What does evil look like?

The way we picture evil is often unhelpful. When we imagine something wicked and full of vice, we tend to use inaccurate visual shorthand. All too often we think of evil as something ugly, dark and scary. We see it as something that leaves a mark on your flesh, that you can detect in other people by how they look. The presumption that what is on the outside matches with what is on the inside brought us the study of physiognomy (now thoroughly discredited), which sought to assess someone’s character by their outward appearance. This basic desire is still at work in all of us today.

Examples are all around us in popular culture. In Die Another Day, Zao‘s face has been scarred with diamonds – his evil acts are very literally written on his face. The orcs in The Lord of the Rings are another good example of how one’s moral state is reflected in one’s appearance. Sauron created the orcs by corrupting and torturing elves, and as they became evil, so they became physically repulsive.  The chieftan Gothmog in the Peter Jackson films, with his tumorous face, is a particularly strong example of this. Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars is a ghoulish, withered figure; his body and spirit drained by his evil. In the original version of The Empire Strikes Back, Palpatine was played by an elderly actress wearing a mask with chimpanzee eyes superimposed. Following the creation of Episodes I-III, Mc Diarmid now plays Palpatine. In both cases the intention is the same. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the demon Balthazar is a horrific, corpulent, bloated character. His disgusting physical form is code for his indulgent vice. Voldemort in the Harry Potter films is depicted as a terrifying nose-less snake-like creature. The image of the disfigured witch is common around halloween.

These visual strategies all make sense. We are conditioned to find certain physical characteristics repulsive, and films trade on this when they depict evil characters. Our revulsion at these characters is an almost primal reaction, rather than a calculated, complicated moral stance. But this way of thinking trains us to see evil in the wrong places.

This kind of thinking – equating proportion with beauty with goodness, and equating that which is not attractively proportioned with evil – means that we get it wrong when we encounter people that we find physically unattractive. The elderly or the disabled do not always meet with our vision of beauty-goodness, and we find them threatening as a result. This is a massive problem.  Joseph Merrick – the subject of David Lynch’s excellent The Elephant Man – was highly deformed, and as such was displayed in freak shows as a terrifying creature. Lynch’s film conveyed the gulf between his physical appearance and his beautiful character. Similarly, we have been conditioned to find young people wearing sportswear ugly and threatening, and cannot easily see beyond their hoodies. This is even a problem for our political leaders, with Gordon Brown‘s bedraggled, almost sinister, face not playing as well with voters as David Cameron‘s more rounded and maternal appearance.

We expect images of paedophiles and murderers to look evil and abnormal, as a comforting sign that they are totally different to the rest of us, allowing us to believe that humanity as a whole is not wretched and irredeemable. So the media supplies us with sinister photographs showing us the face of evil so that we can see it as something completely apart from us. Just as we can unthinkingly hate ugly, evil film characters, so we can hate these images of dangerous criminals. But this makes us less able to notice and tackle evil around us. Evil is insidious and does not have a simple face.

There are depictions of evil that convey its seductive power. These, I would argue, are more truthful than anything scary, ugly and repulsive.

In Snow White , the evil Queen is a beautiful woman who uses deception to try and kill Snow White. In some of the concept art for Star Wars: Episode One, Darth Maul was depicted with a beautiful halo of feathers. In the Warhammer universe, the Chaos god Slaanesh uses sensual decadence to gain power and spread corruption. One of his champions – Sigvald the Magnificent – is an alluring figure. In The WatchmenOzymandias is a striking, tall blonde, with impressive physique and intellect:

I would argue that evil is something that seduces you against yourself, and makes you willingly turn away from positive ends, towards a false imagined good, rather than something that makes you run in fear. It is not so much a problem that we can see in other people but a flaw in ourselves. Be wary of desire rather than terror.

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4 Responses to What does evil look like?

  1. Dologan says:

    Interesting that you should lump Ozymandias with all the rest of unambiguously evil characters. I think I would quite disagree with that. In my view, he could even be regarded as somewhat of an anti-hero. That’s one of the things that makes Watchmen so good. Nothing is really black and white.

    I know, I’m late to spot this particular post of you.

  2. Dologan says:

    In any case, I think the reason why we tend to associate ugliness or scariness with evil is that, in general, it tends to make a pretty good guess. In fact, it’s likely that we have evolved to identify as “evil” precisely the looks that happen to often reflect danger. Creatures frowning, making aggressive noises and baring sharp teeth at you are quite likely not to have any good intentions towards you. Ignoring this fact is likely to lead to your premature removal from the gene pool. We have probably come to identify even subtler cues than that too.
    Of course, false positives and false negatives will always exist, but that is the hazard of any “automatic” approximation. We’re probably better off with it in the end, though.

  3. I’d agree with you on the evolutionary point. I guess that’s why it’s something that can be drawn upon so easily.

    I definitely take your point on Ozymandias. I included him here because he fit well with my argument that perhaps evil is about earnestly striving for the wrong end, or in the wrong way.

  4. Jim says:

    Evil is a part of a soul that can only be understood in real life. I have never seen it captured in a painting or movie. It goes beyond the visual stereotypes.
    I saw true evil once and only once in real life in a person. It lacks any empathy for other life animal or human and is emotionally mad and cant be rationed with…It is scary down to your bones.

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