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From Grief To Madness: 7 Villains Turned Evil By Loss

People react to grief and loss differently. Take Reverend Shaw Moore from Footloose. As the spiritual leader of a small town, his influence carries a lot of weight. His reaction to the death of his teenage son was to blame dancing and music, which he believes led his son down the road that would eventually kill him. While Moore may be a bit misguided in his attempt to protect the town’s youth from the same fate, he’s not quite a villain, despite what some of the kids in Bomont believe. In fact, Moore's reaction to grief would be considered tame by comparison to some of these other movie characters.

While many a movie antagonist’s evil is rooted in greed, jealousy, and/or a need for power, there are some whose stories begin in a much sadder place, with loss being the catalyst to set them on the course for evil. The following characters are as different from one another as the movies they’re featured in are, which is what makes them so interesting. The most notable common denominator among them is their grief. Despite coming from different backgrounds and set up in different types of stories, each of them has suffered loss and each dealt with it by unleashing their grief on others.

Harvey Dent - The Dark Knight

There have been many different motivations for Harvey Dent, the former District Attorney and shining 'White Knight' of Gotham City, turning over to the dark side. In some, it's misplaced blame on the Bats. In others, a psychological break occurs from the sheer physical trauma of having half his face doused in acid. In Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, there's another layer - one much more emotionally resonant and relatable reason for his split with reality. Love. Or more specifically, loss. Yes, misplaced blame and good old fashioned disfigurement still provide some of the spark but it's the death of his love, Rachel Dawes, that disconnects Dent from his former values, skewing his sense of right and wrong and fair.

His fall from grace is foreshadowed when he utters the line, "you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," and he soon finds himself 'living long enough' to see his love's life threatened. His transformation begins the second he realizes that Rachel is in danger, which leads to his own capture. Finally, Joker's misinformation leads Batman to save Dent - not before half his face burns away - instead of Rachel which puts the final nail in Dent's crazy coffin. He wakes to find his trick coin, now scarred to indicate Rachel's death, and the sound all but fades as the grief overtakes and transforms. He screams, tearing the bandage from his face. Dent is dead. Two-Face is born. Gotham will pay.

Peyton Flanders - The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

We never get to know Peyton Flanders before her life was turned upside down. The wife of a successful OB/Gyn, she was presumably living a fairly good life, with a lavish home and a baby on the way. Then her husband is accused of molesting his patients, resulting in him killing himself. In a state shock over what’s happened, Peyton falls and miscarries her baby. It’s a tragic start to the woman’s story, however rather than trying to start over and move on with her life, she decides to deal with it by unloading her grief, disappointment and anger on one of her husband’s accusers.

Peyton’s wrath is distributed neatly and quietly as she inserts herself into the life of Claire Bartel, posing as a well-meaning nanny named Mrs. Mott. While Claire, believes Peyton is a kind, helpful person and a huge help to her as she attempts resume her work and raise her children, she has no idea that this woman is slowly chipping away at her life, driving a wedge between her and her husband, friends and children. Had Claire truly been responsible for any of the things Peyton blames her for, we might have had cause to cheer Rebecca De Mornay’s character on for her efforts, however her anger is misdirected, which only makes her seem like a sad, crazy person who sees herself as a grief-stricken woman who’s lost everything and is set to get revenge.

Nero - Star Trek

Star Trek’s Nero was never a criminal. He never murdered, stole or committed a crime of any kind. He was a simple Romulan, a loving husband, and an expectant father. His giant ship with a powerful laser drill was simply for mining, the character’s chosen profession. Then everything in his world that he cared about was destroyed in an instant as a supernova completely obliterated his entire planet. It wasn’t something that Nero could just let go. He needed someone to blame, and that person was Spock.

While there’s no forgiving the Romulan’s actions – he murdered over a billion people including Spock’s mother and Kirk’s father – but on some level his actions could be understood. There are thousands of films of films that feature a protagonist out for revenge when everything they love is taken from them and audiences cheer them on every step of the way. There’s no denying that Nero went too far and assigned blame to the wrong person (pretty sure supernovas falls under “Act of God” in most insurance policies), but to truly understand the antagonist you must ask yourself: How would you react? There are some of us who would cry ourselves to sleep every night. Others would contact the proper authorities and try to sort everything out in a legal fashion. If you’re like Nero, however, you will blow up a fucking planet in the name of vengeance.

Dieter Von Cunth - MacGruber

Handsome, likable and extremely intelligent, Dieter Von Cunth strolled through college with the swagger of a man who knew he was going somewhere. Arrogant? I suppose you could have called him that, but it’s hard to doubt a man set to excitedly marry the beautiful, pregnant girl of his dreams. In another time, another place, he perhaps could have rode that momentum to a nice house in suburbia with an automatic sprinkler system and a basketball hoop in the driveway, but thanks to his best man MacGruber, that nuclear family never happened.

There’s a reason why most archenemies had an intensely personal relationship at some point in their past. Nothing breeds hostility quite like a best friend betrayal, and a strong case could be made that no hero has ever betrayed a villain more than MacGruber. Prior to Von Cunth’s wedding, the bomb-disarming protagonist not only slept with the bride, he convinced her to terminate her child and leave the relationship. The abortion may have been the only way for a fresh start in MacGruber’s mind, but it was the ultimate symbol of war to Von Cunth. He murdered his two-timing ex-fiance as she said her I Do’s to MacGruber and set a new course of sociopathic villainy. I can’t condone his later attempts to blow up Washington DC, but if ever there was an antagonist with an honest to MacGruber axe to grind, it was Dieter Von Cunth.

Mrs. Vorhees - Friday The 13th

If only those damn camp counselors had done their jobs, we would have been spared decades of murderous, cold-blooded yet always creative slaughter in such places as Camp Crystal Lake, New York City and, of course, outer space. But no. Barry (Willie Adams) and Claudette (Debra S. Hayes) needed to have sex. And in their absence, the unattended Jason Voorhees drowned, sending his now-deranged mother on the warpath.

Listen, nothing can compare to the grief felt by a parent when they lose a child. Nothing. But that still doesn’t justify Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) hacking away at a cabin full of horny twentysomethings in Sean S. Cunningham’s original Friday the 13th. The reveal of the killer’s identity is a bit of a surprise (spoiler warnings on a 31-year-old film are unnecessary), as audiences assume it’s Jason knocking off fornicating counselors. Not yet. Old hockey mask would get his chance in Friday parts two through whatever number we’re up to at this point. But the first Friday centered on a grieving parent pushed into a blinding rage when negligence robs her of her only son. And since Footloose kick started this initial discussion, here’s a direct tie-in: Kevin Bacon was one of the counselors murdered by Mrs. Voorhees when they returned to the camp. How’s that for a six-degrees connection?

Lotso - Toy Story 3

Lotso wasn't always a bad bear, and he certainly wasn't always the tyrannical ruler of a daycare. Like so many other toys, Lotso was loved once, by a little girl who carried him everywhere, to the point that he was eventually forgotten. What stung wasn't the fact that he had been left behind by his girl-- it was when he returned home to find that he replaced that Lotso turned a corner. You could say he was filled with grief for his missing, beloved owner, but I like to think of it as Lotso grieving for himself. He's learned that he was replaceable, but more than that, he'd learned that the version of himself that he knew was dependent on someone else, a someone else who was lost to him entirely.

In Toy Story 2, when Jessie told her story of being left behind, it simply made her afraid to love again; when Lotso is replaced, he goes into mourning for the version of himself he once knew, so much that he decides no other toys can feel that love again. It's a strange kind of grief, sure, but maybe that's the mastery of Pixar-- through evil leader toys they show you how grief doesn't just have to be for someone else, but for a part of yourself that's now gone forever.

Anakin Skywalker - Star Wars

As far as Anakin’s turn to the dark side, Palpatine deserves a fair amount of credit for how he handled Skywalker in the man’s younger years, however grief played a significant role in turning Anakin from the man and potential Jedi he was becoming, to one of the biggest bads in the galaxy. We saw an early look at the kind of rage the future Darth Vader held inside when he killed off an entire tribe of Tusken Raiders in reaction to his mother’s death. His anger was understandable but his lack of control demonstrated how Skywalker could easily use his abilities for darker purposes.

Padme represented what was left of the love in Anakin’s life after his mother died, however even she proved unable to help him control his rage in the end. She died in childbirth, which may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Anakin Skywalker disappeared for a long time after that, giving himself over to the dark side and becoming the ruthless Darth Vader.

Interestingly enough, while Vader may be among the most celebrated villains in movie history, he’s also one of the few that redeemed himself in the end, showing us his face and what was left of his humanity at the end of Return of the Jedi. While his grief all but destroyed who he was as a man, there was just enough love in him to bring him back in the end, proving that it’s never too late to turn it all around, even if you’re Darth Vader.