Of Romanticizing Villains
This is a long, weighty topic, and I won’t be able to do it justice here. Still, recent discussions on my and other blogs about this topic demand something at least slightly thought out, and I might as well start thinking. As my readers may know, I frequently extoll the virtues of gothic heroines who are strong enough to say no to the dark side, and despair of the many adaptations of Dracula which miss the point and turn the titular villain into a hero.
That said, I could not have devoted so much of my time to thinking and writing about monsters if I didn’t, on some level, find them kind of cool.
There’s a couple different levels to this. There are intentionally sympathetic villains (Frankenstein and his creature, Sweeney Todd, the Phantom of the Opera), irredeemable but charming villains (Mrs. Lovett, Hannibal Lecter, Steerpike) and villains whose darkness is itself the fascination (Dracula, Mr. Teatime, Lady Macbeth.) Attraction to the first two categories may be more easily understandable, but the third category still has its appeal.
Why? Well, several reasons. I don’t intend to go into a long discourse here about submissive urges, rape fantasies, or violence itself as a kink- I’m no sociology major, and I’d be here all day if I tried. (Though if crusherling ever ends up writing that piece about sadomasochism and villain-crushes, I’ll be the first to read it!) Instead, I’d like to talk about appropriate and ill-advised ways to go about romanticizing villains if we must- and to a certain extent, many of us do.
Let’s say you think that Dracula’s hair in Waxworks is a thing of beauty, and put aside your better judgement to imagine running your fingers through it. Or let’s say you’re a fan of classic Dark Shadows, and much as you don’t want Maggie to be brainwashed or murdered you still want Barnabas to hang around some more, threatening the lives of small children. Neither of these reactions are wrong, for the characters were created to be charismatic as they are evil, but even if they hadn’t been, there’s no rule against enjoying the presence of a character the author intended to be loathsome.
Feeling swept away by a commanding presence is very human, and strong evil can be much more glamorous on screen than in real life. So by all means, swoon over villains and don’t feel guilt over whether you’d want them in the real world. The problem, in my opinion, comes when enjoyment turns to excuses. When we wave away all the bad things villains do, or pretend they didn’t do it, this not only does a disservice to the story but to our own enjoyment- if villainy is the reason for our fondness in the first place, why do away with it? Why must filmakers insist on a noble, romantic Dracula when that character’s entire dark mystique comes from what a powerful figure of evil he is?
Let us enjoy our villains for what they are. This may mean examining their more sympathetic sides, glorying in their downfalls, wishing you could dance with them in a grand ballroom or that you were the one to shove a stake through their heart. Staying true to the characters is all that I urge- with that in mind, let’s continue to have fun with darkness.
I think it’s very possible that a lot of these filmmakers just don’t understand the Gothic mode and why it’s so appealing; a lot of them (as well as other writers) have given in to this silly notion that characters have to be sympathetic and “human” in order to be likable— there’s this huge emphasis today on making characters “likable,” which apparently involves the stripping away of any semblance of a distinct personality so that the character is as generic as possible :P
On the other hand, I suppose it’s possible that some are just afraid to represent these villains as they truly are, since they don’t want to be accused of “glorifying evil”; I think it must bother some people when they see how much we love these villains and how much we enjoy watching them terrorize others— but these people are really misunderstanding the Gothic. The Gothic mode was heavily influenced by Romantic aesthetics— especially Burke’s notion of the sublime and the beautiful— and most if not all of these Gothic villains (even in later Gothic works) can be seen as “sublime” figures.
In his treatise on the sublime and the beautiful, Burke says that “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.” Of course, Burke also goes on to say that something must be modified or mediated in order to be sublime; one must be removed from the situation— an observer— so that he is unaffected by and safe from whatever the terrible situation might be, otherwise the situation cannot be appealing to one’s senses and it is simply “terrible.” One of the more interesting points that Burke makes, though, is that, for all we praise beauty, we find the sublime even more appealing— we like things that are dark, unknown, and frightening when we recognize that we’re at a safe distance and that we can’t be hurt by them (this might explain why we’re so captivated by all these horrible stories in the news). We’re separated from our Gothic villains by the pages in their books, and we know that they’re fictional and that they pose no real danger to us, so it’s very easy to fantasize about them and enjoy watching them do horrible things. A lot of filmmakers either don’t understand this or are just afraid to acknowledge it (and what it might reveal about human nature).