The villains of our favorite stories often have certain characteristics that define them as villains. They scheme toward some evil end, wear dark clothes & cackle maniacally into the night air. They also tend to have pretty nasty smiles.
A set of abnormal teeth lends an instantly recognizable aesthetic to villains, telling us that this person is of ill repute. The intensity of malformed masticators can vary depending on how relatable the creator wants their villains to be, but the base reaction they are looking to inspire is horror.
Defining a Horrific Smile
Our sense of horror in movies is thought to stem from a combination of two ideas: the thrilling & the grotesque. In Forrest Adam Sopuck’s book The Aesthetics of Horror Films, the importance of both these factors is highlighted as being necessary to provide a fully horrific effect.
We can think of being thrilled as the sense of fright we get from being shocked or seeing something we know to be dangerous. Our feeling grotesque stems from seeing decay, malformations & other unnatural or dying states of objects.
While not all villains fit this mold, we can look at a few famous examples to see how bad smiles help craft great villains.
Perhaps the most infamous smile of modern times is DC’s Joker. One of the first villains to arch Batman in Detective Comics nearly 100 years ago, this iconic nemesis owes much of his fame to his toothy grin. Many times, the Joker is revealed through comics & on screen with a closeup of his smile. That flash of a grin is a telltale sign that something bad has happened, & the reader/viewer is thrilled to discover what it is & who Batman must save this time.
But the Joker isn’t just thrills. His smile is overlarge, his jaw often exaggerated to fit in those long, red lips. His teeth are nearly never shown as a full white. Even in the Saturday morning cartoon Batman: The Animated Series, they are drawn a shade yellower than what is considered pleasing. In the more adult The Dark Knight, the Joker (Heath Ledger) sports a smile that has been carved into him. These grotesque depictions help lend to Joker’s sinister nature & his rise to one of the top villains today.
Whether you’re talking about the slow-paced zombies from Night of the Living Dead or the mad-dash monsters of 28 Days Later, one thing is certain, you don’t want to be anywhere near their mouths. Whether it’s simply their saliva or a nasty bit, we know that their mouth means the end of the survivors we become attached to. This simple act of biting is something we generally teach children to stop at a very early age. Biting as a form of fighting is seen to be very low in society, so it’s not surprising writers created worlds where this nasty attack is a sentence to something they try to paint as worse than death.
These teeth are no pearly whites either. Along with the rest of their body, their mouths are in a horrid state of decay. Sometimes, we might even catch a creepy crawly squiggle around their tongue. Talk about gross! All this lends to our sense of unease & innate feeling that these zombies are best to be avoided.
Even when our villains may be struggling with their inner demons, we are often kept on our guard as readers & viewers by the sight of their smiles. Such is the case with the troubled villain Gollum from J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy staple Lord of the Rings.
Not only is his smile deformed after living a long & solitary life with the One Ring, he often uses them in shocking ways. Our heroes Samwise & Frodo are horrified to see Gollum, at the time called by his original name, Smeagol, eating a raw, unscaled fish with untamed hunger. In the film, the viewer’s hare Samwise’s disgust at being offered some of their treacherous guide’s catch.
While a bad mouth is not always part of a villain’s makeup, there are many prominent examples of how a rotten smile can be an effective tool for showing a villain’s true colors. Thankfully, in the real world, there are great dentists who can keep your smile looking heroic. So contact your dentist today to schedule an appointment to keep your teeth healthy & clean!