Why Disney Villains Are So Scary: The Science Behind Evil!

disney villains

See Maleficent's chin? Most Disney villains have one like it. | Source: Flickr

You know how before Disney villains even speak, you already know they’re the villain? Sure, it may be because they’re in a weird, dark lair-type place, but more often than not, you can pick out Disney villains even if they’re standing in a meadow full of daffodils and sunshine. They just have a sort of evil look to them, right?

Think about it. Even though most Disney villains are all completely different entities with their own motivations, Maleficent, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, the Wicked Queen from Snow White, Jafar, Captain Hook, and even Scar from The Lion King all have pretty similar features that discern them from their heroic counterparts.

disney villains

Captain Hook looks jolly here, but that chin and those brows are token evil traits for Disney villains. | Source: Flickr

Turns out, there’s a legit science behind that. Researchers have actually pinpointed what makes an evil-doer look, well, evil: Pointiness, particularly in the chin. Almost all Disney villains have a sharp chin! (Conversely, a lot of the happy, jolly sidekicks and helpers, like the Fairy Godmother or Flounder, are round and adorable, which could go along with the weight stereotypes we touched on last month!)

Scientists gave volunteers a series of photos of people and had the volunteers rate whether the person pictured was pleasant or mean, good or bad, positive or negative. However, they flanked each image with pictures of triangles on either side. Pictures with upside down triangles–triangles with the points facing downward–took longer to register as positive for the volunteers and were much quicker to be tagged as negative.

One of the psychologists in the study, Dr. Derrick Watson, explained, “Our study shows downward pointing triangles in particular convey negative emotions and we can pick up on them quickly and perceive them as a threat.” Of course, this doesn’t mean people with pointy chins are evil or threatening–we just assume that they are.

disney villains

The smoky eyes and pointy chin may be a reason K-Stew has so many haters. | Source: Shutterstock

The association with Disney villains and pointy chins can explain a lot of the otherwise inexplicable hate for certain celebs with those features. Kristen Stewart has a sort of pointy chin, and she’s been getting a ton of flack for her performance in Snow White and the Huntsman. Could that be why? But then again, Reese Witherspoon has an even pointier chin, and she’s America’s sweetheart . . . So maybe we can chalk up the K-Stew hate to Twilight and the fact that she has only a few discernible facial expressions. Though, this may explain why David Letterman still hates Jay Leno.

Another place Disney villains often have downward pointing triangle shapes? Their eyebrows. (Ay, Cruella–get a new waxer!) A fellow scientist in the study said, “If we look at cartoon characters the classic baddie will often be drawn with the evil eyebrows that come to a downward point in the middle. This could go some way to explain why we associate the downward pointing triangle with negative faces.” It’s unclear though whether Disney villains with those features came first, which made all of us start associating sharp arches with evil, or if we already pictured evil people that way and so Disney villains just followed suit. Right now it’s sort of chicken-or-the-egg.

disney villains

Also common in Disney villains? A penchant for purple and black. Notice how the evil queen's collar is an upside down triangle too! | Source: Flickr

Of course, it’s not a good idea to prejudge actual people based on what we’ve seen in cartoons. If someone has a pointy chin in real life, chances are it’s genetic and not because they’re plotting to ruin someone’s life. Similarly, if you see a person with Disney villain-style triangular brows, it’s safe to assume they don’t have a good threader, not that they’re wicked. So even if you see a gaggle of people who look like Disney villains, as long as they’re not stealing voices from redheaded mermaids or kidnapping Tinkerbell, be nice!

Do you think people associated triangular chins with evil before Disney villains made it popular, or after? Do you know anyone who looks like a Disney villain? Do you think it’s unfair or just in fun to make all Disney villains have similar features? Tell us in the comments!

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