Humanity has experienced a love, hate relationship with villany for many, many centuries. In contemporary culture, we have a host of villains from whom to choose.
There are the blatantly horrifying ones like Norman Bates from “Psycho”, or Phyllis Dietrichson of “Double Indemnity”. There are cartoonish villains such as the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard Of Oz”. And there are some who are almost loveable in their personification of a movie’s bad guy. My personal, all time favorite villain is Hedley Lamarr from “Blazing Saddles”.
Plenty of us humans are more interested in the bad guy characters of stories and screenplays than we are in the heroes. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps because the villains are generally complex characters. I don’t count the psychopaths and monsters in extreme horror films. I can’t stomach extreme horror anyway. But in drama, fiction and history, the villains are far more interesting people.
I don’t discount some of the more famous heroes of cinema like T.E. Lawrence in “Lawrence of Arabia” or Detective Harry Callahan in “Dirty Harry”. But I might like those heroes because they exhibit complexity and have enough of the dark side mixed into their characters. Well, I do have an exception and that is the hero from “Blazing Saddles”, the character “Bart” is completely loveable and is completely good. (You can probably tell that I like Mel Brooks movies.)
My view about our fascination with bad guys, is that they personify the hidden or shadow part we each have in our minds. I think of the complexity of the villain in “2001-A Space Odyssey”, HAL 9000 (computer). HAL is a very likeable character. It is totally devoted to the success of the mission. HAL gets really creepy when the completion of the mission is given prevalence over the lives of the ship’s crew. Hal tugs at the heartstrings when the memory cards are being disconnected. When HAL struggles through the ditty, “singing in the rain”, it’s almost too much to bear.
Throughout history, we have examples of complex bad guy figures. Ghengis Khan, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot to name a few. The 20th Century’s two most infamous dictators are noteworthy because of their proximity to our own times. They are also the most interesting villains because we have access to their in depth biographies.
While good guy, Winston Churchill has a great, complex character study, the interest in Churchill is far and away eclipsed by our enthrallment over Adolf Hitler. Even though Hitler is considered to be the personification of absolute evil, he did have other qualities. He was patriotic, charismatic and he adored dogs.
The same for Josef Stalin. His roots were embedded in Orthodox Christianity but his villainy was on par with Hitler’s, but he was supposedly a good family man.
If we stop and think about our sometime cheering on of the bad guy in a movie, we can learn something about our own shadow personality. Why do we feel something positive when Darth Vader appears in “Star Wars”? Why do I like both Hedley Lamarr and Bart in the Mel Brooks film? Why do books about the Third Reich consistently rank in the best seller lists when published?
What is going on in our heads?
The Blue Jay of Happiness wonders why we feel an affinity for Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in the “Bonnie and Clyde” movie.