July 24, 2010

what is it about some villains . . . ?

When I think of truly great villains, it's not the Emperor Palpatine, the Joker, or the Hannibal Lecter who gives me the chills. It's Dolores Umbridge, HAL 9000, Grand Moff Tarkin, Nurse Ratched, Annie Wilkes and Noah Cross who make me feel like the world is a scary fucking place.

Why is that? Why is it that I can enjoy the Joker's theatricality but still go to sleep at night but hope to God that I never come across a Dolores Umbridge? Why does Hannibal Lecter delight me while HAL terrifies me? Why does a rich old man like Noah Cross scare me more than the Dark Lord of the Sith?

Even though iconic villains kill more people and spread more mayhem, why does it feel like these more unassuming characters do more damage? Is it because what they do seems more real somehow? Is it because these examples of ordinary evil are closer and more widespread than we often like to admit? I don't mean these questions rhetorically, either. I'm genuinely interested in figuring this out.

What do you think?


  1. There's a quote from someone (I don't remember who) which read "one murder makes a villain, millions a hero" ... which may explain that.

    A lot of people identify with Lector and Freddie Krueger and the Joker ... they said and did things many of us wish we could do to people we don't like who we feel "deserve" it (and it's a reason Dexter is so popular) ... the smaller criminals, on the other hand, are scarier for precisely the opposite reason ... it's closer to home, and it could be us who will be next.

  2. There is an extra level of creepiness to them. I think all of those character will do whatever it takes to get what they want and they all know what they want. Nurse Ratched and Noah Cross are the worst in my opinion because they succeed. All those characters have charisma but its a fake kind of charisma--not in a snake charmer way--but in a way that they can fool most people while causing extreme damage to certain people. They are the kind of people that you do not want to engage in battle with because they have no moral code.

  3. Michael Palin's portrayal of Jack in "Brazil" is another good example of a frightening villain who you could believe exists in the real world (the best friend who will torture you to death when push comes to shove). He's frightening because you don't see him coming, so to speak. He's jocular and friendly until things go wrong, then he turns on you (and can do so without hesitation).

    That the role is played with such joviality by a known comedian makes him all the more unnerving.