26 January 2007
Here's a thought: What exactly is it that makes people think an individual looks evil, even if the individual in question isn�t necessarily a bad person at all? You've probably noticed it happening here and there - an idle remark that some stranger on television or the bus just looks downright sinister, even without being cloaked in black or laughing megalomaniacally. In order for this sort of stereotype to have been perpetuated, though, there must have been an awful lot of evil folk with similar characteristics to create the stereotype - or at least a couple that left a really big impact - since that is typically where stereotypes come from. It's not like people form prejudices and generalisations out of thin air, after all. Even if it might be slightly unfair to those folk who fit the stereotype but aren't actually evil, I thought it might be interesting to observe society�s perception of the 'face of evil' and actually nail it down to a few defining characteristics. Whether or not there is an actual correlation between these characteristics and a person's inherent malevolence will have to be a topic for another blog, however.
For the purpose of this study, we'll be focusing on seven different images of both historical and fictional villains. The historical ones for obvious reasons, and the fictional ones because they have been crafted to society's perception of evil, and are thus the quickest and most efficient means of summarising the prejudice. The seventh picture will provide the control for the experiment.
Our first candidate: Hitler.
Yes, it's an obvious choice. You're hard pressed to find someone who would disagree with Hitler's villainy. Heck, the name 'Hitler' has practically become synonymous with 'evil'.
From this portrait, the defining features seem to deep wrinkles under his eyes, a small and neatly trimmed moustache, side-parted hair, a dimpled chin and a lot of frown creases. I guess you don�t really expect most villains to be the happy sort. If they were, they'd probably be a little less inclined to order the deaths of millions.
Our second candidate: Pol Pot
Do you have any idea of how hard it is to find pictures of Pol Pot? For a guy who was leader of Cambodia for a number of years and killed about two million of his own people in his quest for a utopian society, there were like, six of them. And three of those were from when he was an old man.
I tried to choose a picture from the time when Pol Pot was most active, and therefore theoretically most evil. His eyes seem sort of uneven, but that could just be bad photography. They�re sort of beady, too. His chin looks a big strange. The only other really stand out characteristic is that his eyebrows are practically non-existent. He has a couple of frown wrinkles, supporting my unhappy villains theory, but he�s not yet old enough in this photograph for them to be terribly obvious.
On to candidate the third: Stalin
Exactly how evil Stalin was is widely contested among historians, but it's believed that he was responsible for the death of somewhere between 3 million and 60 million Russians. Yeah, that's a pretty big range, but somebody has to give those historians something to do. Either way, we can safely say that the public at large would probably be relatively happy to slap him with 'evil' status.
So, he's sporting a proud, neatly trimmed moustache, thickset eyebrows, a slightly split chin, straight nose, and the suggestion of bags under his eyes, which also look a little beady.
For the fourth candidate, we move onto fictional villains. And there's no fictional villain quite so notorious as Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars.
This guy was so bad that he managed to actually succeed in his ploy to overtake the galaxy and wipe out his enemies, bar a small handful. He was even indirectly responsible for the destruction of an entire planet. Palpatine just reeked evil, and not just because of his ominous black cloak, either.
When you look at a picture of Emperor Palpatine, the thing that really stands out is all of the wrinkles and the deep, sunken bags under his eyes. Also, the lack of eyebrows, and his heavily dimpled chin. His eyes are rimmed red and coloured gold, which certainly gives him something of a reptilian look.
Sticking with popular mainstream villains that everybody knows about, the next candidate is Voldemort from the Harry Potter series.
I'm not going to bother introducing He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to you, as most everyone knows how evil this guy is.
This wasn't the most flattering picture I could find of him, but the rest had such dramatic lighting that it just seemed like cheating. As you can see, he's pretty distinct looking. The main features are the lack of hair, bad teeth, sunken, shadowed reptilian eyes and absence of a proper nose. Now I sincerely wish that the other candidates were baring their teeth, so we could see if bad teeth is a feature at all. Sadly, when villains are smiling something terrible is usually happening and people aren't really thinking about taking photos.
Sixth candidate is Magneto from X-Men. Specifically, the movie version of him.
Being clad completely in black, complete with cape, helps, but putting that and the outstretched hand aside (has anyone else noticed the 20% increase in evil whenever a person outstretches their hand in such a fashion?) Magneto was a pretty effective villain. He wasn't quite as succesful as others, but certainly had ambition.
So, Sir Ian MacKellan (playing Magneto quite convincingly) has a lot of wrinkles. The most stand out ones seem to be those deep bags under his eyes and his somewhat craggy chin. His features overall are very straight, and he has a devil's peak in his hair. I was totally expecting more villains to be sporting devil�s peak hairdos, but that was sadly not the case. Maybe I should have included Dracula in this study, but Dracula's wickedness has become contentious over time with the popularisation of vampire stories.
Our seventh and final picture serves as the control for this study - someone who looks evil without having the 'evil' background to propagate the mental bias. This is pivotal in defining society's image of evil at large, as it is indicative of which physical features have been picked out over time as those which fit the stereotype most closely.
Can you guess who it is?
Indeed, it is Pope Benedict XVI. Admittedly his case isn't being helped out at all in this picture with the outstretched hand, but most people agree that he LOOKS evil, despite general consensus is that he probably isn't, being Pope and all, thus absolving him of the 'evil' bias.
He�s old and wrinkled, which seems to be an emerging theme. The thing that most people pick out straight away is the eyes, though. Check out how shadowed they are - they've sunk halfway into his skull! He also seems to be missing eyebrows, or perhaps they are just translucent, like polar bear fur. I wonder if the Catholic Church stopped to think about their image when he was nominated to become the new Pope. They've been having publicity issues lately, and it can't help your case any when most of the Earth's population first impression of the Church's new leader is that of a classic villain. It doesn't matter if it's true or not - first impressions STICK.
So, what was there in common? From these results, it seems that the face of evil is an elderly male with a lot of wrinkles, deep bags under their eyes, and a craggy chin. Bonus points if they are lacking eyebrows. I expect wearing a lot of black in dramatic lightning and outstretching their hand takes care of the rest, but we already knew that. Still, that profile doesn't seem quite as threatening as you'd expect. You could probably wander into the average old folks home and find evil-looking people left and right.
I'm not sure what exactly this proves. But it's interesting none-the-less. The real question still remains; has entertainment shaped our perception of the face of villainy, or is that face in entertainment merely reflecting that perception? Now that I've stuck you in a chicken-and-egg paradox, I'm off to bed.