Why villains need horror

I had a bit of a revelation a few months ago.

I don’t consider myself a horror writer. In fact, I can only read straight horror about once a year, at Halloween. And even then, I only do psychological thrillers. (Turn of the Screw is still excellent.)

Then somebody remarked about my fanfics, how the mind control aspects that one character dealt with ‘was such excellent horror’. It had never crossed my mind that this was horror. I was writing about the abuse of technology, and using it to make for some really excellent conflict.

Then I read Mike Duran’s Christian Horror: On the compatibility of a Christian Worldview and the Horror Genre. It was really eye-opening for me. Basically, horror is just sin, and the punishment of sin. In horror movies, there’s always a monster or a killer to overcome. Werewolves, zombies, and vampires are all staples of horror because they are a corruption of humanity.

While I don’t like to read a straight up horror novel, having some horror elements is like adding extra spice. You say you have a hero who animates zombies? Or a hero who is a werewolf and wrestling with his monstrous nature? Tell me more!

Kids books often have an element of horror. How about that moment in the first Harry Potter book when Quirrell unwraps his turban?

quirrell

Oh yeah, deliciously horrifying. Or how about any of N.D. Wilson’s villains? In Outlaws of Time, the bad guy has interdimensional graveyards where he buries the bodies of people he has killed multiple times, and he visits them often. It’s creepy and awful.

But then, the villain isn’t a threat without some kind of horror. Look at every Marvel villain ever made. There’s an element of horror to everything they do and represent. They want to do truly awful things on a large scale, which is why the heroes have to stop them.

In my last story, I essentially did the chest-bursting scene from Alien. It was to underscore just how bad the villain was. It also turned another villain into an anti-hero. It was gross and awful, but it was also a huge turning point. The horror was necessary to drive the characters into the final confrontation.

So, what happens is, I find myself subconsciously studying horror. Not because I enjoy it, so much, but because it’s how you make your villains scary. You don’t want to overdo it, of course, but … if your villain’s not scary, then he’s not a good villain.

My husband and I have been watching an anime called My Hero Academia. Basically it’s Hogwarts for teen superheroes. It has all the interpersonal conflicts and cool power combos that I love seeing from my superhero fiction.

But the villains, in particular, are outright horrifying. There’s this one guy who is covered in severed hands. If he touches you with one of them, he disintegrates you. But when he gets upset, he loses control and starts scratching his neck like a tweaker. He’s scary as heck and also weirdly fascinating. Again, the horror element comes into play. It’s both the frightening appearance, and the kind of threat he represents.

badtouch

So … I’ve been pondering my own relationship with the horror genre. I do enjoy many aspects of it. I mean, how else can you paint evil as evil? I don’t think I can ever write anything that is straight horror, because I tend to laugh at it. But a little bit used here and there? It becomes a delicious spice to add to the main dish of the rest of the story.

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2 thoughts on “Why villains need horror

  1. Horror can definitely be utilized to signal a character as villainous–though that can also be used to subvert reader expectations as well. An older example I read is Wilkie Collins’ “Woman in White,” where the titular character is set up to be a horror-style ghost–but she’s not the antagonist. The actual antagonist actually has nothing horrific about him; he’s polite, amiable, with a fondness for gaudy rings and small animal companions. I’ve seen other books pull similar tricks, where the villain is the character who’s actually less horrific (such as Watchmen, Neverwhere, etc.)

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