Towards the end of the Disney film Aladdin (1992) our hero’s love rival the evil Jafar – discovers Aladdin’s secret identity and steals his magic lamp.
Jafar’s wish to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer is soon granted and he then uses his powers to banish Aladdin to the ends of the Earth.
What follows next is a lingering close-up of Jafar’s body.
He leans forward – fists clenched – with an almost constipated look on his face.
He then explodes in uncontrollable cackles that echo across the landscape.
It is an archetypical evil laugh.
Such overt displays of delight at others’ misfortune are found universally in kids’ films and many adult thriller and horror films too.
Just think of the rapturous guffaws of the alien in the first Predator film (1987) as it is about to self-detonate – taking Arnold Schwarzenegger with it.
Or Jack Nicholson’s chilling snicker in The Shining (1980).
Or Wario’s manic crowing whenever Mario is defeated.
A recent essay by Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen in The Journal of Popular Culture asks what the psychology behind this evil laugh might be.
Kjeldgaard-Christiansen – a communication scholar at Aarhus University in Denmark is well-placed to provide an answer – having previously used evolutionary psychology to explain the behaviours of heroes and villains in fiction more generally.
In that work he argued that one of the core traits a villain should show is a low ‘welfare tradeoff’ ratio: they are freeriders who cheat and steal – taking from their community while contributing nothing.
Such behaviour is undesirable for societies today but it would have been even more of a disaster in prehistory when the group’s very survival depended on everyone pulling their weight.
As a result Kjeldgaard-Christiansen argues – we are wired to be particularly disgusted by cheating freeriders – to the point that we can feel justified in removing them from the group or even killing them.