In the real world, a prominent facial scar can cause embarrassment and social anxiety. In the movies, it’s enough to drive a man to murder. This discrepancy is the focus of a new investigation published in JAMA Dermatology last week. The authors, all dermatologists, reviewed the top 10 entries on both sides of the American Film Institute’s “100 Greatest Heroes & Villains” list and found that the best villains are highly likely to suffer some kind of skin disorder. They’re bald, wrinkly, scarred, and warty, with dark under-eye circles and bulbous tissue on their noses. While Dove is up in our TVs telling us that beauty comes in all sizes, textures, and blotches, Disney and MGM are up in our movie theaters arguing that prominent pores are a sign of moral decrepitude.
The report, with its tiny sample size, is far from encyclopedic. But it illuminates several aesthetic similarities between evil characters, making a convincing case that skin conditions are used as shorthand for evil across film genres. Six of AFI’s top 10 villains would get clinical dermatological diagnoses, the authors contend, compared to none of the top 10 heroes. Three of the villains (Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, and Mr. Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life) have alopecia; three have dark eye sockets, or “periorbital hyperpigmentation” (Vader, The Exorcist’s Regan MacNeil, and Snow White’s Queen); deep rhytides (wrinkles), facial scarring, and warts claim two villains each; and one top villain, the Queen, also has rhinophyma, a bulbous, ruddy nose with enlarged pores.
“These visual cues evoke in the audience apprehension or fear of the unfamiliar and provide a perceptible parallel to the villainous character’s inward corruption,” the authors write. The pattern “may contribute to a tendency toward prejudice in our culture and facilitate misunderstanding of particular disease entities among the general public.” Associate enough sadistic killers with largely benign skin conditions, and those skin conditions start to seem a little bit ickier.
Some of the most memorable uses of skin conditions in film are those that mark a character’s transition from good (or evil-but-ineffectual) to evil. The report uses the example of Dr. Evil’s son, Scott Evil, in the Austin Powers franchise. As daddy’s boy Scott becomes more like his bald father, he starts losing his hair. There’s also Voldemort, whose descent into dark magic caused him to lose his hair, his skin tone, and, most notably, his nose. In Batman, extensive facial scarring is enough to turn do-gooder district attorney Harvey Dent into a nihilistic, murderous villain, Two-Face. Scars are used to denote a history of aggression on the villainous scar-faces of Scarface and The Lion King’s Scar, as if past injuries have turned them jaded to the violence of the cocaine trade and the African savanna, respectively.
It’s no coincidence that many of the skin issues associated with evil characters—patches of white hair à la Cruella DeVil, baldness, puffy under-eye circles, deep wrinkles, dull complexions—are normal signs of aging. When heroes battle their ultimate rivals, what are they ever really fighting but human mortality? Skin conditions embodied by some of the other villains in the AFI’s top 20 vary in severity: HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey experiences bouts of redness. The Alien in Alien has a drooling issue, but its “skin” (shell?) looks well-exfoliated. Bambi’s bad guy, the murdering hunter man, never once shows his face, leading viewers to wonder whether a truly horrific disfigurement has kept him offscreen.
Then there’s Amon Goeth of Schindler’s List, a cool-eyed, smooth-skinned Ralph Fiennes who makes No. 15 on the AFI list. Goeth, a fictionalized depiction of actual Nazi war criminal Amon Göth, is a perfect example of a villain who’s creepier because he’s good-looking, with no visible scars, no hair out of place, and no laugh lines to speak of. Think too of Christian Bale as seductive, socioathic Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, luring women to their death with a toothy smile and nice musculature. Or, for a contemporary example, look to the poreless, dimpled Jared Kushner.