By John Kerr 07/04/2017

The bad guy in movies is more likely to have a skin condition, reports a new study, and it could be contributing to prejudice in the real world. 

Dermatologists from the University of Texas have undertaken a quick a stocktake of skin and hair problems among the top ten Hollywood villains and heroes, as cataloged in the American Film Institute 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains List. Their findings, published this week in the journal JAMA Dermatology,  reveal a clear bias in films for giving the villain a skin problem: six out the ten top villains had skin problems on the face or scalp, while all the heroes were relatively unblemished.

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The authors of the study documented numerous dermatological findings among their – admittedly small – sample of villains. The list included: Dr. Hannibal Lecter (“The Silence of the Lambs,” 1991), Mr. Potter (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” 1947), Darth Vader (“The Empire Strikes Back,” 1980), The Queen (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs“, 1938), Regan MacNeil (“The Exorcist,” 1973) and The Wicked Witch of the West (“The Wizard of Oz,” 1939).

In this rogues’ gallery the authors spotted a range of conditions, including:

  • Alopecia (hair loss, 30 percent; Dr. Lecter, Darth Vader and Mr. Potter)
  • Periorbital hyperpigmentation (dark circles under the eyes, 30 percent; Darth Vader, Regan MacNeil and The Queen)
  • Deep rhytides on the face (wrinkles, 20 percent; Darth Vader and The Queen)
  • Multiple facial scars (20 percent; Darth Vader and Regan MacNeil)
  • Verruca vulgaris on the face (warts, 20 percent; The Wicked Witch of the West and The Queen)
  • Rhinophyma (bulbous nose, 10 percent; The Queen)
Villains with skin trouble
As if being evil wasn’t hard enough. Top villains with dermatological problems (clockwise from top left): Darth Vader, The Queen (in witch form), Mr. Potter, Regan MacNeil, Dr. Hannibal Lecter and The Wicked Witch of the West.

In pursuit of balance authors do note that both Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1943) sport very small (and non-prosthetic) facial scars.

Beyond comparing the top ten heroes and villains, the authors also offer a short review of dermatological conditions in cinema, touching on the “evil albino” trope, as well the classic facial scar and hair loss as a markers of evil dating back to the era of silent films. On the matter of hair loss, the article references one film as particularly telling in it’s depiction of the connection between hair loss and evil:

Villain Dr Evil in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) also flaunts a hairless scalp, but it his son Scott Evil who especially exemplifies hair loss as a sign of evil in the cinema. As Scott demonstrates increasingly wicked behavior to please his nefarious father, Scott’s hair volume diminishes from stage 3 to stage 7 androgenic alopecia. His hair loss culminates in the final scene. Promising to fulfill his revenge plot, Scott laughs maniacally and reveals a completely hairless scalp, the visual manifestation of his malevolence.

Villainous skin may foster prejudice

While certainly of interest to cinema buffs, the research does have a more serious point focusing on the social impacts of such depictions. The authors acknowledge the rich history of film and its use of obvious skin problems to “elucidate the dichotomy of good and evil through visual representation.” They warn that although “dermatologic disease does not equate to moral degeneracy in reality,” movies could be adding to the stigma and prejudice that people with skin disorders already face:

The results of this study demonstrate Hollywood’s tendency to depict skin disease in an evil context, the implications of which extend beyond the theater. Specifically, unfairly targeting dermatologic minorities may contribute to a tendency toward prejudice in our culture and facilitate misunderstanding of particular disease entities among the general public.