The Semiotics of Evil
What is evil?
In the postmodern Western world, evil is something that has become almost robbed of its ability to horrify us. Increased global communication and knowledge inure our responsiveness with a daily news diet of ‘evils’. In entertainment, with many of the anti-heroes of TV being serial killers or sociopaths, we’re becoming increasingly desensitised to what evil historically evoked. ‘Hollywood’ continues to push us to empathise with the villains across many different dimensions. Of course, the implications are broader than just entertainment; it’s not just the definition of evil that we erode – it’s what good means.
From a semiotic perspective, I’m interested in the way we depict evil in contemporary culture. How have these depictions evolved and what are the underlying structures, codes and signs that form the conventions that are being used.
I suspect that the majority of people that read this don’t know what it’s like to be evil or even how to think a genuinely evil thought. Paradoxically, most of us could describe or recognise what evil looks like. The leading author of these perceptions is Hollywood, who has from the beginning commoditized evil and presented back to us our base fears and dreams wrapped in relatively consistent symbolism and myths. In the process, our tolerance has increased and appears to continue in increasingly gory depictions. What does this say about the way we see evil?
A ‘quick’ definition of Evil
Before we look at how we visualise Evil, the real focus of this post, I need to take a step back and define what is evil? The OED defines evil as being ‘profoundly immoral and wicked’. Immoral is used here in the sense that you don’t conform to the accepted standards of morality. Morality simplistically, is the distinction between good and bad behaviour: right and wrong. This is of course a socio-cultural definition – where these conventions are socially defined and shared.
What is evil to one at one time, becomes good at another time to somebody else. Menicus
Evil is relative. To be provocative, this relativity leads to some conundrums of definition; for example, we might consider cannibalism as immoral but it isn’t essentially evil to everyone. In different cultures, cannibalism has been an accepted part of social behavour. The Asmat tribes of West Papua, ate their enemies brains ritually in order to gain a name and worthy place in the tribe. However, since it’s such an established taboo in western culture, it is often a trait of the worst evil we depict. Although, we are still put in a situation by Hollywood where Hannibal Lector has become more human over successive films and still conducts one of the most heinous crimes: murder and cannibalism.
From a postmodern perspective, the old binary-opposition of Good and Evil are no longer relevant, these referents have eroded to meaningless. A simplistic explanation is that this is due to the decline of religion as the dominant and only frame of thinking. This means the theological perspective of a Manichean battle, between the cosmic forces of light-and-dark, is no longer as influential in how we understand our lives. Although, it is important to recognize that this does continue to guide many contemporary narratives and cultural symbolism.
‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’
In the fourth century AD, St Augustine of Hippo furthered the churches understanding of this cosmic battle by semiotically defining evil as the absence of good. Today this view of good and evil is still prominent in the modern Catholic churches teaching; Pope Francis in his first homily said ‘“Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” This might suggest two-thirds of the world’s non-Christian population might be more familiar with evil. Politically, George W Bush, identified an ‘Axis of Evil’
that was largely commented on as an anachronism in the modern world . Modern politics is defined on more strategic rationales than perceptions of good or bad. However, this throw back to WW2 shows the deeper metaphor of good-and-evil in our thinking.
The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
A Kantian philosophical perspective on evil is that humans have free choice, suggesting that evil is something that comes from within us. Increasingly, we have learnt that evil is something we are all capable of. In one of modern psychology’s more infamous experiments, Stanley Milgram showed that humans will hurt others if an authority-figure tells us to. A decade later this was confirmed by Phillip Zimbardo through the Stanford Prison Experiment which shows that anyone can act ‘evil’ under the right circumstances’ without necessarily being evil. In a study conducted at the beginning of 2014, by Stanford Prison Experiment showed that personality predicts your obedience in a Milgram paradigm. The surprise from this study indicates that people that are normally friendly and agreeable are those that acted the worse – given they don’t like to upset others. Those that are more anti-social or independent are more likely to challenge authority. Watch out for the friendly nice people.
More philosophically, the postmodern perspective on evil has been discussed by Jean Braudrillard, who in his particular prose states:
the real problem, the only problem, is: where did Evil go? And the answer is: everywhere — because the anamorphosis of modern forms of Evil knows no bounds. In a society which seeks — by prophylactic measures, by annihilating its own natural referents, by whitewashing violence, by exterminating all germs and all of the accursed share, by performing cosmetic surgery on the negative — to concern itself solely with quantified management and with the discourse of the Good, in a society where it is no longer possible to speak Evil…
Today, evil is more often defined by moral claims based on rational foundations, rather than on religious precepts. Since WW2 we have become more aware that anyone is capable of evil – so evil could look like any of us. So, why does it look so different in popular culture?
Visual Semiotics of Evil in Popular Culture
Where I started with this thinking was a comment I read while looking at brains and intelligence in the modern era – an earlier post. The post had commented that ‘all the evil smart people in movies are bald’. I was curious at the suggestion that intelligence was linked to baldness; and from there to evil. I had come at it from a different and more anthropological perspective. Having researched the symbolism of hair, this cultural connotation is not one that I would have connected.
I have a different hypothesis of what Hollywood is representing, and will outline my hypothesis here. I am not trying to talk to all representations of evil by Hollywood (I’m using this term as a shortcut to popular culture). There are many examples like Nazi’s, Horror films, serial killers, etc that I shall leave to another day. This is a focus on heads, thinking and evil.
There has long been a natural association of a prominent brows and intelligence, from Socrates to Freud.
If you look at the depictions below you find it’s true that whilst there are bald villains, it is just as easy to find bald heroes.
(If you don’t know some of these, most will be defined below).
In fact many of Hollywood’s strongest action men favour shorter hair:
I talked about hair symbolism in an earlier post. We tend to see long hair as being wilder, unrestrained sexuality and uncivilised – think of Samson, Hercules, Tarzan, etc. We associate shorter hair with discipline and restricted sexuality Hallpike (1969);
“(long hair) is associated with being outside society and that the cutting of hair symbolises re-entering society, or living within a particular disciplinary regime within society”.
He equated the cutting of hair with social control – if you are in the army or are a convict you have short-hair, symbolic of discipline. It’s likely that the convention that military men wear their hair in shorter styles (less likely someone will grab it in a battle) and this is the symbolism that is being evoked here. So while they may not be immediately goody-two-shoes, the man-of-action characters use short hair to signify discipline and strength.
The mythic start of Evil
There is still the connection of intelligence and evil to be explored. While I have discussed the evolving meaning of Evil in modernity, its roots are firmly from religion. This is clear when we look at the variety of narratives and symbolism that are prominently told in Western culture.
This story starts at the beginning, in Eden, where the first sin was for Adam and Eve to eat the apple.
This was fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, not as some call it the Tree of Evil (also the bible doesn’t say it was an apple). If ‘ignorance is bliss’ or as Orwell in 1984, suggested ‘ignorance is strength’ then the inversions are that ‘knowledge is evil’ and ‘knowledge is weakness’. Knowledge opens us to temptation and ultimately corruption.
If we take up Orwell, this is an inversion of the Latin aphorism attributed to Francis Bacon scientia potestas est ‘knowledge is power’. We tend to believe that power is not something that humans control well. One of the most famous testaments to this belief is the American Constitution that was written with the express purpose; to limit the possibility of Tyranny, through the separation of powers
Baron Acton, famously said:
‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority’
We tend to find it easy to see a correlation of power and corruption – the influence of evil. The driving theme of shows like House of Cards It’s easy to think of the spiritual and moral corruption of the intelligent man; we believe that they should know better than to make Mephistophelean deals. It’s also why we tend to view men that serve without corruption with such reverence. Historically, the Roman General Lucius Quinctius Cincinnati was admired; he was famous for being given total power of Dictator and he gave this up twice when the threat to Rome was over. However, the default is to assume the worse of our leaders, perhaps from what we recognise in ourselves.
The conception of corruption and holding onto power are interesting ones when we think about how these are visualised. It’s informative to separate these out and explore them separately in how they are represented.
Visual metaphors of thinking
Visual conventions often follow the metaphors that we think through to understand the world:
A ‘“Metaphor is a tool so ordinary that we use it unconsciously and automatically… it is irreplaceable: metaphor allows us to understand ourselves and our world in ways that no other modes of thought can.” (Lakoff and Turner 1989: xi).
When we think of our brains there are two metaphors are very influential.
The first metaphor is that the brain is a vessel – a container that we fill with knowledge. This goes back to Greek Mythology, e.g. Zeus got a headache so bad he had Hephaestus hit him on the head with an axe, and from this sprang Athena. She was a Goddess of intelligence and war; of which Zeus in his divine magnificence was overflowing.
‘the human brain is unique in that it is the only container of which it can be said that the more you put into it, the more it will hold’ Glen Doman
When we emphasis this visually, villains like Lex Luthor are shown with larger heads. The important point here is that the emphasis has nothing to do with a lack-of-hair; the message is that this person has a larger and more prominent head – a bigger brain.
The second metaphor that is important here is the brain and memory are a muscles that you should exercise (the brain isn’t a muscle)
“The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.”
The internet has many articles that talk about making your brain fitter like a muscle. Sites like luminosity use this metaphor as an extension of their brand identities, using words like ‘training’, ‘challenge’ and ‘track your progress’ . It’s a gym for your mind.
Why this is important is that when we move into the science fiction depictions of intelligence, common themes are enlarged heads and throbbing veins to fuel these enormous brains.
As was iconically depicted in the original Star Trek with the Talosians.
“I have the same goal I’ve had ever since I was a girl. I want to rule the world.”
What do Evil Thinkers want?
We tend to think that good people look like we do. In fact, the more evil you are, the more those non-human characteristics are accentuated.
Since we struggle to identify with the drivers of power, we believe there is a correlation between evil and insanity – what good and sane person would want to be all-powerful? Megalomania – wanting to rule the earth – are the characteristics of evil, narcissism and self-aggrandising people. An inflated ego we tend to expect an inflated or swelled head. Look at who we label evil in History: Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin. In fact, movies, novels and comics are stuffed full of intelligent evil characters all consumed with the same mission: to rule the world. Most of them appear to be slightly or madly insane.
In the 2014 film 300 Rise of an Empire, we see the origins of a Persian Emperor, who after being corrupted by power, is hairless and consumed by desires of world domination. His transformation is to look decidedly less human.
Why does evil look less human?
This convention might have come from a more religious frame of thinking. Perhaps representative here is Augustine of Hippo, thinking through Mathew 7:18 ‘A good tree cannot bear evil fruit’
When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good. … If, however, the corruption comes to be total and entire, there is no good left either, because it is no longer an entity at all. Wherefore corruption cannot consume the good without also consuming the thing itself. … Whenever a thing is consumed by corruption, not even the corruption remains, for it is nothing in itself, having no subsistent being in which to exist.
A corrupted body looks more death-like. In fact, if we look at how life and death are depicted in Judeo-Christian traditions, it is only good and life that we see healthy living imagery.
While the Grim Reaper is influenced by Chairon as the boatman, Virgil describes him:
Terrible in his squalor – Charon, on whose chin lies a mass of unkempt hoary hair; his eyes are staring orbs of flame; his squalid garb hangs by a knot from his shoulders. Unaided, he poles the boat, tends the sails, and in his murky craft convoys the dead
This theme of corruption is used by Dostoyevsky in the start of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by which he introduces the ‘breath of corruption’, where the saintly body of Father Zossima starts to smell. This defies the expectations that someone good and saintly would remain pure.
It’s a consistent theme in Hollywood that human bodies can’t contain evil in the form of demons or devils. The Exorcist, Constantine, End of Days, The Devil’s Advocate all show the Devil searching for a body that won’t corrupt when possessed in the mortal world. The shared theme here is that evil looks like death.
A Typology of Depicting Evil
So we can summarise this thinking so far, in three points:
- Evil works through knowledge – this started with the first bite of the apple. We are born innocent and blissfully ignorant. Knowledge is what potentially leads us to evil.
- We depict smarter people through enlarged or more prominent heads – since brains are containers, the bigger the container or fuller the container the smarter a person must be.
- If knowledge corrupts us – then a hypothesis is that we are still following religious symbolism that tells us that evil corrupts living things.
Using this as a schema, we can look at popular culture again and identify four types of evil from a semiotic perspective (I’ll explore these in more detail below):
Typology One: Cerebral
Starting with the human dimension, the cerebral human who is an evil-thinker:
This is the Evil antagonist or protagonist that tends to have an emphasised head. If we look at Dr Evil above as a deliberate Austin Power’s parody, it’s the bald Blofeld he’s mimicking not the Blofeld with hair.
Cerebral Evil Conventions: magnified pate, empowered poses, glossy skin – light =bright, emphasised eyes (perception), maturity but age is not always a factor.
A movie that is instructive here is seven, where we see the bald villain ‘John Doe’ (a dead man) played by Kevin spacey, corrupting people through the seven deadly sins. Illustrating that knowledge is at the root of most evil within us.
Typology Two: Preternatural Evil
Preternatural refers to something that is outside or beside what we would consider natural. What we find here are human characteristics that are outside of what appears natural but on the edge of being believable: larger and enhanced cranium, increased and prominent veins. Sometimes we are witness to enhanced cognitive abilities: intelligence, ESP or mind powers.
The most literal story telling here is that of Hector Hammond from the film ‘Green Lantern’. Here we see a nerdy introverted scientist infected with alien DNA, who gradually develops meta-human abilities: telekinesis and telepathy. The transformation is not only in his powers but in the very physical transformation. His brain swells like a muscle and this power corrupts him to megalomania and murder.
Visually, what we see are the container and muscle metaphors being stretched. Heads are larger and there are often veins pumping, and frequently we see corpse like bodies. Perhaps, related to these symbolic axes suggested here is how Albinism is used by Hollywood.
There is a ghoulish trope of bureaucrats that are deathlike in automated cities or situations; often with roles that are hard to comprehend. It probably needs too much explanation of why a repetitive and robotic job might make you less-human. However, there are a range of evil characters, whose evilness appears biased to their appearance. To the recent Costner film ‘3 Days to Kill’ where the pretense of masking this convention is dropped to just call the lead villain ‘The Albino’. He’s also smart, morally challenged and controlling.
Perhaps the outlier here is the movie Powder, where the hero looks like an albino and plays to the symbolism identified here. He looks more cerebral and his head, like a muscle, pulsates with veins. However, while it’s a convention of linking intelligence with evil, just becoming more intelligent doesn’t always imply that you become more evil.
Preternatural Evil Conventions: magnified pate, enlarged head, veins, empowered poses, pallid skin = near dead, eyes are usually red (signifying supernatural in mythology), erratic megalomaniacal psychology.
Typology Three: Supernatural Evil
Here we are in no doubt that there is less humanity in these characters. They are generally more two-dimensional characters that appear controlling and interested in ‘order’ in the pursuit of what we – as the audience- would call morally ‘evil’. Often with these characters we are shown an ‘Eden’ version to see what we have lost – they are a medieval morality tale. Marvel introduces us to the pre-gamma exposure ‘Thinker’, Prometheus starts with an Adam for the Aliens, Megamind is a child before learning his animosity, whilst Anakin Skywalker is corrupted to the dark side, etc.
All of these characters appear human but are differentiated by non-human skin or technology. They also demonstrate supernatural abilities that set them apart from mere mortals. Characteristically, it is giving in to the dark-side, anger or hurt, which gives them access to these powers.
Supernatural Evil Conventions: magnified pate, enlarged head, veins, empowered poses, usually non-human skin colours, megalomaniacal and narcissism psychology.
Typology Four: Spectral Evil
These evil characters appear radically dehumanised – usually with transparent or partial skulls. Here we find the corruption of sin fully evident with dehumanised, denatured and partial corpses frequently employed. In Harry Potter, Voldemort becomes more ‘death-like’ as the series progresses, facially looking less human. Flukeman and Darth Maul evoke the death mask in different ways. Red Skull or Johann Schmidt (the Nazi Evil mirror to Captain America), the power of the super soldier serum literally makes him look like the Devil is a signifier that he lacks the morality of Steve Rogers (and the American Flag).
Perhaps in a strange casting coincidence, the Red Skull was played by the Actor Hugo Weaving in the role of Johann Schmidt (Smith) – The name of the man who became the Red Skull. Undoubtedly typecast for the very cerebral physiognomy that has been identified in this article. Previously, he was Agent Smith in the Matrix Trilogy, who bares more than a passing resemblance to the evil bureaucratic albino’s discussed above. Recalling that the viral mechanism of reproduction as a ‘software program’ that Smith uses is to corrupt another by plunging his heart into another and replicating himself.
If Neo is the messiah (Latin for ‘New’) within the Matrix, then we can see Agent Smith as the Devil
And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Mark 5:9
This is why we see Agent Smith learn to become Legion. It’s why we see crows as the bird of death and carrion announces the devils presence
Death and evil are linked in this type of allegory.
We find the spectral face of evil as a central part of the Hobbit, that Bilbo and Sméagol are both Hobbits. They are two sides of the same coin. It is the corruption of the ‘one ring’ that transforms Sméagol into Gollum. If Hobbits live over 100, Gollum is about 600 years old and looking undead by the time the ring is destroyed: Pasty, hairless, skeletal with six sharpened teeth.
Spectral Evil Conventions: enlarged head, veins, corpse like features, skeletal, radically dehumanised.
Although, we do need to recognise that there are prominent figures in science fiction that appear spectral that are not necessarily evil.
The OA of Green Lanterns, the Watchers and the Collectors of Star Trek are more morally ambiguous than evil. There appears, for the authors of these stories, a deliberate attempt to delimit these characters from our system of moral that leaves them free of our systems of ethics because they are concerned?? with higher order concerns (ironically often framed in Manichean frames).
The more dead you look, the more evil you are
In a way, what we are saying is that there is a direct correlation between looking more deathlike and evil. The test of this hypothesis is to be able to show it in reverse, as a narrative technique.
In all four of these cases the characters leave morally ambiguous or evil lives. Teal’c served a mad alien that thought he was a god committing terrible crimes in his name; Delen had fought a war against humans; Seven-of-Nine had turned countless humans into Borgs; Neo had lived a life feeding humanities enemies with energy. Looking more human is a sign of their moral redemption and return to being good.
The dominant thought here is that we depict the worst time of evil as being more death like. This might be explained through the psychoanalytic theory of abjection by Julia Kristiva. The frequently cited example is seeing a corpse and feeling revulsion or nausea as it reminds us of our own materiality and mortality. At the same time we are drawn to it but also repulsed. Kristiva states it is ‘not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. Evil, as immoral behaviour, is disruptive to order and identity within social systems. The most effective signifier of this evil is death.
While it’s a controversial theory, Freud identified the death drive or ego instincts which he posited was the opposing force of Eros drives: which is about survival, sex, propagation. In this case, it does support why we would associate evil with death in how they are depicted. There isn’t space here to explore it but the current Zombie fascination as a face of evil is an example of this. Noting that in 2013 film ‘Warm Bodies the cure for death was ‘eros’ through love.
So while, Hollywood does use characters that have hair and don’t, it’s not the absence of hair that signifies evil, it’s the prominence of the skull. The common thread shared by these evil depictions is that their origins are in the first sin: the bite from the tree of knowledge. Knowledge might be power but we fear its corruption and we visualise this literally.
Of course, the attentive reader would have noticed that this entire discussion is about men. This is partly because the starting thought was about prominent craniums. Since it’s not a biological norm, there are fewer examples here.
In GI Jane, Demi Moore’s character shaves her head to fit into the Military symbolism of order and control. We find the same symbolism employed in V or Vendetta and Alien. There is a theme in all of these films that the shaving of hair de-sexualises each of these characters. Star Trek’s Borg Queen evokes the evil of Borg necrotic flesh closest to the male convention of evil. Her character, Lieutenant Ilia of the first Star Trek film and Dren from Splice ,contrary to conventions, have very sexualised roles in their stories from having no hair, and are depicted in erotic connotations. All three though are dehumanised and make morally ambiguous choices.
In the next post, I will focus more on the conventions of how we depict evil women outside of these examples.