What Makes a Horror Villain Interesting

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Posted on May 3, 2017

The post generated well over a hundred comments, many of which were less than pleasant towards me, which is something I fully expected and have no problem with. However, it made me realize that there needs to be a broader discussion about horror characters, specifically villains, in general and what we should expect from them. After all, while horror is great when it brings a body count, the really memorable moments aren’t the kills but the killers themselves. In order for that to happen, the villains have to be memorable and they have to give us reason to want to return to them.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite villain introductions ever, especially because we get a taste (no pun intended) of his horrific deeds before we even see his face. Jack Crawford warns Clarice Starling about his ability to manipulate and deceive, saying she doesn’t want Hannibal Lecter inside her head. Then Dr. Chilton shows her photographs of a nurse that was assaulted by Lecter, supposedly destroying her face. We see none of these photos. We don’t even know what he looks like up until Starling walks down that hallway and the camera exposes us to him, standing like a statue amidst his beautiful drawings.

What we end up witnessing is a character who is urbane, charming, well-spoken, and attentive to details. But there are glimmers of his madness in everything he does. It’s the way he looks at Clarice and barely blinks. It’s how he tucks his head so that he looks at her from beneath his brow. It’s how he tries, and succeeds (although she’ll never admit it), to scare her with his notoriety and his stories. We all know the fava beans and chianti story not because of those details but because of his iconic “Ffffff” sound afterwards.

All of this is what makes Lecter so interesting and fascinating. He is obviously a terrifying monstrosity yet his presentation and writing allows him to be playful, to lull viewers into a sense of safety. It’s at those points that Lecter decides to strike, exposing his psychotic genius and revealing how much we should actually fear him. It’s because of all of that that I find myself constantly drawn to his tales. so that might have to change soon. However, the original is where it’s at and I will always be in awe of how brilliantly Norman Bates is built up.

Bates is seemingly the picture perfect example of awkward innocence. He works at the motel that his mother owns because he wants to remain close to her, even though he hates what she’s become. It’s only during the above scene that we get a suspicion that there is something wrong with Norman. It’s when he leans forward and says, “You mean an institution? A madhouse?” Suddenly there is an intensity, a confidence that we haven’t seen in him until that point. The music rises sinisterly and we suddenly have a different person altogether on the screen, one that Marion Crane fears instead of treating almost like a child.

What Anthony Perkins brings to Norman is a sophisticated and nuanced performance that goes from a simpleton to a sharp and angry wordsmith that has clearly experienced pain and trauma to a deceiver and manipulator and, finally, to a broken individual, one that clearly isn’t well. It’s the performance of a lifetime and the creation of a character that still haunts viewers to this dayWhat I’m saying with these examples is that time and consideration was taken into building these characters, into making them interesting. I still stand by my statement that Jason Voorhees is a boring character because the only story we have of him is that he nearly drowned as a child, somehow kept that secret from his mother, and then began killing people once his mother was killed herself. There’s nothing of substance there, nothing that we can allow ourselves to relate to.

Hell, Jason’s mother is a far more interesting character! She’s a single mother to a hydrocephalic child who loves him with all her heart. After all, he’s mommy’s special little boy. His loss pushes her to violence, to kill those that she feels robbed her of a child. That parental grief and that unwillingness to let go of her mourning and anger after so many years gives her a foundation upon which her murderous rampage is understandable, although not agreeable.

Personally, I’ve always felt that the first Friday the 13th was the strongest in the series, simply because it had an interesting villain. I’d take a new movie about Pamela any day over a new Jason flick. Well, that is unless they decide to give Jason a reason to be interesting and not just a tool that’s an extension of his mother’s rage.

Give me villains that have depth. Give me villains that have reason. Give me villains that make me question my own character as I find myself cheering them on. After all, realizing that a bit of myself can be found in someone like Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter is what’s really scary.