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No Sympathy for the Devil: Why Villains Rule Horror


Villains and horror. No other genre of film depends on the antagonist as an engine more than horror. In most cases, the villain is so pivotal to the story that the whole movie depends on us loving, hating and most importantly fearing this character. They're nearly always the perfect foil to our hero and are complete anathema to everything that's right, decent and normal. They're everything we hate, fear and abhor.

In the upside down world of horror, our villain IS the hero. If you doubt that sentiment, just look at the movie posters. Who's there, the protagonist? Nope. Guess again. It's the villain. The villain sells the film, survives the sequels and becomes the mask we buy for Halloween. From a graphic perspective, their image signifies the entire film. They are the physical embodiment of the abstract fear that they represent.

Why am I thinking about villains this week? Because I recently saw the 1992 film Candyman for the first time. I missed it when it came out and it's always been one of those films I was going to get around to seeing.

Well, I finally did. And frankly, I was underwhelmed. While the film had some great elements, and succeeded on many levels, ultimately (for me anyway) it failed because of one thing; the villain. Why? Because he was too sympathetic. I really felt for the poor guy. His backstory is that he was an educated black man in the Victorian era who fell in love with the wrong woman. Her father, incensed about the affair, hired thugs to cut off his hand, cover him in honey and let bees sting him to death. He replaced his hands with a hook and now feeds on the fear of the living. Great backstory, but all I kept thinking the whole time was "Fuck, that musta hurt to be stung to death."

Now, I know Candyman scares the shit out of a LOT of people and I'm glad he worked for them. But he fell completely flat for me. I also think that the filmmaker was playing heavily on the suburban white irrational fear of the "dangerous black male," and I just can't buy into that shit.

Another villain that just didn't do it for me was Cujo. I was really psyched to see this film too, but then as I watched it, I couldn't get past the tragedy of this poor dog's plight, to feel any of the horror. I'm a huge dog lover and no matter how slavering and bestial they made that St. Bernard, I couldn't think of anything except, "Awww... poor dog...."

It's not his fault he got rabies. He didn't set out to go mad. He was just a dog. Maybe if you didn't grow up with big dogs or you have an inherent fear of them it might be scary, but for me the whole thing fell apart. Again, the villain was so sympathetic that it got in the way of the horror. How can you feel terror for something or someone that brings out such overwhelming pity? You can't. At least I can't.

So that brings me to my current thinking. Like all things, horror is cyclical. And gone is the tragic gothic villain whom we both pity and fear. I don't think that fits with modern thinking at all. Classic horror/thriller films like Frankenstein, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or M who all had sympathetic villains worked phenomenally well in their time. And they work now too, don't get me wrong. But we're looking at them through the telescope of time. That is, to say, we're not HORRIFIED or TERRIFIED by those villains like audiences of the time were. They work as characters because they're that damn good. But do they scare us? No. Not really.

Why? Because sympathetic villains generally aren't scary anymore. In the real world, we live in an age of faceless, unsympathetic, senseless murder and destruction. And because of that, we like our villains to reflect our real-life fears.

Ruminate, if you will, on the horror villains of the past 30 years. Who scares us the most? Villains that kill and mutilate and terrorize with nary a sympathetic bone in their body. The best current bogeymen are guys you can't feel sorry for. 

Here's an (incomplete) list of unsympathetic villains who ROCK :

  • The Original Michael Myers
  • Jason Voorhees
  • Freddy
  • Chucky from Child's Play
  • Jerry Dandridge, the vampire from Fright Night
  • All the Christopher Lee Vampires
  • Pinhead
  • Leatherface
  • John Carpenter's The Thing
  • The evil ghost from The Entity
  • The villains from Hostel
  • The ghosts from The Amityville Horror
  • The Overlook Hotel
  • Captain Howdy from The Exorcist

This list can go on and on, those are just a few off the top of my head. You get the picture. After thinking about this a lot, I maintain that we're in an age where we don't WANT sympathetic villains. To get a better grasp of what we like in our horror, we have to look at the real world around us. What scares us? Who scares us? Do we sympathize with those who scare us?  Do we sympathize with the Taliban? Al Quaeda? A politician who wants to torture prisoners? A pedophile murderer?

Fuck no, we don't.

And if we don't want to sympathize with our real world villains, then, as a culture, we're not interested in sympathizing with contemporary horror villains either.

There are exceptions to the rule, (aren't there always?) Most notable is Jigsaw from the Saw films... talk about a nasty villain. And on the other hand, talk about a sympathetic guy. He's dying of cancer and wants to fuck with people WHO DESERVE it! But I think where this works is that it plays on our revenge fantasies as much as our fears...

That said, who do you think are the best sympathetic villains? Unsympathetic villains? What horror films were ruined for you because of the villain? Are we living in an age of unsympathetic villains?

And most of all, think about who scares you and why. Because our villains are always the dark side of ourselves...

Gaudium per Atrox.