Why does the cackling villain have an oiled handlebar moustache?
What on earth is the point of a witch’s hat?
The origins of these classic TV tropes would normally pass over our heads as being simply ‘the way things are’. However the appearance of many famous fictional characters are not merely coincidental but have been influenced by some very real figures, events, and attitudes from the past.
The Scarred Villain
The instantly recognizable image of a scarred villain has been used in a variety films from James Bond flicks to Austin Power’s Dr Evil. The scar added a layer of depth to their character, encouraging the reader to question their troubled past — as well as how they obtained the gruesome scar; sword fighting, hunting killer whales, or just a simple cooking accident? It is often left as simple mystery for the viewer to ponder on and come to their own ‘unique’ conclusion (e.g. a simple cooking accident).
The origin of this tantalizing trope takes us back to pre-WWII Germany within the prestigious universities. These universities full encouraged dueling (sword fighting for those of you not born a twentieth century gentleman) in which minimal protection was worn and facial scars were soaked with salt and wine to encourage scarring. These scar
s were worn as badges of honor by Germany’s social elite; however they soon became badges of “I may be a member of the Nazi party or SS officer trying to escape as a refuge”. Perhaps it was the paranoia of many high ranking Nazi officials that had evaded capture which caused the facial scars to enter the cultural subconscious as a sign of malcontent.
The Dastardly Whiplash ‘Stache
Another trope of the classic villain has had the world obsessed with these oily faced fiends who seem to twirl their whisker-long moustache at every spare moment. The name of this trope borrows from both Snidely Whiplash (from Dudley Do-Right) and Dick Dastardly (of Wacky Races). However why does Dastardly’s appearance evoke such an image of villainy and how did this negative stereotype enter into our social conscious?
The initial predecessor to Dastardly would the British silent film villains which inspired his ‘whiplash-stache’. However the style of facial hair was actually popular within the aristocracy of Europe. Among their wearers being German Emperor Kaiser William II. Tension rose between nations that eventually erupted into WW1 (to cut a very long and complicated story short). Much like at the conclusion of WWII, through a combination of public opinion and propaganda a perfectly good moustache was ruined (that and lives of 17 million soldiers and civilians). Perhaps it is not apparent to modern audiences but Dick Dastardly actually represents the evils & bureaucracy of aristocratic imperialism.
On a side note this style of moustache was also popular among high ranking Ottoman’s such as War Minister Ismail Enver.
Appropriately opposite to the moustache trope, the hero is commonly is clean shaven, handsome and of course has a healthy tan. Why exactly does tan skin become a symbol of attractiveness? As it happens the phenomenon is almost exclusive to western countries. In fact in most other cultures tanned skin is a sign of lower class and even sell cosmetic skin whitening products(unlikely to be Michael Jackson strength).
With the advent of the commercial aeroplane travel was only available to the very rich. Soon this upper class was identified by their tanned skin acquired through their exotic trips to the ‘New World’. Whatever the case, farmers were would be happy for their tanned skin to be compared to Daniel Craig rather than serfdom.
Something wicked this way comes
The robes and pointed hats of both witches and wizards stretch back into the fables and story long before television. Despite its historic founding the recognizable flowing robe persist in countless modern films.
The accepted theory is split between two conflicting streams of thought. The first is more speculative which argued that the trope of the pointed hat originated from the Jewish moneylenders who wore pointed hats to be spotted among medieval marketplaces. Equating Jewish customs to ‘Satanism’ or black magic would not be out of place in the regretfully persecutory history between Jews and Christians. Although entirely different in content the second theory also deals in the persecution of a certain group of people, this time the Quakers in colonial America. Famous for their strict pacifist doctrine the Quakers also refused to take their hat off as they believed all men were equal and that only God deserved that respect. The pointed hat became a symbol of heresy against the Puritan faith which dominated North America at that period in history.
The origin of vampires is rooted in Christian mythology. However the key rules of vampirism are not exactly found in scripture, so why does a vampire have to be invited in before he satisfy his vant to suck your blood or his incapability to take a mirror selfie. Before even Dracula or in fact the term ‘vampyre’ (before the dreaded Count Chocula as well) these strange rituals were first seen in superstitious tales of the Devil possessing the dead, designed to strike terror in the common God-fearing man of the time.
One such tale comes from a Greek writes in theologian’s
“If such a one answers he is lost; for assuredly he will die the next day. But if he does not answer he is safe. Wherefore in this island of Chios all the inhabitants, if during the night they are called by anyone, never make reply the first time. For, if a man be called the second time it is not the vampyre who is summoning him but somebody else.”
[Source: Montague’s Summers pg224 “The Vampires in Europe”]
The first account of this trope of a needed invitation in literature appears to be ‘Carmilla’ by occult author de Fanu, which heavily influenced Stoker for his famous Dracula. Here, General Spielsdorf invites the vampire Carmilla into his house as a playmate for his daughter. This sort of tale is typical in Christian mythology in which sin is tempted and invited in while the good Christian resists and survives the terrible fate.
Walking & Talking
Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse as well as being beloved characters are example of anthropomorphism(try saying that five times fast). Humanity has a deep set habit of personifying even inanimate objects. It is especially evident in animals as we give them arms, legs, personalities, passions all to incite a sense of empathy.
The furthest back anthropomorphism can be traced is to ancient civilizations most notably the Egyptian deities. The personification of the Jackal, the Hawk, the Lion etc. Anthropomorphism’s ancient roots are found literary device in storytelling from almost all cultures (including our own modern culture), and as well as in art. Most cultures have traditional fables with anthropomorphized animals, who can stand or talk as if human, as characters. And although I’m not suggesting we worship Mickey Mouse as a deity (although my three year old would argue that) the trope is one of the most prolific in all human cultures.
‘The Noble Savage’ recently appeared in the blue people in space extravaganza Avatar (not the airbender abomination). Perhaps like many of these tropes it owes its creation to geo-political movements such as multi-culturism. Though that is not to say that the moral message isn’t valuable, we shouldn’t be afraid of different customs and people. I learnt that lesson from Pocahontas back in ’95 but I suppose the kids want aliens and battle ships these days.
Shakespeare’s fierce Caliban from his final play The Tempest is the most popularized account of a recognizable noble savage. Taking his place among other conflicted characters which intrigue the audience to question whether his evil actions stem from his contact with civilization or whether he is simply a savage. Whatever the case, he bears the important aspect of having a unique connection to nature which is captured in Shakespeare’s writing.
Despite the advice of The Incredibles’ Edna of “No capes!” the majority of superheroes past & present do sport capes on their incredible escapades. And if anything could be learnt from The Incredibles it would be the impracticality of capes especially within the superhero occupation. It’s annoying having your earphones snagged and yanked out of your ears, let alone travelling at supersonic speeds only to have your head yanked off because your cape snagged on something. I guess this would be a minor inconvenience for flair. This begs the question of what purpose if at all the cape provides.
The costumes are inspired by the appearance of similarly amazing circus acrobat and their flamboyant costumes. This also explains the brightly colored tights which are characteristic of high trapeze performers. From these findings we can see that the trope represents the unique freakish talents superheroes possess. So in conclusion the cape’s purpose is for flair… at whatever the cost!
The classic children’s story usually involving some sort of struggle against the odds but in this trope the goal is almost always to save Christmas from some sort of Grinch or some other similar enemy of fun and jolliness. With the increased popularity of Christmas probably due to encouragement by the corporate benefits these family fun fests have only increased in number, reliably releasing in reams every snowy season.
The mention of “Saving Christmas” is nowhere to be found in A Christmas Carol but in fact it was first used to describe the effects of Dickens’ book on the British public in regard to the holiday which was held in no such high regard at that point in history.
The phrase then took on another meaning in the early twentieth century as calls bring Christmas back to its Christian roots away from the highly commercial and capitalistic direction it was heading.
Ironically the meaning of the phrase now represents just another sub-genre in Hollywood, one of the most capitalistic and commercialized industries in the world.
Wizard of Oz’s iconic black and white scenes on Dorothy’s farm not only symbolized depressing tone before Oz but also cinema’s transition to color films. Despite being described as a gimmick by modern audiences it was a excellent cinematic device used to exaggerate the magnificent land of Oz.
The secret to this device lays in our very biology. During a major depression people see less contrast, making colors appear duller. This was summarized in a pilot study that compared the contrast gain in vision between people suffering from depression and a sample group. The experiment allowed those with depression to be accurately identified by their results. Perhaps to those depressed; being told to ‘lighten up’ is simply impossible because it is an end and not a means.
Thanks for reading through, I hope you have learnt something about the strange way distant events can influence seemingly unrelated things decades into the future.
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.