Since the beginning of history, mankind has displayed a deep interest in the nature of evil. Evil was first most commonly portrayed as malignant gods, whose wrath and ire was to be avoided at all cost lest one find themselves cursed. Both repulsed by it and intrigued by it, our obsession with evil has led to the notoriety of certain criminals who perhaps otherwise would have been simply shunned or forgotten. Serial killers especially, men and women who kill randomly and repeatedly, with no motive beyond the causing of death to another human being, have clearly captured the public’s imagination, as one can plainly see by the plethora of books, films, and television series that discuss them, both fictional and otherwise.
We have always been fascinated, and certainly frightened, by things we don’t understand. Perhaps it is the latter of these two emotions that has been driving the latest trend in media towards “sympathetic” villains. They are evil, though perhaps you wouldn’t use that term, but we can understand why they do the things they do. We can relate and we can see how, if something had been done differently, they might have turned out completely normal, like us.
Now, in general, I don’t have anything against sympathetic villains. If written well they can be (and have been) extremely engrossing characters. But part of me has to wonder if this demand for sympathetic villains isn’t a bit of wish-fulfillment on our part. How nice would it be to understand why John Wayne Gacy did the things he did, to be able to point to some particular moment in his childhood and say, “See? If we just stop that from happening to kids, nothing like Gacy will ever happen again”. The reality is, I’m afraid, that all too often people commit heinous acts for reasons we can’t understand. Evil does exist and it’s not always a product of unfortunate circumstance.
In monster movies you get a nice mix of these types of villains. Some of the monsters like for example, the Wolfman, are very sympathetic. He did nothing to warrant the punishment of his condition and he can’t control his vicious acts when he changes into a werewolf. Others, however, are pure and simple evil. Dracula, one of my favorite villains, and certainly a character which has captured, and will continue to capture, public imagination for years and years, is one such monster. Various well-intentioned adaptations of his story have been made, which make him more or less sympathetic – he was pining for his lost love, he was turned into a vampire against his will, he despises his own existence, etcetera, etcetera. But if we go back into the original text, the masterful novel written by Bram Stoker in 1897, and look at the very first Count Dracula, he becomes, quite clearly, an evil creature who delights in his own monstrousness.
In the novel, Dracula does not pursue Mina because she reminds him of a long-lost love. He doesn’t hesitate to turn Mina into a creature like himself. He does what he does because he can, because he gets joy out of corrupting the innocent and in hurting his enemies, in this case Jonathan Harker, Mina’s husband. There’s something intensely satisfying about a villain who offers no excuses for him or herself; who openly acknowledges the horror of what they are and embraces it. This is Dracula, the real Dracula. And this is why he is such a terrifying foe in the original novel. He cannot be reasoned with, appealed to, in any way dissuaded from his course of action except by his complete destruction. He has none of the weaknesses of the normal man – he does not love, he does not desire wealth, he does not even desire power (as if he needed any more of that). All he wants is to destroy and to be able to go on destroying for the rest of eternity.
Every piece of fiction has a villain. Whether its nature, an antagonist, or even a facet of the protagonist himself, something needs to exist in the story which not only creates, but fuels and exacerbates conflicts. The stakes of such conflicts become immeasurably higher, and in some cases immeasurably more frightening and fascinating, when the hero’s opponent is not relatable, or understandable; when he or she is nothing more or less than evil itself.
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