One of the most terrifying movies I have ever watched was 28 Days Later, and it wasn’t because of the zombies. Rather it was because when Jim, Selena, and Hannah finally found other people to help them in the form of soldiers in a fortified mansion, they discovered that they were not safe. Outside the mansion were zombies ready to eat them and tear them to pieces. Inside the mansion, Selena and Hannah were to be forced into sexual slavery for the amusement of the soldiers and because Major Henry West thought this was the way to rebuild the population once the zombie crisis was over.
The image of Selena and Hannah prettied up and waiting to be raped has stuck with me for far longer than that of any zombie.
There are different types of villains, I think but the one that disturbs me the most is the character that should be good, who the character and the reader initially trust – either because we’ve been deceived or because we feel obligated to do so. This is the villain who hides among the goodies instead of leading the baddies. It’s the rotten apple that’s threatening to spoil the whole bunch. Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, President Coin in Mockingjay, Alec d’Urberville in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Abigail Williams in The Crucible are all legitimately terrifying because they’re supposed to be good, we tell ourselves, even when they make us feel uncomfortable.
And then their true colors shine, and we have not only been duped, but now our heroes are fighting evil on all sides.
For me, one of the best villains I have ever read is Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series.
In the world of Harry Potter, it’s a given that any character that is appointed as professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts must be suspicious. In the seven books, only two professors have proven to be trustworthy: one was a double agent and the other a werewolf.
Thus, Harry (and the reader) approaches the appointment of politician Dolores Umbridge as the new professor with entrenched trepidation. Her first appearance in The Order of the Phoenix is as one of Harry’s interrogators at the Ministry of Magic where he is on trial at the beginning of the novel. When she appears again at Hogwarts, Umbridge does not hide her need for control.
And so JK Rowling strives to teach her readers – young and old – not to be led blindly. She asks her readers to question everything, to make decisions not based on tradition or even their own identity but on conscience, intelligence, and a desire to do what is right.
Up until this time, Harry (and the readers) have very carefully categorized the world into black and white sides. Rowling even names them: the good guys are Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix, and the bad guys are Voldemort and the Death Eaters.
“Yes, but the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” said Sirius with a wry smile.
-Chapter 14, “Percy and Padfoot”
It is Umbridge who fulfills the above sentiment – Umbridge, who is neither Death Eater nor good. With the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, Umbridge is convinced of two beliefs – 1) that Voldemort is not back, and 2) that Dumbledore wants to usurp Fudge’s power and take over the wizarding world.
The first is, to Harry (and the reader), the dumbest lie in the world. The second is just as easily preposterous. Voldemort is very much alive and well and a threat to both the Magic and the Muggle world. Dumbledore has no need for power – he only wishes for Voldemort to be vanquished once and for all.
But Umbridge (and Fudge) want so badly to believe the first that the second becomes logical. Thus, she goes to great lengths – from attacking Harry with dementors to mutilating and torturing students – to maintain their contrived reality.
– Chapter 13, “Detention with Dolores”
They have lied to themselves so well that they cannot accept the obvious truth and instead willingly believe the lies of people like the evil (Death Eater) Lucius Malfoy.
Even more terrifying than Umbridge’s cruelty and corruption is the fact that at the end of The Order of the Phoenix she does not seek redemption. She is “taken care of” – in this instance, run off the grounds of Hogwarts by the centaurs who live in the Forbidden Forest – but she has no remorse for her actions, holding fast to the idea that she is in the right.
Umbridge appears in The Deathly Hallows, again as a government official. However, the ministry of Magic has been infiltrated by Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Whether Umbridge knows this or not is unimportant – she is the head of the Muggle-Born Registration Commission, a department of the ministry in charge of rounding up all Muggle-born wizards who are now being accused of “stealing” magic from Pure-Bloods.
While the reader knows (and prays) that the evil Lord Voldemort must be defeated, villains like Dolores Umbridge are – to me – the most terrifying of all because they break the readers’ trust and faith. Suddenly we cannot trust anyone, not completely. I would venture to say that Umbridge’s role as villain has far more devastating consequences on Harry and the rest of the characters than any other antagonist in the series.
Stephen King described Dolores Umbridge as “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.” That’s a bold statement, but I agree with it.