The Substrate of the Purely Villainous

Any true aficionado of the villainous–of antagonists in film, literature, interactive media–knows that the truly diabolical are not those with mundane or even sympathetic aims. They are those whose reprehensibility is alien to us, unnerving in their capacity for estrangement from the normal motivations which occupy our species. We, as consummate consumers, eventually tire of plot after plot instigated by the villain’s lust for power, vengeance, wealth or just plain lust. What retains the ability to frighten is rather what we cannot understand save as an abstraction, something so insidious that its mere existence is an affront to our conception of reality.

Indeed, only these antagonistic forces evoke the sort of mortal terror that not only puts the protagonist’s goal at hazard, but also their soul. Doubly so if the metaphysics of a soul are not implied by the narrative, for then these villains alone transmogrify physical danger into the metaphysical. They embody forces of nature more than they inhabit real people or mortal coils. If anything, their mortal coil indicates that something is very off about them. Their appearance is of one who has a too perfect understanding of how to clothe oneself in the trappings of everyday humanity. An idea of clothing not as an expression of the self, but a shell to inhabit for the simple fact that one must inhabit a shell in order to inhabit the world. One cannot go nude. If one goes nude, one is a monster. Horrid and bare to the world. These villains we are concerning ourselves with are not monsters, or at least not by conventional definition, but something else. What they are is perhaps best drawn from what they represent: Quandaries and Intrusions.

Each one of these characters holds in common that they are just human enough to evince some ephemeral link to a rational world. But they are closer to aliens playing dress-up than they are to real people you might meet out in the world. However, neither are they sociopaths or chameleons. Again, their purpose is to cast doubt on their human nature while also maintaining a distorted approximation of it. The element of their horror is drawn from that fact, that they are tangentially related to normal everyday life while at the same time occupying the underworld, in some ways the True World, that is its substrate. It is this heraldry from another domain that unnerves us, a domain in which the mundane concerns are transmuted into their most absolute incarnations. This is what makes them Quandaries, this transmutative property, and that they pose such a question to the nature of human existence itself. Put simply: They offer the most horrible decision point for the human question. Put simpler: they are the rock amid the river of human experience.

For instance, and perhaps most notoriously, No Country For Old Men is defined by primary antagonist Anton Chigurh’s fatal obsession with the outcome of a coin toss. He is the personification of inevitability, of misfortune and, in some ways, death itself. But his relation to normal things, such as the character Carson Welles, and the comparatively normal world of bounty hunting moors him to our real world and so exemplifies his difference from it, transmutes him into something almost inhuman. We are left with the dual sense that he is certainly human, but so perverted as to become something like a force of nature. His insistence on the chance of a coin toss brings this to the fore by offering the grounds for a seemingly peaceable encounter that gradually becomes understood as representing the incipient obliteration of the self if not navigated correctly. All the while the Quandary is expressing horrifying calm and certitude. It is disconcerting to say the least.

Perhaps no other character in creative media inhabits this concept more than The Cowboy in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. We are not even given a name or the slimmest backstory to this advent in the film. But he is strictly human. His appearance is strange, but readily understood. His manner is strange; but surely there are strange enough people in the world, not least in Hollywood? What really grounds him is his relationship to the story at large, his insistence that one particular girl be cast in the film (and not Naomi Watts) that lies at the center of the plot. A seemingly mundane concern that in any other movie would be given enough exposition to justify his connection to it. But not so here. In fact, it is this absence, this only tangential connection that transmogrifies his conversation with the fictional film’s director into something more than a binary choice over the casting of a lead actor. Before they even reach this demand, it is heavily implied that if Justin Theroux’s character doesn’t wisen up, something very bad will happen. Something that goes beyond the ordinary, something on the order of the total obliteration of the soul.

Indeed, the entirety of Mulholland Drive is this way. It showcases the intrusion of the unreal into the mundane, which is perhaps Lynch’s finest quality as a filmmaker. Those in the know will also be aware of the infamous diner scene. However, I don’t consider that representative of a Quandary, but an Intrusion. Much like the Mystery Man in Lynch’s Lost Highway, this scene does not represent some sense of absolute moral judgement, but rather the absolute meaningless of the mundane world in the face of an otherworldly and almost Platonic truth. Twin Peaks famously embodies this quality, with the Black Lodge being literally cast as intruders into the normal world and order of things, albeit brought about by human error. And unlike Quandaries, which force us to confront the ineluctable and the inevitable, Intrusions remind us that there is a world both within and outside our own that renders our struggles and connivances and frustrations as the petty flailing of moths about a flame.

Together these characters personify two concepts that are present in nearly everyone’s day-to-day life: the fear of death and its moral judgement or accounting for one’s deeds; and the knowledge that there is a secret world which permeates or exists outside our daily lives. The one is responsible for bringing to the fore all that which haunts us and forces us to reckon with it, hence the Quandary they represent. The other is responsible for the things we would rather not think about or contemplate, the scope of which would perhaps drive us mad, hence their Intrusion into our world. That they act as avatars for very existential threats and fears that are recurrent throughout our lives elevates these villains into something timeless and pure, empowers them to reach deeper into our psyche than any common creature or killer. True fear cannot exist without true evil, and true evil is only invoked by that which we cannot understand–only recognize as dim constructs of our own souls.