From Ravana to Loki, Mae Nak to Medusa, Pukjinskwes to Cruella, villains real and fictional have transcended the ages alongside the heroes of their stories. And they’ve taken on very different shapes over time. From supernatural beings to mythological figures to flesh-and-blood murderers, we need someone to be the big bad.

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After all, villains are what makes heroes heroic. With nothing to concentrate all that heroic energy on, heroes can become dangerously bored. (Paris, languishing on Mount Ida, waiting for goddesses to stand before him in judgment, I’m writing about you.) Or, worse, they might never become heroes at all. Sure, sometimes we get that bittersweet twist of the hero becoming the villain while we watch and are moved from love to hate—or, in the rarest of occasions, a villain who becomes a hero (and lives). But we, the common humans trundling through life, have always needed heroes and villains to root for and to rail against.

But these delineations aren’t as simple in real life, and nothing demonstrates that more than a massive public health crisis. If only we had that easy identification in a pandemic. COVID-19 has a name but no face, and it will not be moved, cannot be punished, and according to experts, may never actually be defeated.

Perhaps that is why, as a society, we are expending so much time trying to identify the villain in the story we’re all living and writing—from a lab in Wuhan to the man who fatally shot a cashier after being asked to put on a mask. If the enemy is a natural disaster or a plague, there may not be a clear villain.

“Villains partly are a way of reflecting on humans,” says Tara Lee, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia’s school of journalism, writing, and media. She says we tend to construct our selves in opposition to what is called “the other.”

“This kind of oppositional positioning allows for the self to basically be stable and to feel good about itself and allows for everything the self doesn’t want to be to be cast on this other,” she says. “I think that’s why the idea of evil is so comforting—because it is the kind of prop for the self.”

Villains are supposed to teach us something about how to act in society—it’s one of the reasons why fables and fiction prefer clearly defined good and bad. The dark and the light. The Jedi and the Sith. Being somewhere in between is unwieldy in terms of educating the masses.

“If we think of even classic fairy tales, their premise is a kind of binary notion of good and evil,” says Lee, “and [can allow] for a way to control the population, whether that’s overtly or through their own internalization of these kinds of narratives that promote a certain type of behaviour that is good versus a certain other type of behaviour that is bad.”

These types of good versus evil stories are still big today. Consider the fascination with human villainy most recently embodied by the explosive popularity of the true crime podcast. Evan Ratliff is the author of The Mastermind: A True Story of Murder, Empire, and a New Kind of Crime Lord and a co-host of the Longform Podcast. He says crime stories are “generally easier to tell because they follow a certain narrative structure. Someone has abrogated society’s laws and we’re trying to figure out whether they really did that. And, if they did, how they did it and why they did it, and it sort of follows this natural arc. And I think, from a reader’s perspective, it’s very easy to fall into that narrative of ‘Who did this, why did they do it, and what are all the ins and outs of how they got caught?’”

Yet great stories and the big bads that drive them exist on a spectrum of complexity, from the shallow to the elaborate. Making an antagonist a fully fleshed-out character with motivations beyond the seven deadly sins (greed and lust are favourites) improves the story, and they may contribute to the longevity of our most popular stories. Think of Homer’s Iliad and its multitude of heroes and villains. The argument for characterizing the Greek gods who instigated the Trojan War can be made very easily, but the poor characters who fought and died over the decade of the war certainly didn’t know that. That raises the question of whom the audiences of that time identified as the villains in the story.

The epic poem is written about events that supposedly occurred 400 years earlier, but contemporary Greeks (meaning Greeks who lived in the seventh century BCE) viewed it as a guide for heroic and villainous acts of war. Did the Greeks repeating this story prefer the flesh-and-blood villains to the untouchable Greek gods? Hard to say, but focusing on the gods would seem to make for as unsatisfactory an enemy as a virus. Better to blame Paris and his lust or Priam and his insecurities. Those are humans with human faults, people whose tragic fates can serve as lessons for the rest of us.

Maybe this is partly why the TV show The Walking Dead, currently in its eleventh and final season, has been so popular. Many zombie stories have very clear definitions of the good side and the bad—if you’re alive, you’re often on the good side. Zombies as we understand them today first appeared in the texts of ancient Mesopotamia and the epic poem Gilgamesh. In it, the goddess Ishtar makes a threat to “raise up the dead and they shall eat the living.” They are an enemy, a villain both terrifying and unstoppable, driven by the whims of a goddess.

The Walking Dead is also filled with dead villains. Or is it? While zombie stories have endured for thousands of years, shows like The Walking Dead have toyed with this line. As the group of survivors wanders through the wilderness of Atlanta, they begin to turn on one another. Characters like Negan, who torments our favourite family of survivors, are so much easier to hate than the mindless undead he’s trying to escape.

When we don’t have someone to blame for the bad times, we turn on one another—historically and in fiction. It’s why contemporary politicians position themselves in us versus them scenarios with such ease and confidence.

There’s an episode of The West Wing in which CJ comes to the realization that the White House is fighting a public relations war with no clear enemy, which for her (as the press secretary) means a nightmare of backpedalling, excuses, and explaining the president’s actions over and over again. She decides to move the focus by arousing an enemy in the House of Representatives, giving a face and a name to a villain she knows she can fight.

But what if we never know the origins of this pandemic? What if we can never put a name and a face to the evil that has taken so much from us?

The virus is something that gets inside us and tries to kill us, and we’ve been telling those kinds of stories for a very long time because they are extra terrifying. The Alien movie franchise is the extreme version of this, but it gave us a simple villain. Sure, they were almost impossible to kill and often popped up (literally) at the absolute worst moments, but they were physical and real and very easily hateable. Pandemics and viruses are not so simple—they are a multifarious villain that stages cellular-level attacks no one can see.

“I think, if this [pandemic] was a story, the reality of why we’re all suffering is so very complex,” says Ratliff.

“It’s not as satisfying to say our health care system is broken and lots of people made little understandable mistakes based on bad information over a period of months that left us in a just truly terrible situation. That’s not a satisfying narrative.”

It probably won’t feel satisfying, but if we could come out of this pandemic with the understanding that a single big bad villain does not exist, it could be a sign of progress as a species. Lee says that not being able to find a specific group or someone to blame is a hopeful sign since “it prevents that kind of complacency of falling into that simple separation between self and other, or good versus evil.”

“It allows for a kind of interrogation of self that could happen to shine a light on certain aspects of society that have kind of been glossed over, like the racial and social inequalities related to treatment of the environment. So perhaps evil really isn’t there. That evil was actually among ourselves.”

Angela Misri
Angela Misri is an assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s school of journalism and a former digital director of The Walrus. She is also the author of the Portia Adams Adventures and Pickles vs. the Zombies series. She writes about digital journalism, technology, politics, and pop culture for many media outlets.