The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television

Martin F. Norden (ed.),
The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television.
Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2007.
ISBN: 978 90 420 2324 6
US$77.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Rodopi)

The publication of an anthology of essays which strive to probe disciplinary boundaries through rigorous inquiries into specific subjects is an idea whose time has come. This is the purpose of the At the Interface/Probing the Boundaries Project (ISSN: 1570-7113) with series editors Dr. Robert Fisher (Network Founder and Network Leader for Inter-Disciplinary.Net) and Professor Nancy Billias, (Department of Philosophy, Saint Joseph College, Hertford). The two oversee diverse monographs and collections which promote cutting edge inter-disciplinary theories that engage readers through innovative dialogue. This dialogue by definition suggests new multidisciplinary possibilities of national and international scope. Volume 41 of the project, The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television, is part of the Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness Project (the website can be found at, a group of scholars which has been conferencing since 2000, and boasts five publications since.

Edited by Martin F. Norden, The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television begins admirably, with Norden’s introductory remarks on the linguistic power of the word evil. Giving examples of historically recent uses of the word, he argues that events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks on The World Trade Center and the Virginia Tech campus shootings in which over twenty students were killed, combined with current trends towards moving-image media becoming the means by which the face of evil is revealed to the public consciousness, has reintroduced the term evil into everyday, secular vocabulary. He draws specific attention to the events of 9/11, for the attack on New York City gave media outlets the fodder for a new dichotomization of good and evil, to the extent that it is not unusual to find even government officials attempting to use either-or fallacies to create a sense of Otherness towards those who are labeled as evil, or simply as enemies. Having done his research fairly well (though not exhaustively), Norden cites various studies and theorists, peppering their theories with idiosyncratic studies and anecdotal evidence; these, however, often lead to compelling discussions about various types of evil, such as what he terms “mundane evil”, which results when people lack the courage to act out of their convictions so as to prevent destruction. Unfortunately, Norden proves to be a better theorist than editor. One is to assume that he set out to produce an anthology with a sense of unity, establishing up front that each chapter, although penned by a different author, should examine the face of evil, and that there should be some sense of chronological evolution. If this were his intention, the execution leaves a good bit to be desired. Despite the diverse approaches taken by the various authors of the book’s chapters, the reader gets no clear sense of how the essays/chapters integrate into a whole, and worse yet, comes away with no clear sense of the anthology’s purpose being achieved. In other words, I had no clearer visual image of the face of evil, of how it evolves and is always evolving, than I had before picking up the text.

That being said, I will argue that in the case of this text, the sum of parts is actually better than the whole. Looking at the essays individually, some stand out as being excellent resources for any scholar studying how modern films/movies and television series more strongly inform the public’s conceptions about the concept of evil than do religious writings. For example, the opening chapter, by Matthew Soar, titled ‘The Bite at the Beginning: Encoding Evil Through Film Title Design’, takes a much needed look at the idea that opening credits can be a filmmaker’s initial visual attempt at a definition of evil. Soar deals with three opening credits, in this case associated with horror films that assign evil the face of the psychopathic killer: Psycho (USA 1960), Se7en(USA 1995) and American Psycho (USA/Canada 2000). He establishes the foundation for his theories historically, beginning with the artistry of Saul Bass, further arguing that ever since graphic designers have taken over the responsibilities for opening credits, the overwhelming question that scholars of media representation must ask pertain to the methods by which evil can be briefly visualized. To offer an answer, he presents a discussion of two of the most acclaimed opening credits in film, those for Hitchcock’s Psycho and Fincher’s Se7en, and his discussion is informed by insightful remarks about title sequences in general, such as the fact that they can be used to “repackage” a film. Leaving no detail unexamined, he notes the importance of type face as a visual cue, citing examples of Bass’s use of Venus Bold and News Gothic Bold in Psycho and Kyle Cooper’s hand written lettering in Se7en, juxtaposed against the all caps sans serif face used for the title. He contrasts these more artistic uses of fonts against the opening credits of American Psycho, which uses mundane lettering but specialized cameras to trick viewers with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek sequence.

Equally admirable are Linda Bradley Salamon’s ‘Screening Evil in History: Rope, Compulsion, Scarface, Richard III’ and Thomas Hibbs’ ‘Virtue, Vice, and the Harry Potter Universe’. Concentrating on the theme of the supernatural, the latter examines Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (UK/USA 2001) as a film that addresses the cultural nihilism that preceded it – the idea of good as being simple, while evil is complex and alluring. Hibbs argues that in the early Harry Potter films, evil is singular and simple, represented as the will to power, while good is a shared appreciation of a set of virtues. He uses Voldemort’s raw desire for power to show the unattractiveness of evil, for Voldemort is portrayed as a character who lives a half-life, without a body, and he is interpreted by Harry as a desperate degenerate trying to wield power from a powerless position. On the other hand, Harry, Hermione, and Ron work collectively towards an ultimate good. Salamon’s contribution argues that setting evil in a historical past allows filmmakers to comment on the present possibilities of evil. She takes a sociological or cultural studies stance, examining how two different fictionalized accounts of the 1924 killing of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Dickie Loeb dramatize the murder differently, especially in terms of motive (motiveless malignity versus a murder motivated by a skewed value system). Her overall argument is that the idea of relativism keeps modern audiences from coding some actions too clearly as evil, despite both films having textbook examples of evil, defined here as murder by a larger-than-life figure. To test her hypothesis, Salamon compares Rope (USA 1948) to Compulsion (USA 1959), noting that the latter was an early entry into the capital punishment debate and dealt with the infamous murder at a time when society had had time to get over the post WWII dichotomy of good and evil, as well as the era of McCarthy hysteria. She argues that this binary sense of values is essential to the earlier film. Salamon’s arguments, such as her theories of how class privilege is satirized in each film, with a discussion of the use of Nietzschean philosophy as the basis for nihilism and murder, are solidly based in the films themselves. Her one week theory has to do with the treatment of homosexuality in the two films; on that count, she gives what one can only call a forced reading. She also includes insightful commentary on Scarface(USA 1983) and Richard III (UK/USA 1995), couching these as films that look at power grabs, or evil as relentless desire, as also being conceptualizations of evil (for example, Richard III illustrates the evils of Britain having swung far to the right during the Thatcher years).

Though not quite as comprehensively argued as the chapters by Soar, Salamon, and Hibbs, Mike Frank’s ‘The Radical Monism of Alfred Hitchcock’ does allow for an interesting, hybridized psychoanalytical approach to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (USA 1943), The Lodger (UK 1926), Vertigo (USA 1958), and Psycho (1960). Frank begins by acknowledging two of the accepted views of Hitchcockian evil – that evil is not entirely Other and that gender roles and their relationship to sexuality often inform the evil in Hitchcock’s suspense films. Considering the roles of both guilt and sex, with the ultimate goal of unifying feminist criticism with the concept of moral drama, he balances this reading against Hitchcock’s penchant for prioritizing theatrical technique, or the rhetoric of film, over subject matter or moral. He updates the theories of Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, who argued that Hitchcock, despite his quirkiness, irony, and ambiguity, created a moral center based on Manichean duality – even though ultimately evil is not contained solely in the evil characters. To do so, he projects Rohmer’s and Chabrol’s assumptions forward in time, juxtaposing them against Robin Wood’s later criticism, which added some complexity – positing evil as essential, not circumstantial – organic to each human being’s makeup. In what amounts to quite the balancing act, Wood relates both of these fundamentally different readings of Hitchcock to sexuality, and establishes that there is somewhat of a comfortable fit. Like Cynthia Freeland’s essay which is to follow, Frank’s chapter touches on a diversity of theory, but he unfortunately fails to make any convincing arguments for a sense of evolution of the face of evil. Freeland’s ‘Natural Evil in the Horror Film: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds’ is interesting in that it differentiates between what the author terms Landscape Horror and Creature Horror (although on a basic level, one can argue that this is simply a misinterpretation of atmosphere – which is a trope or convention – as being a horror type). Also like Frank, Freeland infuses her argument with readings with Freud’s “The Uncanny” and Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, but she fails to explain how animals in general, and birds in particular, fit this theory. In fact, both Frank and Freeland stretch Carroll’s theories in what seem like attempts to turn The Philosophy of Horror into straw man fodder. Either would have been better served to consult other theorists of the horror text, Carol Clover, William Patrick Day, Terry Heller, Isabel Cristina Pinedo, David Punter, David J. Schow, or Jack Sullivan, to name a few. On the positive side, like Frank, Freeland challenges the usual psychoanalytical reading, of The Birds (USA 1963) as being about female sexuality as a transgressive force, positing in its place a theory that is much less of a stretch – the idea of evil’s being the unnatural and unexplainable.

Some of the weaker contributions include Matt Hills’ and Steven Jay Schneider’s “‘The Devil Made Me Do It!’: Representing Evil and Disarticulating Mind/Body in the Supernatural Serial Killer Film,” Robin R. Means Coleman’s and Jasmine Nicole Cobb’s ‘Training Day and The Shield: Evil Cops and the Taint of Blackness’, and Norden’s ‘The ‘Uncanny’ Relationship of Disability and Evil in Film and Television’. Hills and Schneider begin with a shaky premise, that serial killer narratives can be categorized as being “natural” and “supernatural,” a differentiation that may be academically viable but which comes across as strained when tested, considering that all serial killer fictions recreate the mundane murderer as a larger-than-life, hence other-than-natural, character.

Furthermore, the authors create sub-categories which seem more like hair-splitting for the purposes of analysis, particularly since the categories of franchise killers, supernatural killers, and possessed killers hardly seem mutually exclusive. Like Frank and Freeland, the two respond to Carroll’s publication (using him somewhat as a straw man), crafting their definition of the monster. The central argument put forth by Hills and Schneider is that in some texts, there is a hybridization of the serial killer and supernatural entity. To prove this, they refer to Angel Heart (USA/Canada/UK 1987), Child’s Play(USA 1988), Shocker (USA 1989), The Frighteners (New Zealand/USA 1996), Fallen (USA 1998), and Frailty (USA/Germany/Italy 2001). The same strained reasoning can be found in Coleman and Cobb, who discuss the fictional detectives Alonzo Harris of Training Day (USA/Australia 2001) and Vic Mackey of The Shield (2002-), calling them the new faces of evil because both are rough cops; however, this cultural critical argument posits that Harris only can be considered truly evil because he is black. Based on the theories of Nietzsche and St. Augustine, Coleman and Cobb establish Harris as the modernization of the “brutal buck,” and furthermore argue that this makes him evil, although the two do equivocate by adding that perhaps he merely possesses some traits of evil. They also argue that Mackey, who is based on Alonzo, is capable of selflessness and remorse, which prevent him from being completely evil.

However, they strain logic by reasoning that this is mainly due to the fact that Mackey is white, a presupposition which ignores the difference in medium (a film, which can have as its moral center an evil character, and a television series, which cannot, considering its audience demographics and dependence on serialization), and ignores the existence of a truly evil white police officer in Ernest R. Dickerson’s film Bones (English/French/Spanish 2001), where Michael T. Weiss is truly unsalvageable as Detective Lupovich. Though not quite as strained, Norden’s argument that popular media is inundated with the disabled “obsessive avenger” (another possible face of evil) comes across as largely unverifiable, perhaps because a study of such magnitude needs a monograph length treatment. To his credit, Norden does challenge the much accepted and terribly strained Freudian reading of E. T. A. Hoffman, where the loss of vision equals a castration complex. However, he replaces it with an equally incredulous reading whereby the loss of any limb can be linked to a fear of castration.

Aside from the noted issues with some of the essays themselves, one cannot help but notice an apparent lack of television series criticism in this anthology. With the exception of The Shield, no television series is even considered, and the only other example of television even being examined is the essay ‘Televising 9/11 and Its Aftermath: The Framing of George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Politics of Good and Evil’, by Gary R. Edgerton, William B. Hart, and Frances Hassencahl. Certainly this will lead readers to wonder as to the reasons authors were not solicited to examine series such as (to name a few obvious choices) The Twilight Zone/Night Gallery, Dark ShadowsFreddie’s NightmaresFriday the 13th (The Series)Alien NationAmerican GothicKolchak: The Night Stalker, or Tales from the Crypt. This incredible limitation should have been addressed by either the text editor or the series editors.

Tony Fonseca,
Nicholls State University, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 31 July 2008