What makes a good villain? It’s a question that countless storytellers and those who enjoy stories have wrestled with. A simple answer is that a good villain is one that’s memorable and sticks in your mind. But what makes a villain memorable? Some villains are funny, some are charismatic, some are menacing, some are relentless, and some are all of these things. But all good villains are formidable and believably menacing.
One of the ways a villain is believably menacing and formidable is by being able to hide their true selves. Many of the most iconic movie villains have a cunning persona that often includes a unique way of disguising one’s appearance.
Star Wars made Darth Vader iconic for his dark helmet and mask that created an unsettling breathing sound, while generations of people have been afraid of clowns thanks to Stephen King’s It. While most people recognize the monster from It as Pennywise the Clown, that is just one of many forms it can take. The title It represents the malleable nature of fear and how it’s both universal and highly individualistic.
Nor is Pennywise the only villain that can take on another form. The Terminator in the original film looks like an ordinary human being and can imitate the voice of anyone. But the more sophisticated T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day can not only do this, it can physically imitate any person it touches.
Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may not be able to physically transform into another person, but he does literally use other people’s flesh to conceal his face. Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) would do the same thing in a much more convincing way to escape from captivity in The Silence of the Lambs. By contrast, the Ghostface mask and costume from the Scream films is so easily available that literally anyone could be behind it, which lends itself to the unique flavor of the movies. Anyone could be behind it, but who is it, and why?
While the Ghostface costume may not illuminate much about whoever wears it, it’s nowhere near as inhuman looking as the Michael Myers mask from Halloween. The pale, blank face is in keeping with how the killer is much more of an otherworldly entity than a person. When Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) asks Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) if whoever attacked her was the boogeyman, and he answers it was, she doesn’t need to ask anything else. The ending credits even list the killer as simply “The Shape” as opposed to a name.
But even if the villain cannot physically transform themselves and is a flesh and blood human, a memorable villain can present themselves as a blank canvas that conceals something far more horrifying. Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects has a lot in common with Michael Myers or any other otherworldly monster because his reputation is highly fueled by legend and whispers. Who is he? What has he done? What did Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) tell the truth about? Kint himself says that Söze became a tale to scare kids, making him in effect the boogeyman just like Michael Myers.
Nor is Pennywise the Clown the only terrifying villain Stephen King has created, as the very human Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) from Misery is just as unsettling. Much like the iconic Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before her, Annie Wilkes hides behind a seemingly pleasant demeanor and the pretense of being a respectable nurse.
These characters are very different in many ways, but one thing they all have in common, besides being iconic villains, is that they represent how evil has numerous faces and can be lurking on any street. It can be literally anything or anyone you can imagine. But the reason the Terminator, Michael Myers, or Leatherface have been remembered with a shudder for decades is because like fear, they are both timely and timeless. People have always been afraid, but what that fear looks like is flexible. Which means that if a villain is still creepy or unsettling to people decades after they first appeared onscreen, then they are truly a good villain.
Grant Butler is the author of the novel The Heroin Heiress and his short fiction has been published in Sick Cruising, Mardi Gras Mysteries, Horror Bites Magazine, Drabbledark II: An Anthology of Dark Drabbles, Dread Space: 23 Dark Military Science Fiction Stories, and The Siren’s Call.