A sentence in the first paragraph of "The Lottery" indicates the approximate population of the town. The sentence reads, in part:
...in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours...
Perhaps the people of this dull, isolated little village actually enjoy the annual lottery. It is similar to Russian Roulette--except that the odds against any individual getting stoned to death are approximately 299 to 1. People may like the thrill of putting their lives in jeopardy but also like the security of knowing that the chances against them are so slight. Old Man Warner has participated in seventy-seven lotteries and has never drawn the losing slip. He seems to be excited by the occasion. He claims it is important for the corn crops, but his real reasons for wanting the lottery to continue may be different. It would, in fact, be exciting to risk one's life with such high odds against being the "winner"--if the prize were commensurate with the risk. The odds against picking the winning number on a roulette wheel are something like 35 to 1--but how hard it is to pick the winning number!
There is another reason why the townsfolk do not give up the lottery. They enjoy stoning some one else to death. The men in the New Testament who ask Jesus if it is okay to stone a woman to death when she has been guilty of adultery are probably looking forward to the sadistic pleasure of killing another human being and feeling righteous while they are doing it. There is no prize in Shirley Jackson's lottery, but those 299 good folks who escape being chosen as that year's scapegoat will have won the right to stone the lone "winner" to death. Shirley Jackson gives a very brief picture of what that outcome looks like.
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. "It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.
Old Man Warner was saying, "Come on, come on, everyone."
This is a gala occasion. Everyone is feeling vastly relieved not to have been chosen. They all get to live another year in this town where nothing ever happens--nothing other than the annual lottery. They have to stone the victim to death in order to show that the risk was real. The image of Tessie holding out her hands desperately is very effective. Old Man Warner seems to be having the time of his life. At age seventy-seven he has nothing much to lose even if he draws the fatal slip.
Human nature is not entirely pure and innocent. People in some countries go to bullfights because they enjoy the spectacle and also enjoy watching the brave bulls tormented, degraded and killed. People used to enjoy bear-baiting, and they still enjoy cock fights and dog fights. Hangings used to be popular public spectacles.