On Faces and Violence

I’ve been thinking about Voldemort, and the question I kept asking myself was, “Why doesn’t Voldemort have a human face?” The question was more than just about how Voldemort’s face was disfigured to look as strangely alien as it did in the movies. The question was about what literary purpose it serves to take away Voldemort’s human face. He was a student at Hogwarts, after all. Why did his sojourn into evil require the loss of ordinary facial characteristics?

Then I began counting the number of science fiction and fantasy stories that take away the faces of evil. Sauron in Lord of the Rings was never shown to have a human face. None of his orcish minions had human faces. Even the “reavers” on Firefly and Serenity disfigure their faces. Why? Are we afraid of depicting evil with a human face? Alien invasion movies do this on a regular basis: they provide us with an enemy that is inhuman. They way I see it, there are at least 3 possible reasons for this literary trope.

(1) Perhaps we are afraid of “facing” the reality that those who commit monstrosities and unspeakable acts are the same species as ourselves. Perhaps we are more comfortable watching beasts, aliens, orcs, and savages commit atrocities, than watching men and women commit them, who subsequently return home to their spouses and children for dinner. The thought that the ingredients for pure evil lie within us all terrifies us. That is one possibility.

(2) Perhaps it is a symbol of what evil does to an individual or group of people. There is certainly something inhuman about the evils acts portrayed in these stories. Emmanuel Levinas describes how the human face calls us into obligation. And, according to Levinas, to commit violence against another, one must be willing to ignore or metaphorically mask the face of the other. One has to pretend they are not human. And perhaps a symbol of this neglecting of the faces of others is to be depicted as not having a face oneself, and therefore inhuman. Perhaps it’s literature’s way of saying that one must be inhuman in order to be inhumane.

(3) The third possibility, for me, is the most startling. War is evil, because no matter what atrocities the enemy has committed, part of our own humanity is injured when we commit violence against others. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight evil, and kill those who seek to kill us. It just means we can’t do so unscathed inside. Another thought that I’ve had is that one reason Lord of the Rings and other fantasy movies depict evil as grotesquely inhuman is to mitigate the startling consequences of the wars that are fought. No one feels bad for killing an orc. Our hearts don’t bleed for goblins. And so we can ignore some of the more heartbreaking consequences of war by dehumanizing the “bad guys” and depicting evil forces as beasts, rather than human beings with human faces. We can pretend that we don’t die a little inside every time we cheer the death of the enemy.


40 thoughts on “On Faces and Violence

  1. It is a common military tactic to demonize the enemy in order to make it possible to kill them. I personally think that was one of the things that was so hard for Vietnam veterans. It’s hard to demonize the child being used as a sacrifice to bomb you.

    It is also something used to a lesser extent in online discussions. People can get downright vicious because there is no face to the name. It’s a lot harder to hate someone who is looking at you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been involved in a frustrating discussion where those arguing are actually arguing against a whole slew of things the other side is not saying. (Your Emma post being a great recent example.)

    But perhaps the best example is any debate about gay marriage. If someone is against it, others assume they hate gays, even though there could be any number of other social, political, or economical reasons to be against it. Likewise, if someone is for it, others assume they condone homosexuality when there could be any number of social, political, or economical reasons to be for it. (And PLEASE no one turn this into a gay debate.) We, in essence, force people into stereotypes because stereotypes are a lot easier to attack than people.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think this phenomenon also crops up in abuse dynamics. Abusers who are not sociopathic have to, in essence, strip the face from the victim in order to make contemplating such things palatable. (Sociopathic abusers don’t have to do this because they already don’t see the person as a person.) And because we are not comfortable with all-to-human people committing these atrocities with no reason, we as third parties demonize the victim, insisting that there must be something the victim does wrong in order to enable the abuse.

    With all that in mind, I love the fantasy genre and feel that many fantasy authors completely ignore the power that can be wielded in such a genre, because of the potential to address otherwise unpalatable topics with the buffer of inhumanity. My goal in writing the books I’ve been working on is to address some of these topics, and then find a way to humanize it at the end, to ease readers into understanding. Some of my favorite authors do just that, and it is an intimidating goal.

  2. SilverRain, you’ve touched on some of the very things Levinas and Terry Warner make. When we are committing wrongs against another, we have to “mask the face of the Other.” One of the most frequent ways we do this is in the form of either a stereotype or an accusation.

  3. Jeff T, I think this phenomenon of “not being normal humans” definitely exists in the end of time zombie genre, which for some reason seems to be all the rage these days. (Think “Zombieland” and “Night of the Living Dead” and “I am Legend” and on and on). In all of these movies, the bad guys are not normal humans but are instead “sub-human.” If forced to think about it, I’m sure most movie-goers would say that these zombies no longer have souls and are nothing more than aggressive animals. Killing them is as moral as defending yourself against a wolf that is attacking you. I think this fits your thesis about wanting to see evil as “not human.” Nobody likes an end of time scenario where we are killing or fighting against our normal neighbors. We have to turn our possible future enemies into something completely different than ourselves to justify the aggression.

  4. Zombies are another great example, thanks!

    I was actually pretty bothered by the movie, “Battle: LA,” an alien invasion story that focuses on the efforts of a group of marines trying to save some civilians. The movie felt like it was trying to cultivate admiration towards the Marines, by showing them make the ultimate sacrifice to save their fellow Americans from harm. It’s like, “Look at these soldiers. They’re saving lives and making sacrifices and defeating evil. Yay!” But what bothered me was that they had to do so in an alien invasion scenario, where the conflict is unquestionably justified and the enemy inhuman. In reality, the U.S. military is engaged in questionable conflicts against people who have families and homes. It felt false and manipulative.


    When you think of it, even Harry Potter’s face is slightly disfigured by his scar. Symbolic in this idea is his fight to remain true to himself, friends, and what is right; while fighting his inner Voldemort. Harry is, after all, one of Voldemort’s horcruxes.

    The symbolism being that each of us has at least a little darkness within. And the greater the darkness, the more evident on our faces. We see this in other characters in the films: a teacher that becomes/is a werewolf, a godfather who is gaunt in the face from years in Azkaban, Beatrix’ wild look, Mad Eye Moody’s roiling eyeball, etc.

    Each of these is an outer sign of the inner self. Voldemort has no real face, because he is no longer fully human. He is split into 7 parts/horcruxes, leaving him only a shell of a real person.

    [End Spoiler Alert]

  6. You’re right, it’s fear of the unknown within ourselves. The true “final frontier.” How many of us really know what we are capable of?

    Don’t you think that perhaps that is at least in part what mortality is for? So that we can have essential ignorance of our divine potential, to see for ourselves what we will choose to develop, whether we will learn to wield power that flows to us of its own volition, or whether we will try to force it to come to us?

    Is that not the main difference between good and evil in fantasy settings?

    There must be some part of us all that recognizes the struggle isn’t really between Satan and God, or morality and amorality, but between whether or not we truly respect the intelligence that lives in all life.

    Until we have to face the opportunity to take power by force and refuse . . . just as Christ did . . . do we have any hope of facing the evil in ourselves and saying, “You have no power over me”?

  7. Hey Ram – someone should delete your huge spoiler. That’s a pretty profound moment in the movie to have ruined… in the book you can see it coming more though. I guess this post should go too when/if yours does…

  8. Chris, that suggests that we should delete the spoiler for the 2 or 3 people who did not read the book, or who haven’t already watched the film….

  9. There are quite a lot of people who have neither read the book nor watched the film, as evidenced by the fact that books and tickets for both are still selling 🙂

  10. Sorry, Chris. I need solid evidence of your statement. Please list, alphabetically, the names of all those individuals in the USA who have either not read the book or have not watched the movie….

  11. My roommate watched Titanic nine times in the theater. Ticket sales have no positive correlation with the number of those who have not yet seen it. If anything, when there is a cult following it is likely to be a positive correlation with the number of those who HAVE already seen it.

  12. “the names of all those individuals in the USA who have either not read the book or have not watched the movie….”

    Actually you need only a smaller subset, including those above who also read this blog…

  13. Paul, but that wouldn’t amuse me as much as having Chris do all that research!

    Of course, LDSPhilosopher is going beyond his call as a philosopher and is actually changing the light bulb on the issue…. We’ll need to possibly change his stage name. ;D

  14. With the Voldemort character, loss of humanity by choosing evil, splitting his soul apart through murder, is spelled out plain enough. In general though, wondering why evil aliens in blockbuster movies look icky is right up there with wondering why people wear costumes to Halloween parties or watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. Pointless fun well worth enjoying when available.

  15. I don’t see any problem with presenting basic messages in fiction that don’t capture the entire complexity of life. I mean, when the evil aliens attack, I *hope* the Marines shoot back.

    Fiction, even the most hyper-realistic angsty nuanced stymied fiction can never be as complex as life is–that’s just simple information theory–so to the extent it has a pedagogical function, it works like aphorisms do. It abstracts from experience and intuition to state some simpler rule that would be disastrous if universally and mechanically applied but that nonetheless imparts wisdom.

  16. Adam, I agree. If I had felt like it was just a summer alien invasion flick with no hidden agendas, I wouldn’t have cared. The only reason I had a problem with Battle: LA is that I felt that the movie itself was created to propagandize the valor and virtue of the U.S. military. That was just the sense I had while watching it. And afterwards, I looked it up and started reading about it, and sure enough, the main star of the movie explained that the movie was like a “love letter to marines.” The pedagogical purpose of the movie was engender more support and admiration for the military in the conflicts they are currently facing. And, for that reason, the movie felt false, because I feel like people often conflate supporting and admiring the troops with supporting current military engagements.

  17. I see no problem with someone creating a more ideal villain to showcase the ideal qualities that they think the Marines possess.

  18. “You’re right, it’s fear of the unknown within ourselves. The true “final frontier.” How many of us really know what we are capable of?”

    We like what was said in #9. Often when you hear of a person committing some egregious act, someone will say, “what kind of monster could do such a thing.”

    Human beings don’t want to think about or understand or want to pretend that “monsters” look like aliens and goblins and not humans. It makes it easier to swallow. It makes it so we don’t have to ask, why did they do it.

    Sometimes we don’t want the why answered because, it’s easier to reconcile that they did it because they were a monster. Because if they didn’t didn’t do it because they are a monster, then maybe the true why is something that could happen to us too.

  19. I always remember that scene in Schindler’s List where Ralph Fiennes is looking at himself in the mirror when I think about monsters. What was so scary about that movie was that it made the monsters so human. There was that old 80’s horror movie, The Thing, that was scary precisely because the monster was one of us too. (Of course it had plenty of moments where the monster was monstrous but those just emphasized more the paranoia of the moments when there was no visual monster)

  20. BTW – I think the simplest answer for the Potter series is that they wanted him to be snake-like.

  21. I haven’t read the books because they’re awful, and I haven’t seen the movie yet because my wife bought tickets for this coming Saturday. Thanks for the spoilers.

  22. I must have missed them when I read it, were they there this morning? Maybe I’m immune to boldness.

    Who spoils a movie that’s been out less than a week anyway? If that’s fair game I’ll be back here Saturday night commenting on what the Red Skull’s face means in the Captain America, spoiling as I go.

  23. jjohnson, you must have read through the comments during the few moments between the comment was posted and when I placed the spoiler warnings there. Bad timing. 🙁

  24. When I asked my wife about it she gave me a “well, duh” look, so I guess everyone does assume the world knows every detail about Harry Potter.

  25. We (my teenaged daughters and I) discussed the reason for Voldemort’s snake-like appearance, and I theorized that he merely sneezed his nose off at some point in time. That is why, when someone at our house sneezes, we now say “Voldemort!” instead of “Gehsundheit!”

  26. But, back to the main topic. The Indiana Jones movies use Nazis, mind-controlled Thugees and Communists as its bad guys for a reason. Everybody knows they’re evil, so we don’t care (and we don’t feel the need to care) when the good guys kill them. We don’t want to feel any ambivalence when rooting on the good guys.

  27. I wonder, though, if these labels are just another way of dehumanizing the enemy, for the very purpose you describe. Rather than depict them as monsters, they depict them as a particular hated stereotype.

  28. Just watched Citizen Kane on Netflix.

    Rosebud? A sled. Who knew?

    (What, too soon?)

  29. Sort of makes you wonder about why Mormon churches don’t want masks on Halloween.

    Or, how masks aren’t used in any of our ceremonies- at all. Not even for Satan.

  30. Although the prohibition against playing with “face” cards has not been repeated by church leaders in quite a few years, it has not been officially repealed, either. Connection?

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