Other serials like THE GRAY GHOST, WHO IS NUMBER ONE?, [etc.] and dozens of others all had either mysterious heroes or villains. Occasionally they had both.-- Jim Steranko, HISTORY OF COMICS, vol. 1.
At the end of GHOSTS AMERICAN STYLE I alluded to one such "mysterious villain," the character of the Bat, who first appeared in a 1920 play by Mary Robert Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. I reviewed the first two silent film-adaptations of the play here, noting that one, the other, or both may have had some impact upon the creation of the much more famous Batman. My interest in THE BAT concept is both historical and narratological. The silent film versions follow the pattern Steranko sees in serial films of the same period, with their use of mystery-villains. Since I'm no expert on this period, I'd be curious to know the general nature of these figures. Were they, like the Bat, "masked masterminds" who are the ancestors of modern super-villains, whose motives are from the first clearly aimed at gaining money and/or power? Or were any of them "specious spectres," who are initially ambivalent to the reader as to whether they're real spooks-- or at least, madmen, like the evildoer in the 1922 John Willard play THE CAT AND THE CANARY (whose 1939 adaptation I reviewed here.)
If the Bat is one of the ancestors of modern super-villains-- who admittedly graduated from the trivia of robbing Old Dark Houses-- the basic pattern of "the Cat" is derived from Gothic fiction. Ann Radcliffe's 1791 novel THE ROMANCE OF THE FOREST is among the earliest Gothics to explain the supposedly supernatural events of the story, though I have not read it and its summaries do not allude to any "specious spectres." The earliest kindred of the Cat that I've personally read both hail from 1909: Gaston Leroux's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Bram Stoker's THE LADY OF THE SHROUD,. Gothic fiction had a huge influence upon the history of horror fiction generally, but I tend to doubt that the specific trope of plotters pretending to be ghosts sustains much popularity in the prose or the cinema of these days, with the exception of SCOOBY DOO cartoons.
Regardless, the common purpose of both the "masterminds" and the "spectres" is to create narrative tension, which is generally resolved at each story's climax when the villain/ghost is unmasked. The unmasking-angle may have lapsed as much in adventure-stories as in horror-fiction, and has probably become more confined to mystery-detective fiction as such.
In a future essay I'll deal with the impact of such figures upon my literary concept of dynamicity and its relation to the combative mode.