In Search of Evil

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the concept of evil. I’m not really sure why. Of course, everybody loves a good villain. But it’s deeper than that – how do we define evil? By actions or intentions? Is evil circumstantial, or objective and immutable?

I seem to be one of the few people who still suspects that some people are simply born evil. I don’t know why, I just get the feeling that there are people who, regardless of circumstances or the era they’re born into, will default to evil acts. Obviously, there are also thousands of people out there who are forced into evil acts by their circumstances (as the recent and controversial Derren Brown episode, where ordinary, law-abiding citizens were manipulated to the point where they would push a man to his death, will attest – although its authenticity remains suspect in my cynical eye). But there are also people who seem to perform evil acts out of some deeper urge. So how true is my assumption?

Sweeney Todd

Historically, the idea that people are evil simply because they’re born evil was by no means unusual – in fact, up until the early 20th century, it was the default. It’s only recently that the idea of the sympathetic villain has come to the fore – in the past, this would have been seen as scandalously morally ambiguous. Contrast the original “penny dreadful” serialization of Sweeney Todd, “A String of Pearls”, with the modern-day Tim Burton film adaptation. The Sweeney Todd of 1846’s motivations were seemingly limited to greed and the sheer joy of being evil. In a predominantly Christian society, there was an obvious moralising purpose to this: he was simply a force of the devil, over which the force of good must (and invariably did) prevail.

Phrenology head

But, without the knowledge of genetics and psychology that we take for granted today, there really was an idea that people were born to an evil “type”, and this was often associated with physical appearance. In the 1840s crazes such as phrenology were all the rage, and the shape of the head was meant to reflect traits as far-ranging as secretiveness, parental love and the perception of colour. Sweeney Todd himself was described as “a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth, and such huge hands and feet, that he was, in his way, quite a natural curiosity.” Such unrefined features were commonly associated with evil (which had ugly connotations regarding race, social class, and a whole host of other pre-Victorian prejudices).

(As an aside, Dracula caused controversy by being one of the first attractive villains – although the deeply homophobic author, Bram Stoker [who, incidentally, stole Oscar Wilde’s first girlfriend, Florence Balcombe], appeared to have scored a bit of an own goal there. The sensuous, beguiling depiction of Dracula that has set the hearts of readers fluttering ever since was originally intended as a portrayal of unattractive, immoral un-manliness.)

The modern film adaptation of Sweeney Todd concocts a sympathetic back-story for our antagonist, involving an evil, wife-stealing Alan Rickman and 15 years of forced labour in an Australian penal colony (which would certainly explain Jonny Depp’s preposterous accent). With psychologists like Freud introducing the idea that past experiences build who we are today, modern audiences see a sympathetic villain as more believable. And, I suspect, we like to feel the thrill of moral ambiguity that comes with sympathising with man capable of slicing the jugulars of unsuspecting customers with a shaving razor and then baking them into pies. Such a questioning of morals would be unheard of in the Victorian era.

In fact, I’ve always thought that the Victorian view of evil was less moral – if someone’s evil out of the sheer joy of being evil, it implies that there’s joy to being evil, and maybe even that that’s what we’d all become if we yielded to our temptations or “let the devil in”. It gives evil an attractive allure, something that Robert Lewis Stevenson captured all too well in Jekyll and Hyde. A tortured, unhappy antagonist gives a far superior moral message. But that’s not the pure, unadulterated evil that I’m talking about.

The closest real-life example of pure evil in today’s society is, of course, the psychopath, whose absence of fear and empathy is caused by an underactive amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for memory, decision-making and emotional reactions). Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test suggests that this ruthlessness is what enables business and political leaders to rise to the top. In fact, the book estimates that people in positions of power are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the average population – in other words, those responsible for shaping society and building the world we live in are not the same kind of people as us – society is disproportionately geared towards psychopaths. (No wonder I feel so discombobulated all the time.)

“Aha!” I thought, flicking through its pages, “I was right! Some people really are just born evil!” But what the book doesn’t mention is that even a condition as extreme as psychopathy can be brought about – or at least exacerbated – by early childhood experiences. One of my friends knows a social worker who is under strict instructions to keep an eye out for any babies or young children not receiving enough physical affection – because apparently, a lack of hugging can turn you into a psychopath! I always knew hugging was good for the soul.

So why do I still believe in the idea of pure evil? Maybe because I find it so impossible to empathise with unrepentant evildoers, or even to see them as real people like me. As first, I was worried this failure of empathy meant that I myself was a psychopath – but Jon Ronson’s book was quick to reassure me that if I was worried I was a psychopath, that meant I almost definitely wasn’t one – because if I was one, I wouldn’t care. And that’s what makes them so scary: it’s like there’s no way you can reach them. If you try to tell them they’re doing wrong, they don’t believe you, and even if they do believe you, they don’t care. As Neil Gaiman said in his latest anthology, Trigger Warning, “the people who scare me are the ones who are certain of their own rightness”.