Why Do Movie Villains Always Have Skin Conditions?

Psychology says scars scare us, and that’s exactly what the cinema wants.

witchBigKnell/ShutterstockIt’s a trend that dates back to the silent films of the early 1900s: Filmmakers used visual cues to distinguish between good and evil. You’ve probably never seen the 1921 film Nosferatu featuring a disturbingly pale and hairless antagonist, but that’s how old the stereotype is. The trend has continued its way in cinema, think Freddy Krueger’s facial burns, Darth Vader’s large scar running down his face, and Voldermort’s everything. Abnormal skin color, deep, dark circles underneath their eyes, and scary music are all part of the established motifs surrounding movies’ bad guys and girls.

A new article published by JAMA Dermatology explores this concept of villains and facial scars. In their study, Julia A. Croley, MD, of the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, and colleagues used the all-time top 10 film heroes and villains from the American Film Institute (AFI) 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains List to evaluate dermatologic characteristics.

The authors determined that 60 percent of the top villains have common skin or facial features, including:

  • Dark circles under the eyes, 30 percent, as seen on Darth Vader, Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist and the Queen from the 1938 version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
  • Hair loss, 30 percent as see on Dr. Lecter, Darth Vader, and Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Deep facial wrinkles, 20 percent as seen on Darth Vader and the Queen
  • Multiple facial scars, 20 percent as seen on Darth Vader and Regan MacNeil
  • Facial warts, 20 percent as seen on the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and The Queen
  • Bulbous nose, 10 percent as seen on the Queen

The study also found that, while six film villains had facial flaws, only two film heroes did: Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca both had facial scars. Befitting a hero, these “flaws” are more subtle than the ones typically seen on villains.

According to Vail Reese, MD, a dermatologist based in San Francisco and one of the study’s authors, the problem with this is how it translates to reality; distorting the way the public views people with facial differences outside the norm. “If you have families across the country and their only encounter with someone who is albino was … seeing this evil scary character, what happens when at the mall they see somebody with albinism?” asked Reese.

The scarred villain wears their history on their face. Such characters are incapable of escaping their past because the experiences that led to their woundings cannot vanish from sight.

And, according to psychologist David Rakison, professor of evolutionary psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, scars scare us. First off, he says, we desire a pretty and symmetrical face because it exemplifies health. A marked face makes us think of sickness. Secondly, scars remind us of self infliction, and tell us that a person with them may live outside the realm of accepted human behavior (perhaps being psychotic).

But just because people have scars in real life doesn’t mean they’re sick, mentally or physically, and that’s why this cinema trend is worrisome.

“The results of this study demonstrate Hollywood’s tendency to depict skin disease in an evil context, the implications of which extend beyond the theater. Specifically, unfairly targeting dermatologic minorities may contribute to a tendency toward prejudice in our culture and facilitate misunderstanding of particular disease entities among the general public. In some cases, filmmakers are tasked with addressing biased portrayals of dermatologic disease, as evidenced by the goals of advocacy groups,” concludes the article. Simply put, beautiful people aren’t always beautiful on the outside and just because someone isn’t attractive, doesn’t mean they don’t have a heart of gold.

In the mood to watch some big screen villains? Here are the 31 scariest movies of all time.

Alexa Erickson
Alexa is an experienced lifestyle and news writer currently working with Reader's Digest, Shape Magazine, and various other publications. She loves writing about her travels, health, wellness, home decor, food and drink, fashion, beauty, and scientific news. Follow her travel adventures on Instagram: @living_by_lex, send her a message: [email protected], and check out her website: livingbylex.com