Monday, April 12, 2010

What Makes The Villain Scary

I just did an interview with writer Olivia Collette on what makes certain characters in films truly frightening. She and I felt that - instead of stereotyped evil-doers like Freddy Kruger or Michael Myers - the more ordinary and average the villain, the more frightening they become. Think Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, Vito Coreleone in The Godfather, Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, or Ruth Gordon in Rosemary's Baby...

Psychologically speaking, the reason that the ordinary person gives us goosebumps is because we are all human and complex. When we discover that someone just like us can do evil, terrifying things, it becomes unsettling.

I like my villains to have a depth and breadth that comes close to portraying the human experience. I find the slasher, psychopathic characters stigmatizing and demeaning to those of us who have mental illness. In fact, research supports that on-screen portrayals of villains as one dimensional has a negative effect on the public's perception of people with mental illness.

Incidentally, I've written a psychological suspense novel with an antagonist that is complex, quite human and certainly evil. But there's no stereotyping or stigmatizing of mental illness there.

Pirkis, J., Blood, R., Francis, C., & McCallum, K. (2006). On-Screen Portrayals of Mental Illness: Extent, Nature, and Impacts Journal of Health Communication, 11 (5), 523-541 DOI: 10.1080/10810730600755889


Ian Lidster said...

Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds was utterly chilling and the Oscar was well-deserved in what I thought was otherwise a vastly overrated film. Likewise, Hannibal Lecter excells in conveying terror,even though I think those films are horrible

Dr. Deb said...

Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs book and film was a wonderful character. Hans Landa was so evil and polite. Chillingly great.

Nicholas said...

I would elaborate on that a bit: what made Hans Landa and Hannibal Lecter frightening to me is that they were fundamentally unpredictable. They hide their villain behind a charming facade, or an educated exterior, and it's never clear until they strike whether they're going to spare their victim or let him go. Unlike simpler villains, you never know where you stand with these guys, and so you're never certain how afraid to be. Consider Joe Pesci's character in 'Goodfellas'--when Ray Liotta laughs at him, we can't tell if he's genuinely flying off the handle, or just kidding. The inability to distinguish between the two is what costs Spider his life.

And by this token, I have to say I don't consider Don Corleone at all scary. He might be an evil man who resorts to violent means, but he does so with a logical purpose, "it's not personal, it's business." Someone like that can certainly be dangerous, but they are not as unpredictable as a Landa or a Lecter.

Xmichra said...

i think the point of scary for me, is to make a character that is so smart, they are scary.

Intellect and education are sometimes very freaky vehicles in a persona, especially if it feeds on our own inferior feelings.

Lector and Landa were both in that realm for me. It wasn't that they were monstrous to look at. it wasn't that they were rude and crude. it was that they ate with a napkin, were charming and well spoken, and could make your skin crawl from behind a smile.

and in that sense, I almost think the difference is that a diabolical character is more scary than a person who has no rhyme or reason to what they are doing. It's the guy/gal who thinks they are totally fine and above you intellectually that makes me flinch.

Dr. Deb said...

Excellent points. Being predictable makes us feel safe. We can anticipate what comes next because there is a constant pattern. Anything that's not predictable *is* scary. That is why Landa is scarer than Corleone.

YEs. Being evil AND clever make for chilling effects.

kenju said...

I cannot watch movies with characters like that.

jumpinginpuddles said...

Personally i apart from my background the scariest villans have alwasy been animals e.g the birds, outbreak etc etc, perhaps physcoliggally we perhaps think the fact they cant talk and have a language of their own is far more scarier

Shannon E. Kennedy said...

I just found you - following you... Finally a blog that stimulates emotion and intellect

Dr. Deb said...

I can totally understand. There are things I cannot watch or read and so I keep my distance and find well being that way.

We all have our unique experiences, don't we. Outbreak was waaay scary.

Following you too. Your family story is quite moving.

Rose said...

I am just plain scary and can not look at any scary stuff. It bothers me at night, and all through the day. It doesn't matter if the person is ordinary or what- I have so much fear I feel as if I will pass out. I only watch comedy and some comtemporary drama.

Dr. Deb said...

I can't watch religious supernatural movies. They frighten me. So i can relate to your no-watch rule. Comedies are wonderful, dramas can be riveting, but supernatural movies are not on my radar!

Rita - Supporting Safer Healthcare said...

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