Diminishing Evil

The topic of “evil” has been on my mind recently, in part because I’m getting ready to teach Europe in the 1920s-30s, which means Stalin, Mussolini, and Co. Part of it is because I got caught off-guard by the ending of a cycle of three symphonic rock albums by Dark Sarah, and in part because of current cultural events.

I have no doubt that evil exists. I grew up in a religious tradition that includes the concept, although it is not as prominent as it once was. My teenaged years just confirmed that people are, ah, not perfect, and are on occasion inclined to give in to the less pleasant aspects of human nature. At least, less pleasant for the recipient. I read military history and saw the photos from WWII that were in Life magazine. The fairy tales I read as a child also pointed out that evil existed, and could do terrible things to people. I also knew that individuals and groups could rise up and defeat evil, although the cost might be high.

The current cultural atmosphere seems to have diluted evil, diminishing it in a way. Part of it is the idea that people need to be sheltered and protected from hurtful things. When you never encounter real malevolence, it is easy to imagine that anything emotionally painful or unwanted is evil. I have a sense that part of the problem is the idea that being the sufferer from vague cultural flaws and patterns is en-nobleing and is something that cannot be put into the past. When the very atmosphere of a culture is blamed for all the ills suffered by an individual, no matter the circumstances, then actual evil seems to be disregarded. It does not fit the categories of thought and so people pay lip-service to true evil, then ignore it.

The idea came up in a conversation about re-making movies and gutting the villains. Not in the sense of “steps taken before taxidermy”, but diminishing them by turning them into poor, misunderstood victims who of course are justified in their actions. The specific example was the evil fairy Maleficent in Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty vs the live-action remake. In the fairy tale and the animated film, Maleficent revels in being evil. She is, she has no qualms about killing and tormenting other people, and that’s that. She enjoys breaking the law and inflicting pain. The revised story seeks to explain that Maleficent is a victim of [men, cultural blindness, what have you]. In doing so, it weakens both Maleficent as a character and the story itself. https://crossoverqueen.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/movie-review-maleficent/

So, the Dark Sarah trilogy turns on a character, Sarah, who decides to get even with someone and turns to evil to get what she wants. She kills and commits evil acts. The three albums are about that, and her eventual (implied) redemption. Now, having been reading a lot of “misunderstood outsider” type stuff and paranormal romances (Byronic heroes all over the place), I expected that Sarah and “the Dragon” would pair off and go do gothy things in his kingdom. Nope! In fact, the ending took me a little aback, because of that expectation. When I re-listened to the third album, the ending made more sense. The Dragon is a form of psychopomp, not a love interest in the usual sense. How refreshing! However, he certainly could be taken as evil, and he was cast out of the upper lands for a reason. Sarah takes responsibility for her actions, and that shifts the story pattern from what I anticipated.

Satan as Prometheus is a common trope in goth rock and black metal. It goes back to the Romantics, where evil isn’t exactly always evil, but perhaps just misunderstood and forced into evil actions by society. It’s a tempting interpretation, because it justifies a lot of things that civilization disapproves of. At least, it is used as justification. The antihero has become a hoary trope for a reason, especially in fringe subcultures. And in the mainstream, based on a lot of pop-culture stuff. However, there’s a difference between shadow and darkness, between “good but not nice” and evil. That bright line is being ignored to society’s peril.

Horror is said to be the most moral genre, because it requires good and evil. Now, that evil might be “cosmic” and Lovecraftian, or intent and deliberate on the individual, but evil is there. Good is there. Defeating evil often requires sacrifices, and the hero is changed by the encounter. Compare that with, oh, Fifty Shades of Turpitude and the like. Or “the bad guy is just misunderstood and a loving woman [or man, or none-of-the-above] will redeem him.” Or worse, “the bad guy is really a victim, and the good guy is the villain for imposing society’s will on the poor, suffering Other.”

Surrounded by that, it’s easy to see why people miss real evil. It is with us, it is present today. Individuals, political philosophies, the anti-human push in certain parts of culture . . . Evil is scary. It should be respected, treated with due care, and repudiated. Not explained away until horror begets horror in a spreading pool of corruption.

I wonder if that’s why the dark fantasy idea, and Wolf of the World, bubbled up? Wolf deals with evil that relishes being evil. The dark fantasy, well, we’ll see. I have three main characters in mind, and a basic story-starter idea, but not much beyond that. We are story-telling creatures. We shape the world and how we understand it through our stories. Evil seems to be oozing out of hiding as the bright line is erased. Is that why my stories are looking that way? I don’t know.

Evil is real. That I do know.


32 thoughts on “Diminishing Evil

  1. Oh yes, evil certainly exists. I’ve never had any doubt of that.

    Oddly enough, though (or perhaps not), I’ve also never had any doubt that the “entity that looks evil but isn’t” trope is also credible. You can probably blame Star Trek TOS for that – I don’t believe for a second that the Horta is evil (“The Devil in the Dark”), but at the same time I’m perfectly ok with using that term for the two planets that have normalized their war (“A Taste of Armageddon”) or the stagnant machine-run culture in “Return of the Archons”.

    Sadly, I’ve never found a 100% reliable way of distinguishing between the two.

  2. It’s so much easier to explain Evil away as an annoyance in making modern efficiencies. In “Time Bandits”, the character Evil became far scarier on the second viewing. Evil was interested in making everything efficient, mechanized, and straightforward. Never mind the punishment cages over the abyss, bestial transformations, etc. “I’m a reasonable man. Give me the [McGuffin], and you may at least walk out of here on … human feet.”

    Explain everything away, until its nightmare is all around you. No, thank you, now depart.

  3. The interesting thing is that, in a lot of traditional versions, the mother of Sleeping Beauty’s prince turns out to be a baby-eating ogress in disguise. So there’s Sleeping Beauty, thinking she’s going to be living happily ever after, but no!

    So the prince leaves her in the castle with her folk, and doesn’t tell his parents the story at all, and just keeps sneaking over to his real wife and kids like he’s sneaking to see a mistress. (And the kids are named Aurore and Jour, which is where the Disney Princess name Aurora comes from. Jour is the boy.) The prince succeeds to the throne and brings out his wife and kids, and the queen pretends to be pleased.

    But when the now-king goes off to war, the queen mother starts directing the steward to serve up the kiddies and the queen for dinner. He loyally replaces Aurore with a lamb, Jour with a goat kid, and Queen Belle with a hind deer, hiding the royal family in a secret cottage. But eventually the queen mother finds out and is about to execute (and eat) everybody involved, when the king finally comes home and stops it. The ogress mom commits suicide or is killed, and everybody else lives happily ever after, now that they’re off the menu.

    • I had assumed, before it came out, that the movie Maleficent was going to deal with all this cannibal ogress stuff, which at least might explain something of the evil running around the kingdoms. But no!

      • No, which really weakens the story. It’s another of those “watch for the effects and secondary characters, and dream about how you’d do it” films. *coughLegendcough* Another one that would never, ever get done properly is “Eiserne Heinrich” Iron Heinrich, sometimes titled “Loyal Heinrich.” To cut to the core of the story, Heinrich, the loyal-unto-death servant, can be saved from death, but the price is terrifying. Or so it seems.

    • “in a lot of traditional versions, the mother of Sleeping Beauty’s prince turns out to be a baby-eating ogress in disguise.”

      Which is more than a little odd, when I think about it. Märchen (“wonder stories”, more or less) like “Sleeping Beauty” are generally short, tightly told stories with a single sharp point to them. A märchen that changes direction radically in the middle is unusual. To me it suggests that what is being told as one story started out as two, or perhaps even more.

  4. I blame Freud.
    And Marx.
    And Rousseau.

    Hedonism and materialism are a toxic brew. Especially when your culture has passively accepted a rationalization that repressing your base urges is actively harmful.

    It gets worse when you add deviant characters to the milieu.
    (My youngest has “issues”. I burn five or more hours a week interacting with various members of the head shrinking tribe about her treatment. Therapy and psychoactive medications aren’t going to save her. She needs Jesus. And the guardrails of a functional, close-knit, moral society.)

    • There are days when I dream fondly of the time when everyone learned a basic set of social procedures for different interactions, and started from there. If you were introduced to someone, you did this. If you wanted to meet someone but had not been formally introduced, you did that. In a business you said this, at a social gathering you said that. It was formal, and a dance of sorts, but it laid a foundation to build on. And if you were unsure, or had trouble “reading” people, you could always fall back on the script for help, knowing that the other party/parties would do the same.

  5. Good post. Those that have never seen pure evil personified in the atrocities in various places have absolutely NO understanding. Victimization because (insert reason here), is not evil, it is a shifting of blame for the lack of motivation to actually succeed IMHO.

  6. No doubt Evil exists. What threw me is a quirk, I admit. Now, not being at all familiar with Byron, I read that not as ‘Byronic’ but ‘Baryonic’… as if Evil would restrict itself to baryons…

    • I don’t know . . . the idea of evil working on the subatomic level is actually rather scary. I think I’ve read that book or short story somewhere.

      Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” When you have a hero who (usually) has dark hair, dark eyes, wears dark clothes and broods a lot, especially if he’s rich, has traveled to exotic and mysterious places, and has a large library or collection of antiques, then you are probably dealing with a Byronic (based on George Gordon, Lord Byron) hero. When gothic romances were all the rage in the 1960s-70s, you could almost guarantee a mysterious brooding hero to go with the dark, ancient, and brooding house or moorland setting.

  7. I recently watched the Netflix documentary, “Murder among the Mormons”. Mark Hoffman 1) turned to forgery as a way to feed his own sense of cleverness and superiority. 2) Became a secret atheist, while pretending religious faith, 3) Sought out money and fame and to live the ‘high life’ with a public career based on forged documents 4) Sought to undermine the church he belonged to by forging documents that cast doubt on its history, 5) Turned to murder to prevent exposure when his wheeling-and-dealing schemes outpaced his income and threatened to come apart, 6) Planted a second bomb to perhaps kill an innocent,uninvolved person as a distraction from his other murder. No, this wasn’t “poor misunderstood Mark”. This was evil.

    • Oh, yeah, Forensic Files did a really big thing about him. Bookdealers and document people hate him SO MUCH.

      Fortunately, he seems to have had a lot of tells, but he poisoned the well for a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.

  8. Some of this isn’t about diluting Evil. It’s about recognizing that Different is not the same as Evil, that there are always two (or more) sides to a story, and that repentance and rehabilitation are possible.

    Would the film Maleficent grate as much if you weren’t viewing it in the context of the animated Sleeping Beauty (as people were surely intended to do), but as a separate story?

    Fairy tales in the original are short, simplistic, and extremely one-sided. As stories for young children, they are supposed to be. However, life isn’t like that. It is long, complicated, and has as many sides as there are participants. People (hopefully) grow up and learn this. Shouldn’t they have stories to help with that?

    It would be interesting to see if a fairy tale could be told as the one-sided and simplistic version, then told again in a more complex and multi-sided version. One that adds to instead of replacing the lessons of the simple version, and expands, rather than replaces the personalities of the characters. (Sleeping Beauty for Elementary School. for Middle School, for High School, …) Maleficent doesn’t do this by the way.

    And speaking of fairy tale lessons, there are many fairy tale lessons that are good and should be taught. Cannibalism is wrong. Promises must be kept. Be kind to strangers. Respect your elders (and everyone else). There are others that shouldn’t be taught, and some of the fairy tale remakes are trying to address this. A woman’s value is her physical beauty. Punishment for crimes should be carried out without recourse to the law. Marriage to a stranger is a reward. Because I say so. (Though that last is one that needs to dismantled carefully. It can actually be a good lesson for a two year old, while being a bad one for an eighteen year old.)

    • Well, “Trying To See All Sides” can be a bit dangerous when the “Bad Guy” is trying to kill you. [Sarcastic Grin]

      • During those few moments, absolutely. During the hours, days, weeks, months, or years leading up to a physical conflict, not so much.

        When the “Bad Guy” has a _real problem or justified issue_*, seeing it and addressing it before the trying to kill you part might be able to prevent said trying to kill you part. Assuming that the “Bad Guy” is a reasonable person, and that the problem or issue can actually be addressed. For some people, nothing is ever enough, and some problems can’t be fixed. Not even Miracle Max could bring Inigo Montoya’s father back to life, and nothing less was likely to fix that problem. On the other hand, a bank manager can actually listen to person claiming credit card fraud and fix the problem before that person decides that taking hostages is the only way to get a hearing.

        * Emphasis on real and justified. There are always going to be conflicts where one or more participants is not living in the real world, such as “you were in the way when I ran a stop sign and crashed into you so you need to pay for my new car”, or “you smiled at me in the grocery store, that means that you’re my soulmate but you betrayed me by thanking the UPS guy for your package so I have to kill you both.” In these cases, the other side is not really an option.

        • “You can avoid fighting if you just understand them better” is most often said by people laying the groundwork for unnecessary surrenders, or who have no real understanding of those who they are crying mercy on behalf of.

          The balance of the errors is more often in the direction of lacking resolve and decisiveness.

          Of course, that is Bob talking. Of those who mostly share Bob’s politics, and know him well, a significant fraction think Bob is a bit of a homicidal lunatic.

          Bob’s relevant extreme beliefs:
          1. War is not the exception, peace is the exception. The conditions for peace are unusual, take work, and are more absent than is often realized.
          2. Modern efforts at ‘Criminal Justice Reform’ are, in hindsight, largely based in fraud.
          3. Multiculturalism implies that recognizing common humanity is basically optional.
          4. In hindsight, the ABA and related parties constitute a criminal conspiracy to defraud the public.
          5. Current Disney executives should hang.
          6. Big Tech executives should hang.
          7. In a nuclear war with communists, a mutual kill is absolutely a victory.
          8. Sherman had an appropriate level of Christian love for the Southern Democrats. Likewise Curtis LeMay, Arthur Harris, and Ira Eaker.
          9. There was no fourth Punic war.

          That said, understanding your enemies has utility for efficiently and expediently killing them, and hence should never be neglected. If for no other reason than hardening one’s heart to do the needful.

    • For me personally, Maleficent would still grate, because I respond poorly to anything that seems to default to “society/the patriarchy/outside forces made me do this even though I know it is wrong.” Especially if revenge requires hurting people not involved in the initial offense/ offenses. Other people might not bristle and reject the story if it were not tied to the “sleeping Beauty” fairy tale so explicitly.

      I think you could do the simple version to complex version of story progression better with some of Charles Perrault’s versions of fairy tales than with the Grimm Märchen. I believe that it was Chesterton who pointed out that children want justice, because they are innocent. Adults want mercy (and nuance) because they know that they are guilty. The “gentler” modernized version of the Frau Pechte stories from Germany has the spoiled, selfish, greedy older sister slightly shamed, but then she repents and is rewarded. Frau Pechte is more merciful, and there is room for redemption. I personally find the revised story less satisfying.

      However, I also have a very dark and hard streak in my nature. I want to see the bullies and tormentors in stories receive justice, not mercy. This is not ideal. It is an abyss that all too easily stares back, to paraphrase Nietzsche.

    • “It would be interesting to see if a fairy tale could be told as the one-sided and simplistic version, then told again in a more complex and multi-sided version.”

      It can be, and has been. “Beauty and the Beast” is a favorite for this kind of treatment, but I’ve seen it done with others. As one example, there was a TV movie a few years ago based on “Jack and the Beanstalk” that posited that when the original Jack stole the goose that laid the golden eggs, the realm of the giants was ruined by drought and famine, and it fell to a descendant (the movie’s protagonist) to fix things.

  9. Well, seeing as how “Maleficent” was a name created by Disney, for their version of Sleeping Beauty, there isn’t any other context in which one could take it. Also, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (yes, there was a sequel) did give Prince Philip an evil family; it was just a different evil family.

    And certainly there are plenty of fairy tale retellings and elaborations already, which was one reason why Disney’s wasn’t that impressive. It was painfully clear that they were ripping off Wicked, when they could have done something better.

    • IIRC the “Evil Fairy” in the original Sleeping Beauty wasn’t an “active evil” in the story after she laid the curse on Beauty (although I think one version has her making sure the curse actually hit Beauty as Beauty’s parents tried to prevent the curse from hitting).

      IE The Prince didn’t have to do battle with the “Evil Fairy”.

      Of course, it’s hard to see “another side” in a being that casts a lethal curse on a baby because the baby’s parents didn’t invite her to the baby’s christening.

    • There is the context of those who have never seen the animated film, which was over 50 years old when Maleficent was made, and therefore can’t compare the two characters. Few though these individuals may be.

      • Are you familiar with Robin McKinley’s two versions of “Beauty and the Beast”? _Beauty_ is the more traditional version, and is great for teens and people just wanting a fun story. _Rose Daughter_ is a more complicated, somewhat darker version of the story, with an ending I found thought-provoking.

        • I read them once a few years ago, and just dug them out to refresh myself. Beauty is a pretty story, and the characters in it led a charmed life. They will be happy because there were never any real options or choices presented. The lives of the characters in Rose Daughter were less charmed, and when it comes to the ending, I do have to wonder- how will Beauty and Beast get along in the outside world? Will Jack the squire’s eldest son be a problem in the future? Will Beauty learn to be greenwitch? There is still a great deal of the fairy tale “because I say so”, but there is a flexibility and space for different roads to happily ever after that there wasn’t in Beauty.

  10. Horror is said to be the most moral genre, because it requires good and evil.

    Oooh. This explains some design choices in a story I recently grew a bit obsessed with.

    Genres include a combination of xianxia, epic fantasy, and horror, especially cosmic horror.

    I’d already been thinking about the xianxia and the epic fantasy interactions, and how the horror was interacting with the dungeon crawling. Hadn’t thought about the horror and xianxia interactions.

    Xianxia has several defining elements. I’m certain that two are a) a magic system inspired by taoism that also allows slowly casting a series of spells that slowly transform the caster into a more powerful being b) a plot that involves travelling up the power ranks allowed by the system. Xianxa magic casters are called cultivators, and are sorta kung fu wizards. Culivators tend to live on their own, or in groups withdrawn at least socially from the mortal world. Xianxia genre was at least partly invented in the PRC, and the cultures of cultivating societies tend to be at least a little not nice.

    Anyway, it is a xianxia with horror elements, and that may explain why i) it definitely describes many cultivators behaving in immoral ways ii) works hard to establish protagonists with good moral qualities.

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