The likable psychopath is a great tool in any horror writer's belt. Freddy Krueger. Chucky. Hannibal Lecter. Norman Bates. Pinhead.
Each of these villains finds a way into our hearts. Despite their intention to kill, often brutally, they possess such raw charisma that we, the audience, are willing to watch them wreak merry havoc on innocent people who we somehow like less than the literal murderer in our midst. Every example cited above has spawned numerous sequel films, books, TV series, and comics.
But there has to be more to our fascination with certain killers than just "they smiled at the camera and now we like them." If it were as simple as "be charming," every horror monster would be beloved.
In order to understand why we love certain villains, let's take a look at the titular character from the ongoing series of Creep films created by Patrick Brice and lead Creep, Mark Duplass. Duplass's Creep is the latest and, in many ways, most fascinating example of a lovable monster both textually and metatextually.
**Spoiler alert**: The following article goes in-depth about both the plot and characters of Creep and Creep 2. It is filled with spoilers.
THE GREATEST TRICK THE DEVIL EVER PULLED
In the first Creep film, the title character (who goes by 'Josef') presents himself to both us and the protagonist, Aaron, with a lie so heavy, it takes almost the entire film to crawl out from under it. Josef claims that he is dying of cancer and that he wants an objective party to film him for a day so that his unborn son will see an honest version of the father he'll never meet.
From that point onward, so long as Aaron, and we, are even willing to entertain the possibility that Josef's story is true, we'll put up with almost anything from him. Better than convincing us he doesn't exist, the Creep's devilry takes the form of getting us to feel bad for him.
Josef goes naked into a tub, takes Aaron on a miles-long hike in the wilderness without a map, scares Aaron multiple times, wears a horrifying wolf mask, and admits to raping his own wife before Aaron actively considers leaving. Even at this point, Aaron is lured by Josef to spend the night before, finally, a phone call from Josef's sister revealing that everything Josef has said is a lie, convinces both we and Aaron decide it's really time to get out of Dodge.
But it's not just sympathy for the devil we feel. Guilt over another's misfortune doesn't make a creep likable, just pitiable.
THE OTHER GREATEST TRICK THE DEVIL EVER PULLED
Josef gets naked in a tub after Aaron just meets him, but he's doing it while imagining giving his baby son a bath. That miles-long hike involves an elaborate story about a hidden, healing pool shaped like a heart -- which Josef and Aaron find and bathe in together. Even Josef's admissions of guilt take place when either he's feeding Aaron delicious pancakes or offering Aaron extra money, since Aaron is in need.
For every weird or negative action, Josef does something positive as a counterbalance. Josef constantly smiles, inviting Aaron (and with Aaron, the audience) to be part of important moments that hold a positive, life-affirming meaning. Also, Mark Duplass has an open, friendly face, even when he's doing some weird, f***ed up s***!
Human beings don't like assuming the worst in others when we have to face each other face-to-face. So given a little sympathy and a little charm, Josef is able to, at least once, trick people into genuinely liking him at least a little.
But all that should be lost the moment the first Creep ends with Josef murdering Aaron and revealing an armoire full of videos of the people he's killed while on the phone with his next victim. At that point, Josef should be pretty unlikable and the idea of a sequel to his story should feel pretty untenable.
FOUND FOOTAGE CREEP
The Creep movies are both of the found footage variety, which can mean a lot of things in how the story gets told. But the most relevant aspect of this found footage narrative comes in the form of self awareness. Our Creep loves addressing the camera directly. When he addresses the camera, he is speaking to us.
In Creep 2, Josef (now calling himself 'Aaron') is at the end point of manipulating yet another victim. Before killing his latest "friend," Aaron pulls out a nanny camera and begins to smile at it, at us. And, instantly, Aaron, not the victim, becomes the protagonist -- because he's the one communicating to us his feelings. Again, Duplass uses that goofy grin, as if this forthcoming murder is actually just a prank.
And then the rug gets pulled out in two ways:
1. The joke becomes a real murder
2. We discover that Aaron is no longer enjoying this whole murdering thing he used to really love doing.
It's absurd. Being bored of murdering people. Who thinks that way? But... don't we all have hobbies we used to love only to find ourselves feeling nothing from them as time wears on? And that, combined with Aaron speaking to the audience directly, is enough to create almost a mutual understanding, which is compounded by...
THE LAST (YOUTUBE) GIRL
One of the things that original Creep subverted in its expectation was to make the Creep's fixation a man rather than a woman. Most horror movies with an established killer play into the trope of the final girl, the one woman innocent and pure enough to beat back the absolute evil that is our killer.
So it might seem, at first, as though Creep 2 is actually returning to standard horror tropes and becoming predictable. In reality, though, this is all part of how Brice and Duplass work to make us relate to the Creep again, despite knowing his modus operandi this time from the jump.
Our protagonist, Sara, is a woman struggling to find success and meaning in a YouTube series she is crafting where she meets people who make odd requests online and films the experience. Like Aaron, Sara is struggling to feel anything for this project she was once passionate for. Like Aaron, Sara communicates all of her feelings directly into a camera, even the negative ones. Like Aaron, Sara relates to us directly, making her sympathetic.
Unlike the original Aaron, Sara represents a parallel with Creep Aaron. They relate to us, the audience, in more or less the same fashion.
And then, they meet...
PSYCHOS IN LOVE
Original Aaron would shriek when Creep Aaron would try to scare him. Sara is unfazed by these attempts. Where original Aaron was mostly a passive participant behind the camera, Sara is constantly on camera actively and successfully controlling the scenario.
Creep Aaron is mostly honest this time around. Aaron admits to being a prolific serial killer and he admits he's bored. The subversion here is that Sara doesn't believe him, unlike original Aaron who believed almost everything.
All of these things combined make Aaron seem pathetic all over again. The difference, though, is that Sara, in addition to her actively participation in everything else, also actively decides she is going to make this video great. And through that ultimate shared goal, this weird thing starts to develop -- Sara and Aaron start to fall for each other.
And thus we begin to hope for something approaching redemption. Sara believes Aaron can be better, so we start to as well.
Even when Aaron ultimately decides to kill himself and Sara, he is doing it as an act for the closest thing he seems capable to of love. He originally wants her to become a killer and carry on his work, but he'll settle for them dying together. It's... almost romantic.
THE METATEXTUAL CREEP
It's not uncommon for horror movies to develop out of the common paranoia and anxieties of the time in which they are created. Creep may never speak about politics, but it does play into the anxiety of internet culture in a fascinating way.
The Creep is not dissimilar from internet creeps on social media platforms like Twitter. The Creep constantly tries to gaslight his victims. He lies to them but then tries to appeal to them after. He threatens them, but then he smiles and says it's all a joke.
Our daily lives are also filled with people claiming to be "allies" or "feminists" only to later be outed as harassers and perpetuators of assault. And sometimes supposed feminists will turn around and start dating alt-right trolls because said troll was nice to them even though they torment everyone else.
And throughout all of these daily events, we see Twitter as a platform mostly give real life people who act like the Creep a wide berth. A serial harasser will torment others and yet throngs of people will roll in to say "give this person the benefit of the doubt."
The Creep is a pitch perfect example of an internet troll who keeps getting away with it because we allow ourselves to identify with and feel sympathy for them.
THE LOVABLE CREEP REMAINS LOVABLE
Truth be told? I still like Mark Duplass after all of that in Creep! The smile, the goofy nature, the obsession and the murder -- I can't help but find him weirdly endearing because of how these films present him.
And I suspect the popularity of the Creep movies is often because of this strange Stockholm Syndrome we've developed culturally towards the people who are grinning their silly half smiles all while they also torment and gaslight the people around them.
Whether you love the Creep or are terrified by him (or both), the films and this character play on both the almost universal human nature to choose a comfortable lie over a scary truth and our culture's current trends to accept a serial harasser who uses emojis well in a way that is tremendously engaging, infinitely terrifying, and animalistically magnetic.