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Why Do So Many Hollywood Villains Have Skin Conditions?

A new study cautions that the scars and warts that afflict many movie villains could contribute to social stigmas

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Without his mask, Darth Vader's appearance is striking—from his pale complexion and deep wrinkles to the scars cutting across his face. This is pretty common for movie villains, who are often riddled with warts, scars and dark circles under the eyes. But in a new study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology, a team of dermatologists emphasize that a century of film-making associating skin diseases with villains is damaging to those with the same diseases in real life, reports Nicola Davis at The Guardian.

“It's something that has been perpetuated in film, sometimes maybe even unintentionally, but it is something that has become more and more prevalent over the years,” Julie Amthor Croley a researcher from the University of Texas and co-author of the paper, tells Davis. “It is not only perpetuating this tendency towards discrimination towards people with skin disease but it also does affect the person on an individual basis.”

As Rachel Rettner reports for Live Science, the researchers examined images of the top ten movie villains and ten heroes listed in the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains List. The researchers looked for scars, warts, unusual pallor, deep wrinkles, extensive alopecia (also known as male pattern baldness), albinism and other visible conditions. What they found is that while none of the top 10 heroes listed had significant dermatological conditions (although they do note that Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca each have a light scar on their face), six out of ten of the greatest screen villains had skin conditions.

Some examples are obvious. Darth Vader and his aforementioned scars and gray pallor. Regan McNeil, the little girl at the heart of The Exorcist, develops dark circles under her eyes and extensive facial scarring the more possessed she grows. The skin-related maladies affecting other bad guys, however, are more subtle. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, for instance, suffers from stage three alopecia or hair loss. The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz has a large wart and green skin.  

While the sample size is small, the same conditions pop up all over villains in Hollywood productions, seeping into popular culture. “Skin disease is often trivialized as being nothing more than cosmetic disfigurement, but as this study shows, society holds deep-seated stereotypes about the association between skin appearance and personality,” Kim Thomas, professor of applied dermatology research at the University of Nottingham, tells Davis. “Such stereotyping can be psychologically devastating for people suffering from common skin condition such as vitiligo, warts, acne and hair loss.”

The study also notes that another common dermatological feature not found in the top ten villains is albinism. According to the research, between 1960 and 2006 at least 68 films included “evil albinos,” a stereotype that whose origins is unknown, but may stem from European folklore or African beliefs that albinos are cursed.

But there is at least one hero that has significant dermatology issues. The foul-mouthed superhero Deadpool in the 2016 Marvel film suffers from extensive facial burns and scarring. While he’s definitely a good guy, he’s also a little rough around the edges.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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