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This is when a villain doesn't look like a villain, and is even more terrifying because of it. This does not apply to particularly handsome or charming villains - that goes under Evil Is Sexy. Characters following this trope look completely ordinary. You could pass them on the street and never notice them, let alone suspect they'd just raped a cat to death just the other day.
In fantasy and science fiction shows, this is often what makes Mundanger villains so terrifying. While the normal beasties the protagonists hunt down and slay are obviously fantastic monsters that don't exist in our world, these monsters could be living right next door.
Please note: The identity of many of these villains may be part of a reveal, so please use spoilers wisely.
An Enfant Terrible is usually one of these. Contrast Obviously Evil and Devil in Plain Sight. Related with but not to be confused for They Look Like Us Now, where previously inhuman beasties learn to pass for human.
Anime & Manga
- In the "Greenback Jane" arc of Black Lagoon, Jane and the protagonists are pursued by a band of bounty hunters. One of them eschews the series' Cluster F-Bomb style and speaks in Gosh Dang It to Heck terms and at face value is a wholesome, Mr. Rogers-ish guy. It turns out, he's a Pyromaniac who previously torched his wife so that he could smell her flesh burn.
- Jo Jos Bizarre Adventure villain Yoshikage Kira actively cultivates this image, making himself as nondescript as possible to disguise his Serial Killer activities.
- Thessaly the witch in Sandman. She appears to be a mild-mannered glasses-wearing citizen - like Clark Kent in a way. Except for the part where Superman doesn't obsessively hunt down and kill anyone who attempts to hurt him.
- This is one of the nightmare-fueling qualities of Collectors as well. On one end of the spectrum, you have cereal fans who look like sweaty, loserish sexual predators you'd steer clear of at any costs. On the other, you have those who are ordinary-looking in the extreme... and just as vicious. Since the cereal convention operates as a parody of science fiction/comics conventions, and is hosted in a perfectly ordinary hotel, it makes this conventiongoing troper that much more uneasy.
- Mr Fun from the Batman mini-series Batman Family.
- Kevin from Sin City is just a guy in a sweater and glasses. You wouldn't believe that he is a martial arts master, to say nothing of his knack for eating people.
- Trope Namer: The scene at the end of the first The Addams Family movie where Wednesday and Pugsley are showing off their Halloween costumes to their family. When asked by Margaret why she's not wearing a costume like her brother, Wednesday announces that she IS in costume as a "homicidal maniac" because "they look just like everybody else."
- Norman Bates in Psycho. In the book, he's written as creepy looking and ugly, but Hitchcock thought it would be more interesting to make him look wholesome.
- Jigsaw in the Saw movies. Extra points because he's dying of brain cancer.
- John Doe in Se7en.
- Robin Williams has also played a couple of very troubling antagonists in One Hour Photo and Insomnia as well. While this borders on Playing Against Type here, his character in One Hour Photo was scary because he could have been any random photomat clerk, and he nearly faded into the background anyway.
- Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Bateman is apparently such a cooker-cutter yuppie that people keep mistaking him for other yuppies.
- Garland Greene in Con Air, played by Steve Buscemi. The other cons comment on how he doesn't look like an infamous mass-murderer.
- Virtually all of the people Bruce Willis' character has psychic flashes about in Unbreakable are seemingly ordinary people who have done or are looking to do bad things. The two biggest cases being a janitor who is a Serial Killer (who also doubles as a rapist).
- Devil, which is about five average people trapped in a elevator, one of whom being Satan.
- The Beast from Kung Fu Hustle turns out to be a dumpy old guy in his underwear.
- The Night of the Hunter: Harry Powell is either this or a Devil in Plain Sight, depending on how sensitive your Evildar is.
- In the comedy film The Man Who Knew Too Little, the main character thinks he's in a Tuxedo and Martini simulation game and, when informed about The Baroness, thinks that she is this elderly woman dressed as a domanatrix ("It was our anniversary!"). The Baroness is a real person, a Torture Technician / Mad Doctor. She is a middle aged woman of average appearance, maybe even pretty, and she acts completely calm and normal. Pretty much, the film sends the message that unlike in the world of James Bond, villains in the real world aren't always Obviously Evil with a convenient Red Right Hand.
- Mr. Baek of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. After a very emotional buildup, a parent of one of a serial killer's victims says, "But you look just like a normal person."
- Lampshaded in 8mm when Nicolas Cage's character tracks down and unmasks the Snuff Film performer "The Machine" to reveal some ordinary bald guy.
Machine/ George Higgins: "What did you expect? A monster?"
- Dylan Baker's serial killing school principal in Trick 'r Treat.
- In Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, the slasher killer of the title is, while out of his costume, a normal-looking guy.
- This was a popular trope in the late 80s and early 90's in psychological thrillers, like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, where it is made incredibly clear to the audience and the protagonist about the antagonist's true intentions, but they have to spend the whole movie trying to prove they're evil monsters trying to slowly ruin their life.
- Ben from Man Bites Dog. Sure, he's a hitman and serial killer, but other than that there's absolutely nothing weird about him.
- In Terminator 2, the default appearance of the shape-shifting villain is a fairly non-descript man, as opposed to the lantern-jawed Schwartznegger. This was also what was supposed to happen in the first movie, as Arnie was actually auditioning for Kyle's hero role before he was persuaded to switch.
- Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace. According to director Marc Forster, Greene was deliberately styled without make-up, in order to symbolise the 'hidden evils in society'.
- A nice one in the Bruce Willis movie Red. The operatives bump into a thoroughly ordinary middle-aged woman at the airport, with the most paranoid among them insisting she's a killer, while the others assume he's just crazy. Then after she's released, she turns up again - with a rocket launcher.
- Hannibal Lecter is a borderline case, in the films. The books give him a Red Right Hand in the form of several distinctive and unnerving physical traits, such as eyes that are technically brown but shine maroon/red under any kind of light and an extra finger on one hand.
- A Song of Ice and Fire: The Tickler is a brutally efficient Torture Technician, but Arya notes that he's a completely unexceptional and ordinary-looking man while not plying his trade.
- Dexter goes to a lot of trouble to seem like just an average guy.
- Hater, a book by David Moody, and the movie of the same name.
- Though not a villain (just a conman), Moist Von Lipwig from Discworld is blessed with an unmemorable face and always wears some attention-grabbing but easily removed articles to ensure he can disappear whenever he wishes.
- As does Gentleman Bastard Locke Lamora.
- Dr. Impossible from Soon I Will Be Invincible is a short guy just this side of middle aged. When he walks down the street in his civvies, he's completely unremarkable. With his costume on, however...
- He may not count, though, since he's not particularly 'terrifying'.
- The Yeerks from the Animorphs are aliens that control sentient beings by tunneling into their heads through their ear canals and spreading themselves around the brain, sinking into the cracks, etc. So the protagonists are aware that literally anyone they know could be a 'Controller.' Like Jake's brother Tom, their Vice Principal Chapman, and many more throughout the series.
- To really drive the paranoia home, it's not at all uncommon for the Animorphs to cause a public spectacle... and start getting attacked by random members of the crowd.
- In the Tamora Pierce Circle of Magic novel Shatterglass, the serial killer turns out to be one of the Hindu Untouchable/Dalit Expy characters who have been constantly on the outskirts of the protagonists' radar, cleaning, being abused, and biding their time.
- The Discworld novel Snuff has Stratford the Career Killer, who looks pretty indescribably normal until you take a good look in his eyes or he gets angry.
And that, sir, is when he looks like Stratford.
- In Around the World in Eighty Days, the Bank of England has been robbed by a man who unfortunately resembles protagonist Phileas Fogg. The British consul in Suez remarks that the description given is that of an honest man, to which the detective Fix declares that great robbers always look like honest men; the ones who look like rascals are too easily caught.
- Eugene Tooms in the X-Files episodes "Squeeze" and "Tooms".
- Also Donnie Pfaster of "Irresistible".
- John Lee Roche, the serial-killer-of-girls on "Paper Hearts", looks and talks like a balding salesman, which he was before he got caught.
- Arguably, Virgil Incanto of "2Shy", at least before he notices he starts needing fat.
- On Lost, a show filled with so many pretty yet stupid people, it's mild-mannered ferret-faced chartered-accountant-lookalike Benjamin Linus who really runs the table.
- The Yin Yang Killer from Psych. Turns out she was standing right there among the crowd in the background of nearly every scene.
- The killer in "A Study In Pink", the first episode of Sherlock.
- The defendant in the Law & Order episode "Hubris" is a mild-mannered real estate salesman and a regular Casanova with the ladies. As it turns out, he's also a Complete Monster who murdered his girlfriend, the old couple who were employing her, and her six-year-old daughter, all to cover up a fifth murder that he had already committed years before. And while the detectives know he did it because they see security camera footage of the crime (suppressed at trial, natch), the audience never sees him doing anything criminal or sinister at all. To the very end of the episode, this mass murdering scumbag just looks like everyone else.
- Not often used on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but this quote deserves mention.
Willow (in reference to a murderer): "It could be anyone. It could be me! ...it's not, though."
- The villain of the pilot episode of Grimm is a mailman who wears loafers and cardigans, collects porcelain figurines, does needlepoint, makes homemade chicken pot pies, and eats people.
- Heroic variant: The Regents in Warehouse 13 are not at all what Artie expected. However, they all look a little too ordinary...
- Adachi from Persona 4
- Terrence from Kate Modern.
- The majority of characters in Survival of the Fittest are Ordinary High School Students, meaning that oftentimes people who choose to play the game fit this trope in some way or another. This is particularly true in regards to v4, where there has been an increased focus on realism. Many, many characters in pre-game come off as people who you could easily find at your school in real life, but once you get to in-game... well, it brings out the worst in people. Danya himself can fit as well, as aside from bearing scars from attempts on his life he's described as someone who wouldn't particularly stand out in a crowd; Bryan Calvert even says Danya looks like his father.
- Most serial killers. Some examples would be Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Nilsen, Kenneth Bianchi, Angelo Buono, Fred and Rosemary West, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, and Russell Williams. Bundy is notable for being able to change his appearance with relatively few cosmetic changes (say, a different hairstyle); cops, witnesses and survivors literally could not tell one photo of the man from the other, one reason he became so hard to identify.
- By definition, serial killers have to be able to blend in with normal society, because the qualifier separating 'serial killing' and 'spree killing', is a significant amount of time (several weeks or months) passing between each separate kill.
- Many Holocaust perpetrators. If you didn't know know any better most of these people look perfectly normal. Not all of them, but enough to be very scary.
- Salvatore Riina looks like an ordinary, if slightly doughy, older Italian man. He was formerly the most powerful member of the Sicilian Mafia and earned the nickname "The Beast" for his violent nature. He ordered the murder of thousands. One informant described him as, "His philosophy was that if someone's finger hurt, it was better to cut off his whole arm just to make sure."
- Felix Dzerzhinsky and Lavrentiy Beria, directors of the Soviet secret police (the Cheka and the NKVD respectively), and Dragons for Lenin and Stalin respectively (well, the former actually would be The Brute if you accept Leon Trotsky as Lenin's Dragon). Both of them openly stated that they will do not-so-nice things to those belived to be counter-revolutionaries--which included torture, and summary executions, amongst others. Beria is a more notable example by looking rather nebbish while being one of the most feared members in Stalin's inner circle. Did I mention that he was also a serial rapist?
- Actual spies are the master of this trope.
- It's easier to list the times that the neighbors of horrific criminals didn't say that they seemed normal. Often contrasted when the criminal was a loner, when the line "well, he was quiet and kept to himself, so I knew there was something off" comes up a lot, to the point of having become a journalistic cliché.
- The point of social engineering, both for pranks and serious villainy-- blend in and appeal to peoples' sense of "I've been there, and I wish someone had helped me like he's asking."