Just Let Villains Be Villains

Recent Halloween movies no longer capture the fun scary essence of the movie’s villains and have become too focused on exploring their moral ambiguity.

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When I look back on my childhood, I’m filled with nostalgic, bittersweet memories of Halloween—the excitement of getting to dress up and embody whoever I wanted to be for a day and watching movies that pushed me to the edge of my seat. Recently, I tried to recreate that Halloween magic by watching some Halloween movies. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.  

From what I can remember, villains have always been villains and scared my younger self. But in some of the more recent Halloween movies, the villains have backstories that almost make me feel bad for them. This does not satisfy what I want from the genre. 

What makes villains so interesting in the first place is that they represent a part of humanity that we don’t normally have access to. It is hard to imagine killing for the sake of it, but Halloween movie villains give us a glimpse into their world. In some movies, good is not always purely good, and evil isn’t entirely wicked, which can make it challenging to wholeheartedly support one side. Now, when I find myself rooting for the good side, there’s a pang of disappointment for the evil side as the movie encourages viewers to empathize with the villains. While this might have been the film’s purpose, and I do find moral ambiguity to be an intriguing theme, I’m not sure if the world of Halloween movies is the ideal place for it.

Take the movie Hocus Pocus (1993), for example. For me and many others growing up, Hocus Pocus was an absolute Halloween staple that captured the essence of what a Halloween movie should be. Well, at least the first one does. Hocus Pocus follows a teenage boy who accidentally resurrects the Sanderson Sisters, who are witches from the 17th century. Throughout the movie, he tries to prevent the witches from wreaking havoc on Salem and achieving immortality. What makes this movie so golden is that the Sanderson sisters are objectively evil and they embrace that. They enjoy causing chaos and mischief just for the fun of it and they maintain the charm of the holiday, which is what draws in its large fan base.

Hocus Pocus 2 (2022), on the other hand, is a different story. In the sequel, we learn that the Sanderson sisters were oppressed and persecuted during the Salem witch trials of the 1600s and want revenge, a revelation that the movie uses to justify their actions in the first installment. Now, instead of rooting for the protagonists, I feel sympathy for the Sanderson sisters when things are not going their way. I appreciate the added depth and motive provided by this context, but it should’ve been executed in a way that doesn’t set them up for pity.

Halloween movies are just not the place for this deep blurring of the line between good and evil. Not having these blurred lines may be simplistic, but that’s okay, because Halloween is the holiday of jump scares, laughter, and eeriness.

 Another recent movie that poorly portrays its villains and pushes the moral ambiguity narrative is the 2020 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, starring Anne Hathaway. The antagonist in this movie, the Grand High Witch, plots to eliminate all children and turn them into mice. Though there is no explicit motivation stated for the witch’s actions, I interpreted the movie as if she had a traumatic childhood that caused her to have such a negative view toward children. Though moral ambiguity in this movie is definitely much more subtle than that of Hocus Pocus 2, it still feels out of place. Overall, the movie seems a lot less frightening than an earlier adaptation from the 90s, which seems to be a consistent theme with Hocus Pocus 2 as well.

Recently, the media and entertainment industry has become more fascinated by this idea of the “anti-hero” and “anti-villain,” people who do the wrong things for the right reasons or the right things for the wrong reasons. Some may say that this moral ambiguity is a key theme in the media needed to reflect upon our human nature and society, but the whole appeal of these movies is how they play off tropes that the genre is known for, whether it be haunted dolls or a psychopathic killer. Despite the eerie themes, the tropes bring a sense of comfort to the viewer, a sort of layout for how the movie could play out. Halloween’s cliches of ghosts and dressing up are what have carried this holiday since the 16th century—so why shouldn’t it be the same for contemporary films?

The younger generation of kids is missing out on movies such as Goosebumps (2015) which left me in a state of absolute terror. As cliché as it sounds, they just don’t make them like they used to. The bad guys were absolutely horrifying and, when the good guys came out victorious, I was thrilled compared to now feeling slightly upset when the bad guy loses.

A movie franchise that perfectly executes its antagonists is Scream, a light-hearted horror slasher film where a masked villain terrorizes high school students in a small town. Scream features two villians and does a good job of balancing one, who believes that the victim’s family was the root of his parents’ split, and the other, who kills simply for novelty and excitement. Scream is a great model of a middle ground for movies that want to have some moral ambiguity while still maintaining the fun of the holiday. 

We don’t need to defend and justify the acts committed by antagonists—it’s okay for them to be pure evil. By completely altering how the characters of Halloween are built and portrayed, we are irreversibly changing the spirit and the fun of being spooked on this holiday.