The modern drive to complicate evil fascinates me. Over and over again, we take creatures that were once considered purely evil and tell their side of the story. I wonder two things. First, where did the need for pure evil come from. Second, why do we now feel the need to redeem these characters?
My first introduction to this idea was when I read The Magic Circle by Donna Jo Napoli back in middle school. It came out in 1995, around the same time as a popular adult retelling series that my mother didn’t let me read. (I wish I could remember the name of it now… anyone have a clue what female author took the world by storm in the late 1990s with adult fairy tale retellings?) Anyway, The Magic Circle was my alternative to that series, and I loved it. It tells the background story of the witch in Hansel and Gretel, including how she really just wanted to save the children who wandered into her woods.
It blew my twelve-year-old mind.
The witch had a back story. She had desires and dreams and goals. The witch wasn’t actually evil.
After that, I’ve come across a lot of redemption retellings. The “real” story of the three little pigs, where the wolf is the good guy and the three little pigs are the mean ones, as well as many other wolf/pig retellings, all of which teach young children to talk out their problems and come up with creative solutions instead of being afraid of an evil wolf.
I personally feel like these are two very different situations. One involves a misunderstood human while another involves an innately evil archetype. Of course, wolves don’t have to be evil just because they are natural predators. But what about inherently evil beings?
Take a look at what Anne Rice did for vampires, and really, the doors she opened for all supernatural creatures. What were once depictions of only evil became complicated. More human.
I feel like since then every creature has been redeemed. Demons have been written as good. Vampire or werewolf? Keep reading, because it can go either way.
In a similar direction, we’ve gotten very interested in the backstory of antagonists. Instead of having the evil Freddy, Jason, or Mike. Almost every horror reboot dives into the creation of their monster and creates a moment of sympathy for them. Now days, one common piece of advice for writers is that if we write evil characters, they need a reason for their actions. They cannot be purely evil or chaotic. Readers no longer accept that simplicity. Why? I wanted to take a deeper look into the redemption of evil.
The Role of Evil
To understand why evil intrigues us, we first must understand what role evil plays in stories. In my experience, evil gets two treatments. The first is exploitation and the second is exploration.
The first stories seem to have exploited the concept of evil to build habits. Stay out of the forest, there is evil in there. Keep away from the rapids, an evil creature will suck you under. Stay away from strangers, they could be evil. Each of these things stories warned us against had their own dangers — wild animals, getting lost, being swept away, or being kidnapped. But the dangers were not evil. In most cases, they were natural dangers. So why make them evil?
Creating an evil force gave the risk direction. It turned it from something random to something pointed, out to get you. This targeting raised people’s sense of self-preservation and served to reinforce the need to avoid these dangers, which probably kept plenty of people safe.
However, not all stories used evil to keep people safe. They also used it to set a moral code. Parents taught their children to behave and submit, lest the boogy-man come for them. Whoever controlled the stories, could control society. Shaping behaviors and boundaries rooted in the fear of evil.
Eventually stories morphed out of the power of the few and educated into the hands of… just about anyone. This led to different kinds of stories. Instead of the original morality tales, we began to get more intimate confessionals. We got closer to the storyteller. We began seeking out books that represented us or taught us more about ourselves. We had choice when it came to our stories.
This leads to an exploration of evil. What makes us afraid? Disgusted? Why? What about the monster is scary? How does our fear work? Can we control it? Ultimately, we find ourselves redefining good and evil, which is a critical step between exploitation of evil and redemption of evil.
To me, the logical extension of exploration is redemption. Once we fully understand our fears, we begin to love them. But I think it is also part of the social tides. We’ve gone from suspicion of all outsiders to some sort of expected understanding and acceptance. Of course, not all people follow this new social outlook. A lot of people still operate on the different = evil from exploitative stories. So it’s a sort of feedback loop, and once you get into it, you crave more and more understanding of “evil” and “reason” behind it.
Can It Be Too Much?
I remember reading that Joss Whedon (I know, problematic) didn’t want the vampires on Buffy to be sympathetic. He wanted them to be classic, unquestionably evil. He didn’t want the romance of evil that Anne Rice had started. Instead, he wanted to push vampires back into the exploitation phase — where he could use them as clean allegory.
Except Angel, he had a soul, right?
But then fans had a different idea. They fell in love with Spike. And Whedon hated this. He wanted Spike to be clearly evil and despised. But the problem was that society had already complicated evil. We had already started redeeming the other. So there couldn’t be any real, unredeemable evil.
This makes me wonder if sometimes we go too far. I get giving reason to our human characters. But what about our monsters? What about our demons? Can there be creatures that have no chance of redemption? And what do we lose if we don’t have these?