What was the first evil thing you loved? People interpret the word ‘evil’ in many ways, but I think you know the one I mean. Think about the first time you, as a little child, watched an animated film or flipped through the pages of a children’s book and saw something dark that you felt drawn to.
The first evil thing to thrill me was probably Chernobog from Disney’s Fantasia. Anyone who’s seen the film could probably tell you why. The beautiful animation, anxious but thrilling music, and dark imagery blend into something truly terrifying. I was five or six, and my grandmother was doing her best to indoctrinate me into a hellfire Baptist church. I knew the scene with ‘satan’ probably shouldn’t be my favorite in a film filled with cute centaurs and ballet dancing hippopotamuses, but it was. It just was, and I couldn’t have told you why.
There are other candidates for my first favorite villain. They form a pantheon in my mind. I loved Smaug from the Rankin/Bass Hobbit film, and the red wizard Ommadon and his devil dragon Bryagh from The Flight of Dragons, a lesser known fantasy film by the same company. Then, of course, there was Maleficent. I put them all together not just because of their old-school animation aesthetics, but because I have a hard time truly remembering which one I saw first.
Soon came Jafar, Scar, Frollo, and all the other Disney renaissance villains, just in time for the prime part of my Disney-watching childhood. I became one of the kids who cheered for the T-rex to eat Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum. I preferred King Ghidora to Godzilla. You know, that kind of kid.
How many of you were that kind of kid? Some of you, I’m sure. Don’t lie.
I’m talking about it like this is some sort of harmful secret, but it’s really not. The love of evil is common in fiction. Don’t get me wrong – I love my heroes, too. More often than not, I still want the heroes to win. It’s fun for our most beloved antagonists to get a win here and there, but even as a child, I smiled when the sun banished Chernobog back into Bald Mountain.
What is it that fascinates us about evil, and what does that say about us? There is a piece of common writerly wisdom that answers this question with a lot of clarity. In a mechanical sense, it’s logical to love the villain, because they are the one who moves the story. In most works of fiction, the villains are the ones who take the first action, and whose actions the heroes react to through most of the plot. By all traditional laws of writing, the villain is the one who makes things happen. Why wouldn’t they be magnetic?
I could write a whole essay on this idea alone, but I’m not going to. Others have done that in far greater detail than I care to, and much better than I likely could. I’m a person who likes to write and read, and who loves a good story in general, but I’m not a film scholar or a book critic. This concept answers our question perfectly well, and we could probably stop at that. But I don’t want to. I want to add just a little more.
This explains why we love villains from a logical sense, but a large part remains rooted in emotion. We love villains in fiction because we are fascinated by evil in real life. That’s not a radical idea, and I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear my suggest it. What I wonder is how the concept of plot initiation dominates the more academic side of the conversation, when browsing any villain hashtag on Twitter or Tumblr will yield just as many posts praising villains for their aesthetics as their actions.
Humans love darkness. It’s as simple as that. Evil has a natural allure, which isn’t to say that fascination is the same as condoning it. We can see darkness for what it is and still want to know more. Something inside us gravitates towards it. We love picking apart evil people, real or fictional, and knowing every detail of their lives, their pasts, and how their minds work. We want to know about their motivations and their desires. We want to know everything.
Need proof? Think about any notorious crime. Now think about how much you know about the perpetrator versus how much you know about the victims. Right now, there is a sound movement to stop disclosing personal information about mass murderers in the news and instead focus on honoring the victims. Identify the killers only by number. Don’t give them the notoriety they crave. I think it’s a good idea, and I support it.
But you know what? If it actually came into practice, the darker part of me would be insatiably curious. I’d want to know, and I’d be angry that I couldn’t.