In a rare turn of events, I got off work early today (woo-hoo!) and had to decide how to occupy my time. I was thinking about a post I could write without re-reading anything, or re-watching anything – so I could just start writing for the sake of writing, and get a post up today before my plans tonight. And it occurred to me that while I’ve talked about evil a lot on this blog, there is a rich pantheon of evil horror characters I’ve never discussed.
One thing is for certain: not all villains are made alike, and not all behave similarly. I thought about this when considering the difference, in Star Wars, between a Vader and a Palpatine. Vader becomes pure evil, but he becomes evil because he falls; the prequels tell us that he was once the promising Jedi, Annakin Skywalker. And ultimately, Vader is redeemed. Palpatine, on the other hand, is more or less bad to the bone, as the cliché song goes. So I started thinking about all the evil horror characters who are insane, who are sympathetic, who have at least strands of humanity that sometimes surmount the darkness and show themselves a bit. And then, I thought of the horror characters that don’t have any of that – no really human tendencies, no back story, few redeeming qualities. For the purposes of this post, these are the characters I’ll label “truly evil,” and I’ve chosen five of them. I couldn’t put these five characters in order, because they’re all pretty damn malicious, but here’s the list, nonetheless, with my explanation: My five favorite truly evil horror characters:
1.) Michael Myers (Halloween): This man spans the border between the human and the monstrous. In the beginning of Halloween, we see him as a toddler, dressed in a macabre clown costume, wielding a gigantic kitchen knife after he’s killed his parents. His fate only worsens: as a madman in a dehumanizing mask, a mask that covers all the defining curvatures and identifiers, the human elements of his face, he repeatedly escapes from mental asylums only to slaughter individuals mercilessly, with no pattern or discretion. What makes him, perhaps, more evil, is his obsession with killing his sister, his tendency to go after Laurie Strode whenever he escapes.
In H20 one detective points to a drawing of Meyers’ face and highlights his black eyes, eyes that, he reclaims, reflect pure evil and are relatively devoid of humanity. As such, Meyers is consistently regarded as the monstrous other in these films; he has the form of a human being, but his incessant, pointless bloodshed categorizes him as a sort of evil monstrosity, someone who wants to wreak havoc on everyone – especially his sister – for the sake of killing. I mean, come on, at least Hannibal Lecter had a motive; he likes to eat his victims. This guy just kills because he enjoys the kill. As such, he becomes the truly evil monstrosity.
It should be noted that during different points in the film series, Laurie Strode gets emotional and shows her love of her brother. Indeed, she sees something human in him. Probably, she sees a very sick individual. And we tend to believe that serial killers are mad. But his madness –the psychology behind his actions—is emphasized far less in the film than the signs of monstrosity he evinces, and the monstrous acts themselves. In sum, this mad monster is one horror hallmark of pure evil.
2.) Ghostface, and the killers behind him (the first Scream): Of course, if you’ve seen the movie, you know their names, and I’ve already given you a huge spoiler if you’ve never seen the movie, because now you know there are two killers. Now, rest assured, I know the name of the killers, but since the mystery is revealed at the end of the film (i.e., it might not be common pop culture knowledge) I’m withholding theme. It’s hard to do, but so be it.
There’s no doubt that the two killers who play ghostface are sick individuals. Indeed, their evilness, their monstrous behavior, might be amplified by the fact that they make a game out of killing individuals, and especially women. They call up women before their intended moment of slaughter to flirt, then to play cheesy pop culture horror quiz games, and then, ultimately, to kill them – and to gut them, placing, often “their insides, on the outside.”
What makes these men particularly monstrous is, again, that they don’t even have a good motive. Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th may be evil, but she’s driven by a sense that she’s attaining justice for her persecuted son by killing the campers. Her need for justice is misplaced – she doles out her revenge on people who had nothing to do with her son’s maltreatment – but she still has a reason to hate young, everyday teenagers who visit the camp site.
One of the killers in this film has a semi-motive for some of his brutal killings, but it doesn’t really explain all of his slaughters. And at the end of the film, the killers are cutting one another up for fun, bathing in blood, cracking jokes and laughing hysterically as they taunt and manipulate their victims. Surely, the delight they derive out of killing, the pure joy of the game they create, makes them not just sick and twisted, but pure evil.
3.) Pazuzu (The Exorcist): In our culture, we tend to make a distinction between the monstrous and the demonic, and Pazuzu, the demon who possesses Regan MacNeil in the Exorcist, definitely embodies the demonic. According to Google, Pazuzu is from Babylonian and Assyrian mythology. As such, he represents a long tradition of Americans taking deities from other religious backgrounds and implementing them into their horror movies, turning them into sinister ghouls (no pun intended, but, see Sinister for an example).
Pazuzu, of course, as a demon, is like a disembodied monster. He only gains a body when he inhabits Regan’s, and then she starts to bear the scars of someone whose flesh is more or less owned by the monster. Her skin changes colors, she vomits pea soup, scratches suddenly appear on her face. In The Exorcist, evil leaves its mark by mutilating (at least temporarily) its primary victim, and injuring or killing some of those around her. What makes Pazuzu worse is that he sees it fit to inhabit a child in this film, slowly tormenting her, causing her, and those around her, all sorts of physical and psychological pain before finally endeavoring to kill her.
One will note, in The Exorcist, that evil is highly manipulative. Pazuzu knows exactly what to say to individuals to “get under their skin,” even as he quite literally gets under Regan’s skin. The things Pazuzu causes Regan to do alarm those around her and make her mother cry. To that end, the evil Pazuzu, more so than other characters examined so far, is particularly interested in causing psychological pain, both to his primary victim, and those around her.
4.) The Overlook Hotel (The Shining): Of course a hotel was going to make my list; how could anyone overlook the Overlook when assessing purely evil figures in horror? I mean, Jack is a force to be contended with, but at least in King’s novel, Jack is a fallen man, and, like the aforementioned Darth Vader, a man worthy of redemption by the end of the film. Even if one argues that he is evil, he’s still vaguely sympathetic as a sort of mad pawn of the Overlook, someone sickened by Cabin fever or the machinations of a manipulative hotel.
The Overlook, on the other hand, has a rich albeit bloody history that it uses for insidious purposes. Its ghosts seem to join together to sort of prey on Danny. Of course, this is a contention that could be argued, but what if the Overlook can be considered one body, operating as a system, like a set of joined organs? That’s how I conceive of it for this piece. The Overlook pulls its resources together – especially in the off months – to terrify families and drive them mad.
Like Pazuzu, the Overlook also preys on children. If the partially decayed resident of Room 237 is regarded as a representative segment, a synecdoche of the hotel itself, then her tendency toward violence against Danny is a strong indicator of the hotel’s malice and wrath. The ghost in room 237 is not just a ghost who lingers, and who haunts. She’s an abusive ghost that bruises, scratches, and traumatizes Danny so much that he temporarily flees from his body, and Tony takes over.
In sum, like Pazuzu, the Overlook is not just a physically violent hotel, but a carefully operating, manipulative hotel, designed to slowly break and madden its victims, to make people feel threatened and helpless, to terrorize and terrify, before it moves in for the kill.
5.) Freddy Kruger (Nightmare on Elm Street): There is perhaps nobody more evil than he who is willing (and able) to enter the dreams of children and torment them before killing them. Fred Kroger’s methodology ensures that exhausted children are awake for nights on end before they finally capitulate and enter dreamland. And then he does it. He moves in for the kill, and all of his slow torture wins, and the kids’ resistance is for naught.
There is really no way to justify merciless, infinite child killing, and the creepy look of satisfaction that comes over Fred’s face when he’s about to make a kill only amplifies his monstrous vileness. To be fair, Kreuger does have a reason, a motive, for his killing; in life, parents got together and killed him, but only because of the harm he’d done to local children.
Fred Kreuger, then – who carries burns and scars on his face like so many evil characters, markers to signify his corruption – is the ultimate hallmark of evil. As someone who was an abusive, malicious child-killer in life, he’s clever enough to re-emerge in death, and stalk kids who had nothing to do with his murders.
As I’ve said multiple times on this blog, in The Faerie Queen, the sleep God Morpheus is often associated with evil, so who better to serve as a quintessentially evil character than the denizen of all your nightmares, the seemingly unstoppable Fred Kreuger? While I hesitate to rank evil characters on this list, of all the potential candidates, Freddy Kreuger, with his handful of fingernail knives, may be the most evil character on this list. Unlike the charming, helpless Norman Bates who develops psychosis and embodies his mother to perform his killings, Fred’s grip on reality is perfectly fine; he knows what he’s doing, and he chooses to do it.
That, then, is my list, and my post for the day. (I have this crazy idea, that’s never going to happen, that I’m going to try to post every day again). Horror is filled with an infinite number of truly evil characters; indeed, far more could be added to the list. But it’s also filled with a lot of sympathetic characters – individuals who may be monsters, but who have become monsters for a reason. These, to me, are very different cases than the basic representations of evil above, and are worthy, I think, of further exploration and their own blog post.
What makes someone evil? What makes someone monstrous? I ask the question all the time on this blog. Brutality, psychological and physical abuse, killing for the sake of killing, with the absence of motive and the absence of any explanatory psychosis (perhaps with those things, but especially without), seems like an apt place to start when we’re thinking of the definition. Such is the case with the characters listed above: these are individuals who have no reason to kill, but they kill anyway. In doing so, they often become either a hallmark of pure evil, or the mad monster himself.