You might remember movie characters like Hannibal Lecter, who suffered from hair loss, or the Wicked Witch of the West with her green skin and bumpy complexion. Turns out, these movie villains aren’t the only ones suffering from unflattering skin conditions. Six of the top 10 villains in film sport scars, deep wrinkles, and warts, according to a study published today in JAMA Dermatology. That’s detrimental for people who deal with these conditions in real life, the study authors say.
Filmmakers have been using skin conditions, scars, and hair loss as a shorthand for “evildoer” since the silent film era. Back then, films — much like classic theater — had to rely on exaggerated visuals to communicate a character’s role as hero, villain, or comedy relief. Today, the makeup method is still in use, particularly with physical imperfections signaling which character is “the villain.”
Researchers pulled from the top 10 films featured in the American Film Institute’s 2003 “100 Greatest Heroes and Villains List,” which includes Psycho, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Exorcist. They analyzed both heroes and villains for “significant” skin ailments, where they were located, and how bad they were. The villains were found to sport multiple facial scars, facials warts, and grayish skin tones. They also suffer from conditions like dark under eye circles or bulbous noses.
The team also observed that red hair in male characters often “denotes villains, rustics, clowns, weaklings, and savage barbarians.” Instead, red-haired female characters are more sexualized (which makes them like all other women in the history of media).
Why does it matter that our boy Darth Vader suffers from hair loss, facial scars, deep wrinkles, and a shadow-kissed gray complexion? It all comes down to how we interpret these characteristics in the real world. By persistently giving villains these conditions, film may be contributing “to a tendency toward prejudice in our culture and facilitate misunderstanding of particular disease entities among the general public,” the study says.
The heroes on that top 10 list, meanwhile, get off easy. Researchers note that both Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca have some facial scarring, but that it’s far more subtle than their villainous counterparts. Science won’t tell us that comparing Indiana Jones in his prime to Hannibal Lecter is cruel, but good sense certainly does.