, she’d been carrying out a very petty revenge.

“It was always just something I did that was kind of funny,” she says now. “I had a boyfriend that broke up with me over the phone. And we’d been together for like, two years, and he broke up with me over the phone. I felt like that really sucked. I was like, I think I deserved a little bit more than that.” They’d started dating when Kristina was 18, and were on-again-off-again for several years. Shortly after that final phone call, she was feeling hurt and hard done by while in an airport waiting for a flight. “I needed to use the wifi and I remember thinking, ‘I just do not want to put my email in there and get loads of junk mail in return.’” This one hurt moment kicked off a habit that continued for several years: every time she needed to log on to public wifi or put an email address in to use a service, she used his address, signed him up for all the associated marketing messages and went on her merry way. If she needed a name, she’d put “first name scum, last name bag”.

As the hurt eased, she stopped dubbing him Scum Bag, but she continued to use his email address for years – “I mean, he still had a Hotmail account. I was like, time to get over that.” Though Kristina did get some grief from TikTok commenters, she said she never once regretted her small, spammy payback. The ex did eventually find out that she’d been doing it when a friend sent him her viral video: “He found it really funny. He actually said that he wished he had thought of it first. There’s something cathartic about being able to do something about your breakup: you see some in the media that are totally over the line, but I think that these harmless things that you can giggle with your friends about, and get them like a few John Lewis emails – it’s kind of good and genius. I mean, he can unsubscribe at any time! I have no regrets.”

The entire John Wick series is essentially about getting even with a baddie who killed Keanu Reeves’s dog (Murray Close/Lionsgate)
The entire John Wick series is essentially about getting even with a baddie who killed Keanu Reeves’s dog (Murray Close/Lionsgate)

Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned, but scorned men are out there getting payback too. After a painful breakup, PG, a cook from British Columbia, discovered his ex-girlfriend had slept with one of his best friends. During the administrative untangling that follows every major relationship implosion, he was changing passwords and signing out of joint accounts when he realised he was still logged in to her Netflix account. It occurred to him how difficult it would be for his ex to get her Netflix account back to English if he were to switch her language settings. “I realised that if I changed her language to an entirely different alphabet, it would be nearly impossible for her to locate the settings to change this back,” he says. He chose Mandarin and signed out, feeling vindicated, “as if I had scratched an itch in the small of my back”. He was still hurt, but this trivial action gave him back some power. “I no longer felt the embarrassment,” he recalls. “I knew inside I had done something for myself, to make me laugh. Even eight years later, it still brings a smile to my face, to know that she couldn’t binge her favourite show after such a direct attempt to hurt me for breaking up with her.”

PG’s revenge was satisfying because it transferred the fury and powerlessness he felt back to his ex, but what Lucy and Kristina have in common is that their small acts of revenge had some positive benefit to them: Lucy was channelling her feelings into creativity, Kristina didn’t have to put up with endless marketing spam. They all got even – a kind of even that felt good – without much effort and without any lingering damage to anyone (Kristina’s ex’s inbox notwithstanding). I suspect things might not end as well for the characters in Wilderness, just as they didn’t for Hamlet and numerous others whose vengeance boils over into violence. Perhaps this is the lesson for the scorned and spurned among us: revenge is a dish best served small.

‘Wilderness’ is out now on Prime Video