The Appearance of Evil

Apparently, there was a music awards event this past weekend, and someone thought it would be “edgy” and “transgressive” and shock the ‘danes if people dressed up as Old Scratch and she-devils and did something.

Yawn. That hasn’t been edgy since, oh, the mid 1970s, maybe? The Babylon Bee had the right of it, when they interviewed Satan and he distanced himself from the show.

For westerners, when we think of “The Devil,” what comes to mind in most cases, at least at first, is a guy in red with goat horns or something equally small, with cloven hoofs, and perhaps a tail with a fork/arrowhead on the end. (Like on Underwood Deviled Ham, but more so.)

The original. Current versions lack the long claws. Source:

Or Old Scratch night wear a dapper suit and well polished, expensive shoes, but still has horns. See Samuel Ramey doing Mephistopheles for an example. The Church of Satan uses a more medieval image, focusing on the animalistic, goat-like saytr imagery, along with inverted pentagrams and so on. It does shock a little, but more because of their purported belief system and embrace of what most people consider at the very least off-kilter from society as a whole. It’s not the image, but the people who follow it that cause upset. And even then . . . It’s not surprising, alas.

Satan doesn’t shock most people any more. He’s too obvious. “Oh look, they’re trying to upset Christians by pretending to be witches and the Devil. Oh yeah. Yawn.” That’s pretty much the reaction from people after the Grammy™ Award show. Ho hum, it’s the Devil.

I suspect that if an embodiment of evil actually exists, like Satan/the Devil or Ahriman, I suspect he no longer appears in the usual forms. We expect evil to look like the devil, or to be ugly and warped and carry a sign saying “Wanna be Evil? Ask me How!” Evil exists, but it’s supposed to either 1) wear a WWII uniform and be obvious, or 2) dress like a Fortune 500 CEO, perhaps wearing a cross as a tie-tac (if you watch network TV in the US).

I was thinking about this because of trying to come up with an antagonist who is not evil, perhaps, but very intent on a single goal, one that will perhaps cause him to do a lot of harm as he tries to attain it. The goal is laudable, at least in the general sense – provide for his family and recover from a bad business year or three. He’s not evil in himself, although his way of attaining his goal might sink to that level, perhaps. It’s still early in the story.

Modern evil tends to be impersonal in many cases. The bureaucrat is just following procedures and rules, it’s not about you. The government agency is just trying to ensure that everyone is respected and treated fairly. The mugger doesn’t care who you are as an individual – you just register as a likely target. You fit a certain pattern type, and so the teenaged thugs go after you. Wheels grind in the machine, and you happen to have gotten caught up in them. Too bad, you’ll suffer. Sucks to be you.

I think one reason people* seem to prefer genre fiction to literary fiction is that most genre fiction has a clear good guy and bad guy, and good wins over a simple, clear evil. OK, not too simple unless it is a short story. Literary fiction seems to gravitate toward more shades of grey and “the hero is just as bad as the villain, and good is just evil that society approves of for the moment.” Not all literary fiction, to be sure, and some literary-influenced genre fiction boasts about the shades of grey, about being transgressive and edgy and “privileging” something or the other to show how terrible Jewish or Christian norms are for some people. And some genre fiction highlights very corrosive and demeaning relationships (and NOT clearly up front and consensual with both parties fully aware of where things are going to go, or might go.) Those stories imply that unhealthy relationships are actually OK, or even desirable, because, um, well, they feel so good? He must love me to do this to me? He’s a supernatural creature so it is totally great and understandable even if it hurts?

That’s evil. Or rather, the social and editorial forces that encourage that sort of story are evil. It’s not overt like a guy in red with horns, but it still corrodes, and hurts and causes damage in some people. Evil implies that being honorable and faithful and liking clearly defined heroes who are not just one shade of morality better than the villain is wrong. Evil uses cries of “justice” to invert real justice and oppression. Sometimes, evil is obvious, lying and tormenting people because it can, because it enjoys watching suffering, because “those over there are not really people.” Or are unbelievers. Or belong to a different tribe, however tribe is defined.

I don’t like sneaky evil. I also don’t like people pretending to be Satan and his minions. They numb viewers to true evil, and they are uncreative. “The ‘danes” aren’t shocked by that, not after, oh, Madonna’s music videos, or the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

*Some people really enjoy literary fiction and prefer the slower pace and focus on the inner life, or on the beauties of language. Some literary fiction has clear good and evil divides. I like some High Literature. Just, not a lot of modern literature.


20 thoughts on “The Appearance of Evil

  1. I hear you, but I’m afraid that my life experience makes it difficult for me to be so tolerant of any portrayal of evil. The portrayal itself may not be intended to be evil as such, but the reality of what it portrays is never to be taken lightly.

    I guess I’ve just seen too much of the dark side of life. Examples:
    – Mutual consent BDSM? Bull. I’ve seen violence in relationships that’s anything but funny, anything but consensual. As a result, my instinctive reaction to violence of any kind in any relationship is very simple and very straightforward: dispense as much violence as necessary to the violent partner to ensure that he/she never does it again.
    – A Satanic dance performance, as we saw this week? Nope. Satan worship is a thing. So is demonic worship of entities that may not be overtly identified as Satanic, but have the same effect and bear the same fruit. Visceral reaction: stop the ceremony in its tracks. If that can’t be done legally, make sure those involved are as ostracized and shunned as far as possible by all right-thinking people. Mere participation in such things tarnishes people, sometimes irretrievably. “You can’t pick up a turd by the clean end.”
    – Exploitation of others in the name of religion? Absolute no-no. Far too many otherwise good churches do this, using a “guilt trip” approach to dun money and/or material support out of their followers. If such support doesn’t come from the heart, voluntarily and without pressure, there’s something at least a little bit off. Emotional blackmail or manipulation is far too common in all denominations, and has to be guarded against diligently and vigilantly.

    There’s too much evil in the world. Too much of it is there because we tolerate it. We start by trying to avoid it in our own lives, but we also need to see it for what it is in the world around us, and refuse to tolerate or be associated with it. To see the results of such tolerance/association, look at our homeless population. Look at the drug abuse situation. Look at battered women shelters. The list is endless.

    Zero tolerance.

  2. Art inspired by evil – the Devil, witchcraft, and such – was kind of a big thing in the 19th Century European music scene, and there are plenty of evil-inspired paintings from much earlier.
    Fascination with evil often provides inspiration to the sort of twisted minds that produce great art. And to the sort of minds that produce mediocre art, or trashy non-art. And to the warped little minds that perpetrate small-to-middling-scale horrors.
    (I’ll note here that some great artists – perhaps most – should never be allowed power over others, especially children.)

    Seems to me that the perpetrators of truly great atrocities are more likely to be inspired by wildly misguided ideas of good – they latch onto ideas that sound wonderful, and launch cults or political movements to make the world a wonderful place according to those ideas, heedless of reality. (We may wish to explore where those ideas come from, and why they appeal so strongly to those in a position to follow them.)

    The relationships in the “teen paranormal romance” genre and its derivatives? Agree completely. Totally corrosive examples, and the idea that it’s good to submit to evil’s desires.. oog.

    • I was reading a book in a very popular paranormal romance series, and in the second chapter hit a rape. No, it’s not just “the female protagonist letting him have his way in order to save him,” despite the common trope. That’s rape, no matter how the author tried to frame it. If it had been a print book, it would have hit the wall. Instead it got deleted from the e-reader right quick pronto. (Interestingly, later books in the series don’t go that far, although I still have BIG problems with the relationships depicted. I wonder if the author and publisher got enough angry replies and reviews that they toned things down.)

  3. :poking at it:
    I think… part of it, is connected to the corrosive, sneaky evil you mention.

    It’s harder to “sell” a malformed sense of right and wrong in genre fiction, because people are LOOKING at it.

    You can more easily push “all X are Y” when it’s supposed to be a section of the real world, but if you do an identical scene in a fantasy world– suddenly folks are LOOKING, and they notice “wait, the point of view character is acting like all these guys are inherently horrible, even when there’s nothing shown for why that would be… are they being clever?”

    Which can lead to recognizing a story as A Bunch Of Horrible People Being Horrible To Eachother. (a sadly frequent fail-state of fantastic fiction in the last half century or so!)

  4. More angry and disturbed that the humans behind a broadcast awards show thought they were able to blatantly promote their dark master, without penalty. They were not pretending, not in H^&llmouth related businesses. This was far, far past the “but it’s just …” first warning, or the steady corrosion of sensibilities.

    It might seem impersonal, until the first Antifa slams you with a brick because they can, or an HR functionary tells you you’re terminated because of anonymous complaints that your straight, God-fearing life is viewed as “threatening” by someone evil, or spindled, folded, and mutilated by said evil – and you can’t confront your accuser, because “threatening”. The last chapter of “The Godfather” stated that to the Godfather, all business was personal. To evil, it’s all personal, and business practice or non-personal is used as a cover.

    Much in agreement with Peter on this.

  5. There’s sometimes a lot of grey spaces and questionable spaces in the human existence. And sometimes “evil” is a lack of perspective.

    But the world is not always grey. There is black and white, good and evil, and some acts instantly should put you beyond the pale. And if you can’t understand that concept, you’re just an enabler of acts of evil.

    • Took liverwurst sandwiches on the bus the first day of the my high school senior trip. Grossed out half my fellow schoolmates. Yum!

  6. I can’t remember the last time I had deviled ham, but I remember taking sandwiches of the stuff on hikes with my parents when I was young.

  7. I think it is important to say, as directly as possible, that many of those who believe in the devil, (points to self) also believe that if you open up to him he’ll come, and he won’t leave easily. It can take an exorcist to get rid of him, and it isn’t easy for the exorcist! People just don’t always understand or believe this.

    • No, a lot don’t understand, or choose not to understand. That’s why I flat out refuse to “play” with anything occult, and I avoid a lot of the pagan rock and related music. I don’t know what might open the door, but I have a few suspicions, so I stay away from the door.

  8. How evil is depicted in popular culture…

    I’ve noticed that depictions of evil in SF/F tend to be a lot more wide-ranging than depictions of evil in other forms of fiction. In SF/F evil isn’t just power-mad emperors and mass murderers; evil (or at least the potential for it) is everywhere, all the time, and good characters have to be forever on their guard. Even a minor flaw could be the first step down that slippery slope. Tolkien was some kind of wizard at exploring this: his good guys are clearly good and his bad guys are clearly bad, and yet all of his good characters are flawed in ways that can turn them to evil – not just selfish bastards like Feanor, but even the noblest ones like Gandalf and Galadriel, whose flaw is that they are so determined to do good that they can easily be misled into doing evil in the name of good.

    Modern, popular mass media… well, it’s been said that the Devil’s greatest victory was convincing people that he doesn’t exist, and general “literature” has jumped into that abyss of “no one is evil, just misunderstood” with great glee. Maybe once it was edgy and new, but now it’s just boring. I don’t know where this idea that “the hero is just as bad as the villain, and good is just evil that society approves of for the moment” came from, but it runs so counter to the real world that it can’t be an accident – somebody developed and pushed it for reasons of their own. Who? Where? When? Why? Dunno, but I’m sure it happened. And it was about as evil an act as any I’ve ever heard of.

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