Why is it that movie bad guys always laugh? “The world will be mine… hahaha!”
We can put the question another way: why is it that laughter has become synonymous with evil? As a culture we don’t usually cast sadness and tears as markers of malice. In Dante’s Inferno Satan, the source of all evil, weeps throughout eternity. In real life too tears probably cause more ills than laughter. As anyone with knowledge about domestic violence knows, abusers often tearfully express their remorse, thus sucking the victims back in. And that’s just one example among many. But you’ll rarely see tears as symbolic of evil these days. What is it, then, that causes our cultural suspiciousness of laughter?
Umberto Eco discusses the value of laughter in his novel The Name of the Rose (1980). Set in an Italian monastery in the 1340s, the novel depicts a series of murders that need to be solved by a visiting friar, William of Baskerville. In a key scene, William gets into a debate with Jorge, an elderly monk, about an esoteric topic—whether or not Christ laughed. More broadly, did God sanction laughter, they argue, or did He avoid it and, by extension, expect His followers to do so as well? On the surface, this sounds like the kind of trivial theological debate that echoed throughout medieval halls. But while Eco’s work is fictional, and hence factually inaccurate, it also expresses a deeper truth; it is informed by a keen observation about Western culture.
As Eco knows (he is a renowned scholar of the Middle Ages), there is a long-standing tradition of denigrating laughter in the West. In a nutshell, laughter is symbolic of pleasure, while tears are symbolic of pain. Pleasure and pain, objectively speaking, are merely the brain’s subjective interpretation of nerve impulses. But for millennia, Western Culture has not treated pain and pleasure equally.
Pain is symbolic of Goodness: the Crucifixion of Christ, and the blood of martyrs. Pleasure is evocative of the joys of physicality. Pleasure, therefore, indicates the life of luxury that people should reject if they want to be saintly. Pleasure is sin, in short, and our culture’s suspicion of laughter is part of the West’s broader suspicion of pleasure. These connotations of pleasure and pain are the subtext to Jorge’s debate with William of Baskerville. They also explain that staple of action movies, the laughing evildoer.
So the next time some super-villain laughs while taunting a cape-clad hero, remember that the gesture is merely an arbitrary cultural artifact. He could just as easily be weeping bitter tears as he plots the destruction of all creation!!!