Ever since vampires received the humanizing treatment in fiction, the idea of vampiric guilt has been used to the point of cliche. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense to a certain degree; a former human forced to kill other humans for survival does seem like it would carry with it a certain amount of pathos. That said, psychologically, people are very capable of getting used to things they do regularly. Most people eat meat, after all, and don’t feel bad enough about it to stop. It stands to reason that vampires would eventually do the same, hyper-predators that they are. But there is one vampire who has a special relationship with guilt, and that is Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
When we first meet Angel, he is on the side of good, a vampire with a restored human soul (the vampires in the Buffyverse have their souls replaced with demonic spirits, basically remaking them as evil versions of themselves). He feels intense angst over the things he did as a vampire, which could come across as some Anne Rice-esque pomposity, except that we learn Angel was not merely some run of the mill bloodsucker–he was in fact the worst vampire, a despicable creature among despicable creatures, and as such, he has more than a little to be tormented over.
Angel started off as a young man from Ireland named Liam, generally described as a drunken, whoring layabout, a selfish hedonist, and a disappointment to his family. For a human, hedonism generally translates to seeking out pleasures of the body, whether they be sexual or chemical-induced. For a vampire, a creature of innate evil, the greatest pleasures come from inflicting the greatest pain, and Angel became an artist of agony. His tortures ran the gamut from physical to emotional, large to small, grandiose to personal. He started by murdering his former self’s entire family, perhaps to prove he had cut those ties, or perhaps just to hurt whatever was left of his human side. From there, he quickly wrested control of the gang led by his sire Darla and led them to cut a bloody swath across Europe for over a century. It was during this time that he committed the act his later self would refer to as his worst. Drusilla was a kind-hearted girl who was plagued by psychic visions, and went to her local priest to ask for advice. Unfortunately, Angel had just murdered the priest in question, and when he learned of Drusilla, he became obsessed with her. He systematically ruined her life by killing everyone close to her and ultimately inflicting every kind of torment imaginable upon her until she went mad. Then he turned her into a vampire, and she became one of his most loyal and depraved followers.
Angel’s villainy was brought to a close when he murdered a gypsy girl, and, as they tend to do in fiction, her family cursed him. They restored his human soul, and while Liam may not have been the best person who had ever lived, the enormity of what he had done nearly broke him. He spent a century wracked with guilt, eventually reduced to living on the streets and eating rats. After receiving some advice from an agent of good, he decided to try his hand at being a hero, putting right what he had done wrong by joining forces with Buffy, the Slayer. Unfortunately, matters became complicated when they fell in love. Angel’s curse was meant to keep him suffering, and when Buffy brought him a moment of perfect happiness, the curse was lifted and his evil self returned. Armed with inside knowledge of his former allies, Angel set about inflicting as much suffering as he could on Buffy.
Angel is perhaps the ultimate example of a villain who makes it personal. His violence, while often random, is never casual. He takes his time, getting to know his prey before striking. He tends to fixate on particular people, often those who are innocent or had some connection to his human side. His murders, when not simply designed to cause shock and horror in the populace (often going after holy figures as he did), are usually more about inflicting pain on the living, and he rarely just kills so much as creates works of art out of murder and psychological cruelty. If Angel has a flaw, it’s actually that he is too cruel, too sadistic. He delights so much in making his targets suffer that he lets them live perhaps too long, and occasionally this leaves them able to take revenge on him. Moreover, even most of his own kind hate and fear him, including the rebellious vampire Spike, who helps to undo Angel’s ultimate dark designs.
One matter regarding Angel that is left ambiguous through the course of both series is the dichotomy of his good and evil sides. Early on, it is implied that they are one and the same, just separated by the soul. This makes it a compelling and reasonable question to ask whether Angel, soul or no, can be trusted. Once he had managed to severely hurt all of Buffy’s friends in one way or another, her belief that he could be saved began to seem naive and foolish. Even once his soul was restored again, though he was once more a good person, the fear of what he could again become was a valid dilemma, and the others certainly blamed him to varying degrees for what his evil self had done. Later on, there was a greater divide between the two sides of his personality, with characters more clearly referring to the evil one as Angelus (not that the name didn’t come up before, but they were somewhat interchangeable rather than denoting one side of him or the other), like he was a different person. My own interpretation is a mix of these. It seems to me that Angel and Angelus are not separate people at odds with one another, but different sides of the same coin. That said, blaming one for the misdeeds of the other is no more reasonable than blaming any person for being possessed by a demon. There isn’t enough evidence to say where the soul goes when it is lost in the Buffyverse, but it is generally accepted that at least it isn’t in the body of the vampire, which suggests the actions taken are not on the soul in question. Your mileage may vary on this idea, of course, but I think the text supports my points.
Angel is a frightening villain because he goes the extra mile. He isn’t just vicious or nasty, he’s creative. He composes symphonies of horror, and is positively giddy as he watches the faces of his victims contort with grief in the aftermath. Even creator Joss Whedon has said that writing some of Angel’s dialogue actually made him feel sick. If hurting their own creator isn’t the sign of a great villain, I don’t know what is.