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International Conference: Villains! Constructing Narratives of Evil

When Feb 06, 2019 05:00 to
Feb 08, 2019 06:30
Where Phil I, GCSC, R.001 (Wed.) / Phil. I, Seminargebäude II, Alter Steinbacherweg 44, Room 12 (Thur., Fri.)
Contact Name
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International Conference 6-8 February 2019

This three day conference is meant as an exploration of the figure of the villain in its various appearances (perpetrators, nemeses, demons, and many more). Each day will feature one keynote speaker. These are:

Dr. Sonja Schillings (Berlin)

Dr. Blossom Stefaniw (Halle)

Dr. Timothy Peters (Sunshine Coast, Australia)

More information about their keynote lectures can be found at:

There will be a total of 8 panels, each containing 3-4 presentations of 15-20 minutes each. With half an hour of total discussion per panel.

Theme description

Villains are not always simply agents of evil. They can represent the moral decay of a society. They can attract unexpected sympathy as misunderstood products of trauma. As symbols of revenge, they can produce a sense of justice or of closure. As harbingers of change and revolution, they can open us up to feelings of hope. This conference will have a focus on villains from historical, religious and cultural perspectives. Rather than as a subservient Other of the hero, we would like to conceptualize the villain as its own archetype.

The difficulties to define villains, their relation to heroes, and the purpose of their construction, are already visible in antiquity. The word “hero” itself derives from the Greek word heros (ἥρως). A heros was venerated within the context of a cult, but was not necessarily a hero according to our modern understanding of the term. Instead, the heros could also be a villain: e.g. Eurystheus, the counterpart of the famous hero Herakles. This ambivalence persisted in history. For instance, some villains are despite their evil deeds still admired for certain elements of their character (e.g. Hannibal for his military genius). Furthermore, the villain was subject to transformation in relation to changes in societies and their underlying systems of norms and values (e.g. Prometheus, who was seen as an evildoer by Hesiod, but as a cultural hero by Aischylos). The rhetorical and philosophical exemplary traditions, on the other hand, offer more clear-cut definitions: i.e. villains are defined either by the absence of moral virtues or the presence of vices, often styled with topoi and stock characteristics. In these traditions, the aim of constructing narratives of evil was to learn from the evildoers’ vices.

Early Christians, too, strove to fight and oppose evil, by means of the thorough examination of its manifestations and appearances, such as demons, as well as the Devil himself. Demons already were part of the religious culture in antiquity (e.g. Xenocrates’ tripartite classification of gods, men and demons). In early Christianity, demonology and the linked rituals of exorcism were not a marginal phenomenon, but played a part in shaping Christian life, faith and power relations. Many Christian authors were engaged in demonologies (e.g. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas), constructing narratives of evil, its origins and its manifestations in their present world. The Devil as ultimate villain tempted souls while hiding behind many faces: e.g. traitors, evil magicians, heretics and corrupted people thirsty of power and earthly pleasures.

During Romanticism, the lack of mortal virtues was not necessarily a problem, due to an emphasis on the dynamics of the soul. Passion, inspiration and honesty were pivotal virtues. Villains therefore often no longer functioned primarily as warnings or reminders, but instead as tragic characters who remained faithful to themselves. Villains of Romanticism, even when they were radical (e.g. insane criminals, consumed by the flames of their desires), still deserved admiration for their struggles. Specific genres (e.g. the Schauerroman, Gothic fiction) developed in the mid-18th century, that showed a fascination with the dark passions of their protagonists.

Such attempts to romanticize the villain can also be detected in contemporary literature and culture: e.g. criminal masterminds, mysterious outlaws, mad scientists, maniacal supervillains. This fascination has frequently been addressed in academic research. Walter Benjamin was not the only one to notice the public’s general admiration for “great” criminals, figures who are remembered for defying the law (“Critique of Violence”, 1921, 281). Eric Hobsbawm devoted a full study on the positive evaluation of defiant figures, including sects, the mafia, and anarchist movements (Primitive Rebels, 1959). More recently, Samuel Weber has suggested that “the cult of the ‘outlaw’” is a result of villains often functioning as “antilegal, antistate, anticentralist agents and institutions, representing the individual and the local against the anonymous powers of the State, Big Business, and ‘the Law’ in general” (Theatricality as Medium, 2009, 121).


1st Day (06.02.2019 in Phil I, GCSC, R.001)


17h      Registration & coffee


18h      Welcome


18.30h Keynote 1: Dr. Timothy Peters. “‘You are Bad Guy, but this does not mean you are bad guy’: Guilt, Culpability and the Office of the Villain.”


20.30h Drinks


2nd Day (07.02.2019 in Phil. I, Seminargebäude II, Alter Steinbacherweg 44, Room 12)

09.30h Panel 1: “Constructing Villains in the Arts: Literature, Film and Theatre.”

(4 presentations)


11h      Coffee


11.15   Panel 2: “Constructing Villains in the Media Discourses: Extremists, Radicals and Antichrists.”

(4 presentations)


12.45   Lunch (performance?)


13.45   Keynote 2: Dr. Sonja Schillings. “‘…and all because of a woman!’ Revenge and the Misogynist Dimensions of Villainy.”


15.15   Coffee


15.30h Panel 3: “Constructing Political Villains from Antiquity to Modern Times.”

(4 presentations)


17h      Coffee and snacks


17.15h Panel 4: “Self-Vilification: Modes and Functions.”

(3 presentations)


19.30h Dinner


3rd Day (08.02.2019 in Phil. I, Seminargebäude II, Alter Steinbacherweg 44, Room 12)


9h:     Keynote 3: Dr. Blossom Stefaniw. “A Brief Inventory of Early Christian Adversaries and their Ethical and Epistemic Functions.”


10.30h Coffee and Snacks


10.45h Panel 5: “Constructing Villains in Religion.”

(3 presentations)


12.15   Lunch



13.15   Panel 6: “Demonic Villains: Evil Spirits, Devils and Death.” 

(4 presentations)


14.45   Coffee and snacks


15h      Panel 7: “Villains and the Law.”

(3 presentations)


16.30   Break


16.45   Panel 8: “Lateral Villains.”

(3 presentations)


18.15   Break

18.30   Closing Discussion + Drinks  (Phil I, GCSC, R.001)


Definitive panel distribution


DAY 2 (07.02.2018)


PANEL 1 – 9.30-11.00

Constructing Villains in the Arts: Literature, Film and Theatre (chair: Gerlov van Engelenhoven)


Jan Schumacher, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, München.

“Villains in Kabuki.”


Maarten Gooskens, Utrecht University.

“A Villain in the Family: Representations of Perpetrator-parents.”


Nina Peter, Universität Bern.
“Nazi Doctors in cinema: Generic functions and stagings of a modern villain.”


Isadora Campregher Paiva, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul.

“Men and Women as Villains in Weimar Cinema: Variations on male Anxieties About Loss of Power.”


PANEL 2 – 11.15-12.45

Constructing Villains in Media Discourses: Extremists, Radicals, Antichrists (chair: Hannes Kaufmann)


Thierry Verburgh, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

“Blaming the Gutmensch and the Fascist: Anne Fleur Dekker, polarization, and the demonization of the left-wing extremist or right-wing populist evil Other.”


Sofya Ragozina and Grigorii Lukianov, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow.

“‘Banality of Islamic Evil’: Routnization of Islamophobic Pratcies in Russian media and Society.”


Magda Dolinska-Rydzek, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen.

“‘Without Doubt, the Antichrist is a Real Political Possibility of Our Times’: The Political Archenemy in Chosen Russian Discourses After 1991.”


Thomas Bragdon, Leiden University.

“The risk of the stigma of radicalness, the stake in receiving media attention: How some forms of protest provoke debates between radicals and moderates about what actually that word radicalness means.”


PANEL 3 – 15.30-17.00

Constructing Political Villains from Antiquity to Modern Times (chair: Philipp Brockkoetter)


Thilo Treß, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg.

“Of Child Murderers and Monstrosities. Narratives of Evil in Petrus de Ebulo’s Liber ad honorem Augusti.”


Stefan Schubert,  Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg.

“The downfall of a hero: the villainization of Philippe Pétain.”


Bianca Vassileva, St. Kliment Ohridksi University, Sofia.

“Mother & Monster: depictions of Faustina the Younger and Commodus in Ancient and Late Antique sources.”


Anna Romsics, Central European University, Budapest.

“Deligitimizing a Villain: William V of Aquitaine.”


PANEL 4 – 17.15-18.45

Self-Vilification: Modes and Functions (chair: Jeff Coons)


Pavla Samoylova, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen.

“Heavy metal warriors. Villains or alternative heroes?”


Rahel Schmitz, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen.

“Being in/out of Control: Playing the Hero-Villain in Prey.”


Eleonora Sereni, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg.

“‘When I’m Bad, I’m Better’: Female Villains in Superhero Comics.”


DAY 3 (08.02.2019)


PANEL 5 – 10.45-12.15

Villains in Religion (chair: Stefan Trajkovic-Filipovic)


Stefan Beckert, Technische Universität, Dresden.

“How Duke Heinrich of Brunsvick-Wolfenbüttel became Heintz Mordbrenner: Employing Invectivity to Construct an Early Modern Villain.”


Raphael Päbst, Philipps-Universität, Marburg.

“The Priest as Villain in the Early Enlightenment”


Ivan Maric, University of Edinbugh.

“How to Construct a Villain in the Ninth-Century Constantinople: The Case of Emperor Constantine V.”


PANEL 6 – 13.15-14.45

Demonic Villains: Evil Spirits, Devils and Death (chair: Elisabeth Engler-Starck)


Rebecca Sebbagh, Universität Erfurt.

“Amulets, prayers and additional guarding practices for protection against the female demon Lilith.”


Miriam Braun, Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz.

“Death as a Villain in Biographical Narrations of Terminally Ill People.”


Dunja Tomic, Josip-Juraj-Strossmayer-University, Osijek.

“Between the devil and the deep blue sea: the representation of supernatural beings occupying the waters in Slavic religion.”


Laura Richter, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen.

“Transforming evil across time: from seduction to redemption.”


PANEL 7 – 15.00-16.30


Villains and the Law (chair: Mina Ibrahmim & Petya Koseva)


Kristine Avram, Philipps-Universität, Marburg.

“Of Evil Men and Zealous State Agents: The Villain in Criminal Trials for Past Human Rights Violations in Post-Communist Romania.”


Shailesh Kumar, Birkbeck, University of London.

“Villain State and Juvenile (In)justice: Deconstructing the Demonisation of Children”


Gavin Keeney, independent scholar.

“New Word-Image Economies.”


PANEL 8 – 16.45-18.15


Lateral Villains (chair: F.W. Korsten)


Sascha Klein, University of Cologne.

“The Hacker: The Evolution of a Character between Villainy and Heroism in late 20th and early 21st Century American Films.”


Maren Walinski, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen.

“Fat and Evil: Portrayals of the ‘Fat’ Villain in Contemporary us American Television Series.”


Looi van Kessel, Leiden University.

“On the narrative production of villainous sexual identities.”


More information about this event…

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