I’ve been thinking a bit about bad boys and mean girls and the shadowy malign forces behind them. We fear them in the news, but often the way we think about villainy is informed by films and fiction. Yet this is a circular process or infinite regress, since fictional villains often have real life models. Before there was Hannibal Lecter, there was Jack the Ripper. Before Dracula, Vlad the Impaler.
Today we are haunted by Islamic terrorists. They exist in the real world, but they also populate popular culture as the arch villains of thrillers – “True Lies,” “The Peacemaker,” “Black Sunday,” “Homeland.” Round and round it goes. Turns out ISIS is using videos that glorify terrorism to recruit terrorists, but many of their targets have already cut their teeth, practicing death and destruction, on videogames like “Call of Duty.”
Before Al Qaida or ISIS, our nightmares focused on the communist menace and their tools, think “The Manchurian Candidate.” Before that, Nazis or their Fifth Column supporters. For a long time the favorite villains for the Brits, as in the books of John Buchan, were the Huns, before that the Reign of Terror French, like Citizen Chauvelin, the Scarlet Pimpernel’s adversary, not to mention exotics like the thuggees of India. Earlier, in the Jacobean era, the faces of evil were almost always Spanish and Italian. During my Cold War youth, the fallout of the atom bomb produced endless scary mutations – shrinking men, giant ants and moths – and behind most of them were mad scientists, the heirs of Frankenstein by way of Los Alamos.
The more you consider the interplay of news and melodrama, popular culture and popular prejudice, the richer this subject looks. And yet, a cursory look at scholarly sources suggests it is a surprisingly neglected subject for study. Perhaps that’s because the notions of the day are often so widely shared they aren’t even noticed, and once their time has passed, they just look like silly, outdated prejudices.
In his interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock expressed a rule of thumb for the maker of thrills – “The better the villain, the better the picture. The stronger the evil, the stronger the picture.” But we are quickly in complex terrain. No evil or villainy matters much if it doesn’t make you fearful. Rapacious aliens on the fourth planet of Alpha Centauri provide only mild intellectual amusement, but plunk them down on Main Street a la “War of The Worlds” or “The Puppet Masters” and you can really creep people out.
Religious people can be seriously spooked by devils and demonic possession and other emanations from the other side. Rationalists or atheists are likely to be bored or dismissive. Clearly we all fear physical danger, but war or natural disasters don’t fall into the category of villainy, though we often demonize our enemies. No, to be really frightening the villainy must have certain characteristics that cause fear. First of all, as noted, proximity. Putin is a problem, Russian sleeper cells next door are scary.
Often villains have some sort of psychological power over us, making us easy prey. Svengali is a prototype and Iago was a cousin, manipulating the susceptible Moor. Dracula enthralled his victims before biting them. Femmes fatale use sexual wiles to ensnare weak-willed men. Such power is even scarier if exercised by a spouse on their husband or wife who may feel themselves to be trapped, a kind of homegrown version of the Stockholm Syndrome. Think of the wife in “Gaslight” being preyed on by her villainous husband or vice versa in “Gone Girl.” The next step is to go beyond psychological control to actual captivity, often by sexual predators as in “The Collector” and many others.
All of the above have a shared feeling of losing control, the loss of autonomy. A related species of villainy involves the fear of losing your mind to a more powerful force – of being changed. Vampires do it. Alien invaders do it. Viruses do it. During the Cold War people feared the communist menace would brainwash us. As a result, the fearful often went to the other extreme, McCarthyite conformity. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is an allegory on this theme. The director Don Siegel, a Hollywood maverick, was drawn to the story because he realized one day everywhere he looked he was “surrounded by pod people.”
Many of the scariest scenarios involve being trapped with no escape from the villain, whether Svengali, an “Alien” on your spaceship, “The Thing” in the arctic or James Bond on Dr. No’s Island. One of the great melodramatic villains of American pop culture is Simon Legree, the wicked planter of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” whose victims, since enslaved, are completely at his mercy. They can’t run and they can’t hide. Stories in which our hero finds himself in a prison or POW or concentration camp are similarly terrifying because of the unchecked power than can be exercised over the inmates.
In our time, scary villains are often lone gunmen, madmen, vampires, demons, or germs. But the fear of organized villainy may predominate. The Nazis continue to scare because they were so alien, as are Islamic terrorists today. You can’t reason with them. You don’t share a vocabulary. The adherents march in lockstep, exhibiting almost a hive mentality, and like the Japanese who fought to the last man and piloted suicide planes, the individual appears to count for little. Many of the scariest movie aliens in films like “Starship Troopers” share this disinterest in personal survival.
Closer to home, Hollywood, pot boiling authors and the political fringes are frightened of vast conspiracies by government or corporations. The CIA, the NSA or even darker unnamed agencies are spying on us day and night, reading our mail, training their cameras in our direction, listening to all we say. They see all and know all. Their black helicopters are coming to get our guns. They use the schools to brainwash our children. They are hatching genetic horrors, as in “Helix”
The villains behind these plots are generally unnamed and unknown, but all-powerful. When they aren’t government spooks or corporate evildoers, as in “Enemy of the State” or “Michael Clayton,” they are criminal masterminds. These have a long history – Dr. Mabuse, Dr. Fu Manchu, and Dr. Moriarty “ who “sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations and he knows very well every quiver of each of them.”
These are the people who control the banks, steal elections, commit cybercrimes, alter our foods, and drug us with popular culture or actual pharmaceuticals. They may be mad scientists or technocrats, theocrats of plutocrats but all aim to exert power over our lives. Big Brother Lives. Often he lives in palatial splendor on ill-gotten gains, and travels by private jet.
Most interesting is how often villainy is in the eye of the beholder. Captain Nemo was a freedom fighter, a mad scientist, a terrorist depending on who’s considering him. The same can be said of John Galt, clearly a lineal descendant of Nemo. Islamic terrorists believe themselves to be battling the great Satan and many of us believe them to be the Antichrist. All humans fear others, and the fear causes us to inflate them or allegorize them into bogeymen, alien invaders, forces of nature.
To sum up, the scariest villainy is nearby, implacable, inescapable, invasive, oppressive and often undetectable until it’s too late. The hidden menace. Amusingly, we may all be looking in the wrong direction. The prophets who have predicted our demise as a result of “the rise of the machines” may be vindicated, sooner rather than later. First the Roomba took your vacuum cleaner’s job and you did nothing, then your job, then your economy, then your planet.