Although super villains are probably the personalities most often associated with villainy, there are many other types of characters which play this role as well. It would be very difficult for me to address all of the various forms villains take in this blog; however I would like to examine some of the more well known and interesting villain types now.
One of the most infamous kinds of villains is the horror movie villain. The living dead, serial killers, aliens etc. are all tailor made to cater to our deepest fears. And yet there's something very fascinating about them. I think it's safe to say that a large percentage of adolescent males have, at some time, had an interest in these types of characters and creatures (I know I did, in fact, I often root for, and sympathize with them). There are many other people who have explored this fascination that we have with monsters much more thoroughly than I can right now. In true villain form, I'd like to examine things from the monsters point of view.
Horror movie villains are designed to be scary. This is in contrast to many other villains who exhibit less dramatic, socially reprehensible qualities. I'd say that this is one thing which makes the horror movie villain so unique. They're the only villains to have their own mainstream genre. It's harder to write these kinds of characters off as being merely plot devices because they're what horror movies are about. Though, in recent years other types of villains have become iconic characters in and of themselves, instead of just being adversaries for heroes to fight; horror movie villains were the first, by far, to gain this status (f.y.i. one of Twisted Jenius's goals is to bring this principle of villain character status even further). Even now, most in depth focus on super villains as characters is of a satirical nature (Austin Powers movies, Kim Possible and The Venture Bros. cartoons, etc). But since the beginning, horror movie villains have been able to stand on their own, heroless, without any problems. I believe that this is a reflection of their power. Horror movie villains are not merely a threat or obstacle that the protagonist must overcome, but they are genuinely frightening, and it is this potency which makes it easier for them to become stars or icons in of themselves.
I believe that the essential element which makes any horror movie villain scary is the alien factor; the threat of something strange and unknown. For many, this is the epitome of evil (we explore this idea further in Concepts of Evil - Part Two). And when you couple this element of the unknown with something that can hurt you on a personal level, then you trigger a very primal fear response. This is the same kind of reaction which kept our ancestors alive in hunter-gatherer times. The idea that there is something "out there", a beast or another human tribe, that can kill you. Despite the fact that many grand super villain schemes to take over earth may be just as detrimental to you (and many other people), we are programmed to react to things on a personal level and horror movie villains are excellent at exploiting this human trait. Horror movie villains are also, as was pointed out in Wes Craven's Scream, known for killing the more rotten and immoral characters first (as in "oh, man, you know that guys going to get it") as oppose to the most virtuous characters who display no predatory traits at all. This is often thought of as a morality message, yet you could view this as a food chain scenario. The immoral characters, who often act like complete asses, are towards the middle of the food chain. It's no surprise that they will get the attention of the higher, apex predator and get preyed on. This higher predator is, of course, the horror movie villain himself!
Something else that adds to the fear that horror movie villains inspire is the types of places that they typically hang out in. Although many different villains can be found lurking in dark or strange places, this is an area in which horror movie villains excel. Like most good predators, they prefer to frequent environments that will give them the best advantage. You'll notice that they often stay within certain territories which are familiar to them; the sort of environment that you would expect to produce and foster that kind of being in the first place. So it's only natural that they would wish to reside in a location that they are comfortable in and that empowers them to act according to their natural tendencies. Of course, many people will assume that horror movie villains hang out in dark, creepy or unfamiliar places because this makes them that much more frightening to most folks; we'll just let them keep thinking that (that's the problem with victims, it's always about them).
Another classic type of villain is the mad scientist. These kinds of villains seem to represent a combination of the fears that we see brought on by the horror movie villains as well as the respectable villain discussed in part one of this rant. They represent the fear of the unknown in several distinct ways. Much like the respectable and ambitious kinds of villains, they pose the threat of change; in this case, scientific progress. They are also a little like horror movie villains in that they represent something that is strange and alien to the social majority. However, they are less extreme about it than most horror movie villains because there differences are purely psychological. The average person can not sympathize with or understand how the mind of a genius works, and therefore views the character of the mad scientist as a little frightening. I believe that the very notion that there are intellectuals out there, who are able to do, create and comprehend things that the average Joe can't, is somewhat intimidating to them on many levels. This attitude is reflected in the character of the mad scientist (incidentally, the same applies to slasher films and real serial killers; people don't seem to understand how they think either).
There is another villain type which is extremely similar to that of the mad scientist. These are the dark sorcerer, satanic type villains. They conjure the similar fear of weird or alienated individuals that the mad scientist type seems to invoke in "normal" people. And like the mad scientists, these villains have access to knowledge and skills which Joe citizen doesn't possess and can never truly comprehend. One more similarity between these two villain types is there passion for strange and secluded lairs and places of work (yet another characteristic of alienation).
The idea that someone has more power than others, and has the moral flexibility to use it against them, is a common characteristic of the villain paradigm. This is also the tactic most associated with the crime lord type villain. While this type of villain can and will stand on their own, they are often combined with other villain types such as the respectable villain or even, occasionally, a mad scientist type. I suspect that this is because the crime lord type only has power and moral flexibility on their side and fusing them with other villain attributes may be a way of giving them more of an intimidating edge. Then again, it could be that this type of villain is a little too real, and endowing them with fantastic attributes is a way of distancing people from their real life fears, thus keeping things safe and fictional (there's a psychological difference between "fun fear" and being really scared). You'll notice that this is the case with many villains. When portrayed in fiction, the more realistic the villain is, the less horrific there deeds will appear (most of the time). It can be argued that this is as much about political correctness as it is about keeping the audience safe from "real fear"; after all, to have a villain that would be seen as realistic, that villain would have to closely resemble someone the audience would recognize in real life.