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 Watchmen, Ozymandias 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.