Why We Love Evil Characters In Film


Many iconic film & TV screen characters such as The Godfather, Scarface, Hannibal Lector, Tony Soprano and Walter White are not simply bad, mischievous, or distasteful. They are evil. Pure evil. They are the dark lords we’ve always been taught to avoid.

Just before their demise they are selfish, destructive and will annihilate anything or anyone that gets in the way of their goals. Drunk with power, they teeter on the edge of mental instability. But they always believe in their cause. They rationalize it and are worthy adversaries.


Many villains have humble beginnings and forced to deal with a trauma. These include being born into abject poverty or orphaned at a young age.  Their rise to power despite setbacks, represents humanity’s ability to achieve great things if we’re persistent, focused and unstoppable. This vulnerability creates audience empathy, so at least we can understand their actions.

Humans are resilient and we respond well to stories of falling down and picking ourselves up. Life isn’t a flatline. There are dizzying heights and soul-wrenching lows.

Walter White wanted to provide for his family following his cancerous death, but his first taste of power triggered a dormant beast in him. He was no longer in danger. He was the danger. He lost sight of his initial ambitions, so much so that he destroyed his family rather than provide for him.

This moves into our addictive behaviors.  If you can’t stop, you fetishize your addiction and ensure it gives you maximum pleasure. Even when it stops giving you pleasure, you continue because it was associated with pleasure.

Evil characters are commonly found in children’s stories. Consider the wicked witches and child eating monsters.

Although children develop a sense of morality and compassion during their pre-school years, their propensity for the primal urges remains throughout adolescence and adulthood. When we’re born, we don’t understand the moral concepts of right and wrong. We are only intuitively programmed for survival.

Morality is something that is socialized within us during childhood. The creation of fear is a powerful behavioral deterrent in the human psyche, especially in the formative years of children.


Why do we root for them? Often at the expense of the good guys. They are ruthless and powerful. Their activities protect their inner circles. Perhaps, in a perverse way, the audience too can join this inner sanctum, protecting us from harm. If we associate strong people, we can absorb some of this strength and power.

Our basic emotions slide along a continuum of pleasure and fear. Humans spend more time actively pursuing pleasure rather than avoiding fear. Many people don’t want to tackle their fears. Fear is often socialized as a sign of weakness and immaturity.

Humans are creatures of duality. We possess both dark and light traits. Good and bad. Evil characters tap into the darkness of our souls. We’ve all got the potential to be evil, especially in difficult circumstances.

Part of the attraction to evil characters  is that force us to confront our own demons. They demand that we grow up and be powerful too. They demand we change and become fighters.

When we can’t unravel our own fears, we project them onto our characters, who might theoretically be able to do so for us. When we see others suffering, we shift the focus away from ours. We don’t feel as alone because other people feel pain too.

Nero didn’t build Rome by being affable. Dying is something we’re all going to experience, so do it with honor and purpose. We’re more likely to remember a great empire rather built on evil than the good slaves who died building it.


Many evil characters understand what they’re doing is morally reprehensible. They have a moral compass, but choose to ignore it. They believe that the short term destruction they inflict is justified by a long term moral order.

Other villains, such as sociopaths, have an impeded ability to suppress their heinous acts.

Psychopaths don’t have any sense of morality. They represent the anthithesis of goodness in the bipolarity of the universe. Evil is what they do. Who they are. They don’t need to rationalize it because it embodies their identity.

Evil also panders to our innate nihilistic and self-destructive propensities, most of us suppress. Life has no inherent meaning. We exist rather than enjoy satisfying lives. We’re slaves to pain. When we realize this, we won’t delude ourselves with the concepts of pleasure and become disappointed. We were born of the original sin and live until our doomsday.

Villains also represent humanity’s primal instinct for survival. Ever heard the expression “Nice people finish last”? Being evil forms part of our evolutionary behavioral DNA. This instinct is more powerful than the concept of right or wrong, especially in times of great stress, anxiety or life threatening danger. It taps into to our lizard brains. The other end of the spectrum of our evolved logical selves.

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