Literary Evil in Film: The Devil You Know

Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs/Orion Pictures
Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs/Orion Pictures

The idea of ultimate evil in horror is something I've wrestled with for years. There's something so incomprehensible about it. It's really frightening. I mean, even humanity's worst monsters had mothers that loved them, jokes that made them laugh, and favorite foods. We can relate to them -- at least at a distance. Ultimate evil, like some kind of Platonic Ideal of evil, is utterly unknowable. It's beyond human understanding at every level, and thus monstrous.

Theologians, philosophers, and psychiatrists have all grappled at one time or another with what defines evil: Is it universal? Relative? Does one become evil through the commission of evil acts, or does one commit evil acts because one is evil? Evil is hard to quantify in any universal sense, but like Justice Potter Stewart said when he was pressed to define obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

Movies and books allow us the luxury of knowing pure evil with little to no risk to ourselves. Hannah Arendt is famous for coining the phrase “the banality of evil” when she was writing about the Holocaust. This encapsulated her belief that most of the evils in the world are committed by perfectly normal-seeming people who believe that they are doing the right thing. Certainly, Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, and perhaps to a greater degree Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiment, seemed to support this premise. Evil in its purest form -- evil for the sake of evil -- is more often the province of art.

Since we’re discussing the psychology of evil, it is perhaps most fitting to begin our examination of literary evil in film with Dr. Hannibal Lecter. While the evil doctor trope isn’t a new one, Lecter is the character who could probably most benefit from Jesus’ admonition, “Physician, heal thyself.”

Lecter, a cannibal and aesthete of exacting taste, doesn’t just stand in contrast to Arendt’s “banality of evil”: he consumes it. For much of author Thomas Harris’ novels (and the films they’ve spawned), Lecter remains a cipher. He murders with seemingly little provocation and in no discernible pattern. It is only in 1999’s Hannibal that we finally receive some small bit of insight into Lecter’s pathology. His caretaker, Barney, reveals that Lecter only eats “the rude.” Lecter despises crudity, duplicity, and banality. Undoubtedly, he’d much prefer to serve the Nazis Arendt was referring to as dinner than to serve alongside them. This isn’t to say that any of the rest of us would be safe around Lecter: I do not doubt that most of humanity would fall short of his twisted moral standards, if not his palate. Lecter is beyond the petty evil of this world. He is a true monster -- a monster in human form. This is why he’s so terrifying: We expect certain things from him -- pathos, empathy -- and he’ll never deliver them. He has no “human” side, and is thus a complete work of incomprehensible, terrifying fiction. He is Death with a human mask.

Of course, there are monsters and then there are monsters -- the supernatural kind. From Old Scratch to Jason Voorhees, people have thrilled to stories of things beyond our mortal ken. Ironically, supernatural evil is the easiest form to understand. We don’t expect Dracula or Satan to love puppies and have a Great Aunt they visit every Sunday in the nursing home. We expect malevolence from them, and they deliver.

Stephen King is responsible for no small number of instances of pure evil in book and film. The Stand’s Randall Flagg is a force of pure corruption: Not only is he intent on bringing plague and death to the earth’s masses, he is also interested in leading men and women into personal damnation as well. Angry nerd Harold Lauder falls victim to the pleasures of the flesh -- and a self-inflicted gunshot to the head -- under Flagg’s Faustian influence. Nadine Cross, Flagg’s chosen concubine, only escapes his clutches by provoking him into killing her. Flagg is Satan, a corrupter of the flesh and the spirit, and a source of ultimate evil ... an Ur-Evil, if you will. Seen in this light, King’s other creations -- while truly horrific -- are mere voices in the infernal choir. It’s Pennywise is utterly terrifying, but all he really wants to do is consume you; so do lions. The Shining’s Jack Torrance is an abusive alcoholic driven mad by cabin fever, ghosts, or both to kill his family. It’s terrible, but regardless of what drives Torrance, he is another example of the banality of evil. Flagg’s plans are of a more eschatonic nature: He is the End Times made flesh.

While most of us fear the kind of apocalyptic future that Flagg would bring, others would hasten it. Ira Levin’s brilliant feminist horror story Rosemary’s Baby, later adapted by Roman Polanski (who might deserve his own spot in an essay on the nature of evil, but I digress), depicts a young woman impregnated by the devil and forced to carry his child. Rosemary, played by a young Mia Farrow, tries desperately to regain control of her body with every attempt thwarted by those around her -- her seemingly kind neighbors, her doctor, even her husband. All of them are determined to see Satan’s child born; Rosemary herself is just a receptacle. In the end, the baby is born and Rosemary has been reduced to a broken, hollow thing. Good news, though: “He has his father’s eyes!” Released in 1968, five years prior to Roe vs. Wade, "Rosemary’s Baby" resonated with the concerns of a new, young generation of women just coming into their own womanhood and beginning to question the traditional roles society had assigned to them.

"The Omen," released in 1976, was a variant on the changeling, a popular fairytale motif. While in Rome, the newborn son of Robert Thorn, played by the great Gregory Peck, and his wife both die shortly after childbirth. Father Spiletto, a Roman Catholic priest, pressures Thorn to adopt an infant whose own mother died at the same time as his wife. After a series of fatal accidents, Thorn begins to suspect that there is something very wrong about his adopted son Damien, and eventually discovers that he has adopted the Anti-Christ. Damien, like Rosemary’s baby, are both born into evil. They can no sooner change this than a tiger can change his stripes. Again, this kind of evil, despite its obvious fictionality, is in some ways more easily understood: We don’t expect anything better of them. It is also less frightening. We look at someone like Jack Torrance -- or even a John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer -- and think, “How could someone do something like this?” The question is all the more chilling if we really consider the implication of the words of the Latin writer Terentius: “I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me.”

The famed psychologist Carl Jung wrote about something he called the shadow self: This was the dark part of the human soul, our repressed weaknesses and worst instincts. We deny the shadow, attempt to negate it, but it always comes out. We project our own evil impulses unto others. We carry evil within us. Perhaps the reason that we find evil in popular entertainment so fascinating -- so frightening -- is because it serves as a distorted mirror, reflecting and exaggerating the parts of ourselves that we’d as soon pretend do not exist.