No, this isn’t an advertisement for some brand-new high-octane first person shooter or an upcoming darkly themed roleplaying game, nor is this a spotlight piece on the worst compatriot of Cowboy Ninja Viking.
There are two major things that nazis, cultists and serial killers share- they are universally considered ‘bad guys’ and they are present in every facet of popular culture- whether we are gunning down zombified soldiers of the Third Reich in Call of Duty, saving the President’s daughter from hooded figures in Resident Evil 4, watching our favourite TV detectives track down a killer with a highly unusual MO or following one man’s journey through a world in which the Nazis control America after winning World War Two, you have to admit it’s hard to escape these three types of villain.
However, I fear that we have gone beyond the pale and, in a way, trivialized these groups by turning them into tropes. Let’s break this down, trope by trope:
The Nazis’ systematic extermination of European Jews is something that occured in living memory. However the more time that elapses between the end of the Holocaust and the present day, the less educated about the events of the Second World War we become as memories fade, new atrocities rise and those who lived through it disappear. It wouldn’t surprise me if when asked what a Nazi is, a younger person of the present day would answer with “Oh, they’re those guys from [insert popular culture]”. The Nazis appear as the primary antagonist for the first six main titles in the Call of Duty franchise, as well as appearing in the game’s popular ‘zombies’ mode, with Nazis serving as the primary antagonist in seven of the 22 existing maps for the game mode. The biggest problem many see here is that young people begin to simply see Nazis as nothing more than the mindless bad guy that needs to be (and needed to be eliminated), as opposed to learning the complex history of World War Two and actually gaining the understanding of the Nazis and Nazi Germany.
The biggest problem with the prevalence of Nazis in popular culture is that sometimes the ‘shock’ of Nazism becomes a priority. For those of you familiar with the superhero Captain America, one of his greatest foes is the evil organisation Hyrda, a Nazi-affliated group of evil. While comic book Hydra has less of a 1:1 parallel with the Nazis than the cinematic depiction of Hydra, there is still a tie between Hydra and the Nazis in the comic books. Now Captain America was created by two Jews, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and in his earliest days, exclusively fought the Third Reich. This is why many were confused when Marvel recently announced, in Steve Rogers: Captain America #1, that Captain America had been a member of Hydra this whole time. That’s right, obviously in a move to ‘shake things up’, Marvel decided that they were going to make one of their flagship characters, who had been created by two Jews to fight Nazis, be a secret Nazi affiliate. And this isn’t the first time that the Nazis have be seen to take a priority over good sense in recent times- in a misguided move to advertise their adaptation of the Philip K Dick short story, Amazon chose to decorate a New York subway car with a blend of American and Nazi iconography to promote The Man in the High Castle. For those of you who don’t know, New York has one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, many of whom are Holocaust survivors, a lot of whom use the subway.Yeah, maybe a little more thought next time Amazon.
I don’t think the case is that we have forgotten what the Nazis the did, I think that enough time has passed that people feel it’s appropriate to use the Nazis as nothing more than as a standard ‘bad guy’. It’s the classic “people will know what we’re trying to do” mentality but in applying that, we do in a way forget what the Nazis were.
Whether they are trying to bring about Doomsday, invoke the favour of an ancient God or just dabbling in magic, cultists are the shadowy bad guys used when a sense of a mystery and the “this is bigger than just one man” vibe are needed. Their portrayal varies, whether it’s the dark benevolent dictatorship of The Sacrament or the violent cults of the Skyrim universe or the quirky, played for laughs depiction in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt. Cults are so malleable a concept that it’s up to the creator of the thing the cult will be featured in to decide how they will be depicted.
However, cults are a very real thing. In January of 2016, Aravindan Balakrishnan was jailed for 23 years- he had been running a pseudo-Communism cult out of a house in South London since the 1970s, convincing his followers that he possessed telepathy, “god like powers” and control of a supernatural entity that would cause natural disasters if he was disobeyed. One of his captives was his own daughter, who had been born into the ‘commune’. His daughter described in an interview how she was so alone, as she was not allowed to leave the house, that she began to make friends with the bathroom taps. In November 1978, over 900 men, women and children either drank poisoned Flavor-Aid or were shot dead on the orders of cult leader Jim Jones. In March 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ who drank cyanide as they had been told it would allow them to board an alien vessel tailing a comet.
We all like to believe that cults are just a thing of fiction because it helps us convince ourselves that things like this don’t really happen. But they do and we need to accept that or else we become desensitized to the reality that cults exists and they aren’t overt like their fictional counterparts and they legitimately ruin people’s lives.
No crime show is complete without a season-long arc in which the main antagonist is a serial killer.
Here’s the big problem- fictional serial killers are too damn murdery. I recently wrote a blog about some of the most terrifying fictional serial killers and most of them have body counts that not only exceed the serial killers with the highest body counts in the US (where most of these shows are set) but in the entire world. The problem is that we slowly become desensitized. We might find ourselves ignoring legitimate serial killers because their body counts aren’t high enough or their MO is too mundane. We are used to super-stylised, high body count killers, meaning that we might miss the ones that don’t fit that umbrella description.