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The scary thing about evil laughs
Donning a black hat, Tawanda Johnson turns her head slowly, her eyes widening.
"Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Uhhhh-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Ahhhh-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha."
A staccato laugh escapes her mouth, each syllable more uneasy than the last, as she holds her gaze uncomfortably long. Her hat could be a sartorial nod to Freddy Krueger's fedora.
Johnson, a teen services librarian, was recording a video on her phone from her bedroom, helping jump-start an evil laugh competition organized by the D.C. Public Library. She was one of several librarians who took a crack at their best high-pitched cackles, their deep, bellowing howls, and other wicked chortles reminiscent of a pop culture villain throwing their head back to revel in an evil deed.
What came out of Johnson's mouth mimicked a famous laugh from horror icon Vincent Price, who narrated Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video. Part of the mystery around evil laughs, Johnson said, is wondering why a villain is laughing to begin with.
Video by DC Public Library
"The reason why a laugh works so well in horror is any laugh channels evil if you are in a crisis and a dire situation," horror historian and author Tananarive Due said. "It's not an appropriate response."
The D.C. contest drew 115 submissions of all ages and styles and octaves. Listening to them it becomes clear that almost any kind of laugh can be the right one.
If you venture into a dark space — an attic, the woods, anywhere you don't see any children — "a child's giggle can scare the hell out of you," said Due, who teaches Black horror and Afrofuturism at University of California, Los Angeles.
Even the handwringing, evil mastermind laugh that is ubiquitous across the horror genre signals that someone is laughing at your expense, Due said.
"They're not just leading you into a trap, you've already been caught in a trap," Due said. "By the time they're laughing, things are going very well for them and very badly for you."
To that end, the clown in the sewer is not your friend.
The most important thing about evil laughs is not necessarily the quality of the laughter, but the context around it, Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, a postdoctoral researcher in the English department at Aarhus University, said in an email.
"Laughter in humans signals enjoyment, and laughter that accompanies immoral and hurtful actions signal powerfully that the perpetrator enjoys their wrongdoing. Because evil laughter is a signal, it needs to be conspicuous and unambiguous," he said.
Jafar, the evil sorcerer in "Aladdin," doesn't just chuckle. His cackles express the glee he feels for the misery he causes.
Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, who wrote a 2018 paper on "The Function of Evil Laughter" for The Journal of Popular Culture, said that this trope is a mainstay in fiction because it has a clear function.
"It is a way of expressing — 'pressing out' to make visible and appreciable — the evil mentality of the villainous character," he wrote.
In his paper, he cites how early video games, reliant on a finite number of pixels, can't as easily communicate the mental states of their characters. Yet in the first "Super Mario Bros." game, when Bowser laughs, his evil intentions still come through the blocky graphics. It helps cement the good vs. evil battle in the game.
That same shorthand can be found in film. The titular predator in "Predator" doesn't exactly smile through his multiple mandibles, but the alien still lets out a maniacal laugh that tells viewers it isn't the hero in this story.
"In pop culture, and especially in entertainment, I think that storytelling is so economical, and there's only so much that you can do without giving too much exposition or telling too much," said Joe Vallese, editor of "It Came From the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror Film," an upcoming essay collection.
The evil laugh becomes this reliable crutch. Think about the ending of any slasher film where the killer is revealing themselves, like the "Scream" franchise, Vallese said. They inevitably laugh after ripping the Ghostface rubber mask off their head.
Evil characters are also effective in children's movies — pick any Disney villain, ahem Jafar. In part that's because of how they subvert what a laugh is supposed to be, Vallese said. Children love to laugh, he said, and what's a way to pervert something as joyous as a laugh?
In these morality tales, boiled down to heroes fighting villains, evil laughter has another purpose beyond the visual and vocal cues. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, drawing on past researchers' work, wrote that evil laughter stands out for its vulgarity, but also "shows audiences that they are right to hate the villain and to uphold the moral order implicit in the fiction." Evil laughter grants the audience permission to cheer for the villain's downfall.
But what if the story is more complex than good guys and bad guys? What if the cause of harm goes beyond a singular villain, like a company's malfeasance or systemic like institutional racism?
"A lot of what horror does is it takes the true-life horror and finds a way to personify it, so that you do have a recognizable enemy that you can vanquish," Due said.
That's one of the reasons people who have suffered trauma enjoy horror so much, she added. "You can't vanquish your childhood memory. You can't vanquish the parent who abused you or the police officer who abused you. But we can flee to horror movies and find a monster that we can at least try to face and fight. And sometimes it's facing a monster that can be so validating."
Due cited Rusty Cundieff's 1995 anthology film "Tales From the Hood" as an example of this vanquishing in Black horror.
In one story, a boy is being abused by his stepfather, and has drawn a picture of him as a monster. When the stepfather later beats him and his mother, the boy grabs the drawing and balls it up. The stepfather's body crumbles as well, stopping the abuse.
"That's the power of horror," Due said.