Why do good girls love bad boys? Because good boys are boring! Villains are the cause of the story. Heroes are just the reaction. The actions of the villain are wild, spontaneous, and jaw-dropping. But their motives are even more interesting. Whether it’s sadistic killer or a ruthless gangster, stories from the villain’s perspective are fun, fascinating and frightening.
Villain horror, as I call it, is a form of psychological horror that takes you deep inside the deviant mind, where paranoid delusions, psychotic rantings and reptilian calculations run rampant.
Standard horror follows the vulnerable, the scared, the sympathetic as they run, trip and fall, or fight back against evil. The danger is often cloaked and mysterious: a malevolent spirit, a stalker in the shadows, a possessed child. It plays on our empathy and our fear of the unknown to create tension and thrill.
Readers often compare these two forms without fully understanding that the goals, the tone and the emotions evoked are quite different. Writers (like yours truly) often try to compensate for these differences instead of embracing them, or even understanding them.
So what are they? Let’s take a look:
You can’t fear for the single lady in Apt. 3 while inhabiting the rapist leering through her bathroom window. To him-to you-she’s that selfish bitch who rejected you. She’s a whore that deserves to be slaughtered. She looks like your mother who poured boiling water on you as a toddler. Or, in the words of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, “She’s just a shape. She’s meat. She’s nothing.”
We are dehumanizing the victim as the killer would, and this process detaches the reader emotionally.
You cannot think like a sociopath and care about the victim the same time.
In most fiction we root for the protagonist. You still may root for the villain to achieve his evil goals, and you might revel in the spectacle of their behavior, but you won’t truly fear for an unsympathetic character. You won’t cry at their funeral.
Ride The Crazy Train
The Shining, even with all the spooky ghosts in the Overlook, wouldn’t be much of a read without the spiraling madness of Jack Torrance. Whether Alex is committing the ol’ ultra-violence in A Clockwork Orange, or Iceberg Slim is beating his whores with a coat hanger in Pimp (a true story), it’s not the actions but the sick thoughts and twisted motivations that drive our fascination.
The psychology of the serial killer with multiple personalities, or the mother who poisons her own child for attention. We seek to understand these people as a primitive survival technique. The more we understand about dangerous people, the greater our chance of survival, or so our lizard brain things. So we are wired to enjoy gaining these nuggets of insight.
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment explores the rationalization of violence as a means to an end, as well as the value of life and the guilt riddled conscious. Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray studies the maddening obsession with youth and beauty.
The Blackest Mirror
In Villain Horror, the reader may become disturbed by their own enjoyment of the mayhem and harm inflicted on innocence. This is the true horror caused by this type of story. It’s not your fear for the safety of others, but the fear in discovering you enjoy their pain. Villain horror awakens the primal, the violent, the sadistic in the reader, then it makes you digest your own reaction.
American Psycho takes it a step further by arousing the reader with raunchy sex scenes that suddenly become grotesque nightmares of torture and murder. The result leaves the reader horrified at their own bodily response. This is disgusting! Why won’t my erection go down?
Crash and Burn
Okay so maybe you won’t lust for the kill. Maybe you will grow to loathe your villain protagonist. That’s okay. Villains usually still lose in the end. They often end up dead or in prison, as they should.
Following a villain you despise can build immense anticipation for that glorious moment when they plunge to their doom, or tie their own noose. It can be a corrupt politician caught in a scandal or a Wall Street swindler getting sent to prison. You can root for them, root against them, or feel conflicted.
Bad Meets Evil
Villains come in all shades of moral ambiguity, often paired with positive traits or good intentions behind their wicked deeds. The drug kingpin who gives to the poor and builds schools and playgrounds.
Sometimes the hero, or anti-hero, is pitted against something worse, or at least more dangerous. While the story doesn’t take on villain perspective, Hannibal Lector famously helps catch Buffalo Bill will plotting his own brutal escape in The Silence of the Lambs.
Two Sides of the Coin
Some novels flip between the hero and the villain perspective. In these cases, the reader never goes as deep because each switch in perspective is a reboot. Pause the movie, turn on the lights and get reoriented. This is often simply to show events occurring in multiple locations.
Examples: Stephen King’s Misery, Dean Koontz’s Intensity.
I love writing from the villain’s perspective, and I love reading about them, learning about them, trying to understand how they see the world. It’s a different type of journey that you should try… if you’re not afraid of what you might learn about yourself.