Your recent article on Wednesday got me wondering…
Back in the 60s, when The Addams Family and The Munsters debuted, you could get away w/ having weird-looking people on a “scary” set, eating stuff like newt eyes in an arsenic sauce, and the audience would accept that as monstrous.
Would that still work for that type of story today? Or do modern audiences demand that monsters actually BE monsters, actually attack, hurt, and even kill people?
Thank you,Dave L
Hey Dave, great to hear from you again!
What The Addams Family (I’m less familiar with The Munsters) does is a little something we call The Aesthetic of Villainy. That is, they do things we associate with villains, but not in a way to make them seem actually bad.
They do this through a combination of having dark clothing/decorations and by talking about the bad things they’ll do, but never actually doing them. In the 1960s sitcom, the balance was more tilted toward clothing and decorations, while in the 90s movies, they spend a lot more time talking about the evil things they’d like to do. This is probably because goth fashion was a lot less shocking in the 90s than in the 60s.
Protagonists with villainous aesthetics still work perfectly well today, with Dr Horrible being a famous example. The good doc is playing up being a supervillain, with a lair, death ray, and plan for world conquest. And like with the Addamses, we never actually see him do anything particularly bad. The worst he does is steal from a faceless corporation. When he kills someone, it’s a tragic accident. It’s also a case of fridging, but that’s something else.
The problem with villainous aesthetics is that it’s difficult to maintain them over a longer story. Dr. Horrible is a single movie, while The Addams Family’s most famous incarnations are a pair of their own films plus an episodic comedy show. As Chris explained in her article, the show Wednesday really struggles with keeping the aesthetic of The Addams Family while also doing the things a protagonist needs to do.
You can always drop the action component of villainous aesthetics and just go for evil fashion, but that is unlikely to have the same effect. Even in the 60s, just giving your hero spiked armor and black home decor probably wasn’t enough to make them seem villainous, and it’s definitely not enough now. At best, they’ll just seem a bit edgy, and they might even come off as a poser.
Taking it in the other direction, a hero who actually does evil things will narrow the story’s audience down to people who enjoy watching the main character murder and maim. Those people do exist, but most stories aim for broader appeal. So heroes with villainous aesthetics usually work best as side characters or the stars of shorter stories, unless you’re prepared for a delicate balancing act.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!
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Comments on How Do Villainous Aesthetics Work?
That contrast, while not villanous, is often used with actors Terry Crews and Dani Trejo, being portrayed as hard, violent dudes but having a contrasting soft side.
It probably helps that the “polite villain” image (the soft-voiced, polite villain dressed on soft colors, capable of villanous things but staying friendly) has been more popular, so “villain aesthetics” is not a thing anymore.