So it’s the beginning of December, the dying of the old year, and I’ve been enjoying the lovely experience of experiencing my first semester in UBC’s Creative Writing MFA program while also editing Through the Labyrinths of the Mind, Cloudscape Comics’ anthology on mental health issues. It has been marvelous to organize an anthology of comic book stories all centered around mental health, a subject I care about so strongly about. It’s been marvelous to see the variety of stories born from it – memoirs, fantasies, dramas, adaptations of myths. But perhaps most marvelous is knowing the variety of experiences that went into these pieces. Whether directly or through a veil of fiction, the artists have used this as a venue to explore their own experiences with depression, anxiety, dementia, PTSD, ADD, and numerous other issues. I’m proud to have organized this, given voice to issues that are often not discussed.
Still, Through the Labyrinths of the Mind is a project I’d hoped to have been basically done by the time UBC started. Sadly, best laid plans of mice and so forth. These things always take far longer than expected. So here I am, juggling the incredibly stressful experience of analyzing artists’ work for an anthology with the incredibly stressful experience of embarking on a new academic study. All in the middle of dealing with the incredibly stressful experience of a global pandemic. Fun.
My brain is not wired for multitasking; it requires a lot of effort to quickly reorient myself from one task to another. However, the process of working on both anthology and university together has some interesting elements. It’s interesting to be involved in a creative project in which I’m the boss while at the same time doing various creative projects in which I’m the student, being an authority figure at the same time as being someone who’s definitely not. It’s also interesting to be working on various scholarship applications in which I pitch my thesis project and its exploration of mental health, while at the same time already working on an ambitious mental health project. Feels nice to say on the applications that mental health isn’t just something I have written about or will write about, but is in fact something I’m writing about right now, at this very instant. I’m in the thick of it.
Perhaps that’s really the big thing about the last few few months – I’m in the thick of it. In the thick of all these different projects, both in and out of UBC. I’ve been doing things that really matter to me, building myself in various ways as an author, an editor, and a teacher of writing. Labyrinths is getting done; it will get done. And because I’ve embarked on my journey with Labyrinths, I’ve been able to use it to open up some doors in other places.
I feel that to have an effective
criminally insane villain, certain things are necessary:
The writer should have a clear
idea of the character’s mental issue, how their perceptions and
thoughts are abnormal (more so than simply “they are chaotic”).
These mental issues make the
person not responsible for their actions as they are perceiving the
universe too differently.
There’s a tension in the story
because of the character’s unreliability. It is hard to deal with
this character because the villain’s perspective is so displaced
from what’s real. If he has henchmen, then there probably should be
a moment where the henchmen are uncertain how to interpret their
boss’ commands (unless the henchmen have bought into the issue).
The hero’s confrontation with the
villain must have internal tension, a sense of “how do I deal with
this person?” The villain is ultimately not responsible, but still
must be stopped. The story must feel a sadness that such a violent
response against the villain is necessary.
Whatever the villain’s final fate,
there must be a sense of tragedy. If the villain cannot be cured,
then there must be sympathy for the villain, that he or she is
basically a prisoner in their own head.
For many people (myself included),
Batman the Animated Series from
the 1990s is considered one of the greatest takes on the character, a
revolutionary cartoon that reinterpreted previously lame villains
(such as Mr. Freeze and Mad Hatter) and added several compelling new
characters (such as Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya). It did, sadly,
carry on many issues from the comics, including numerous characters
classified as being insane when they had no right to be, Arkham
Asylum as almost more of a prison than a hospital, etc. But that
said, it did feature a few characters who were legitimately
criminally insane, and they were some of the most compelling
He was created in the late 80s, and has the interesting distinction
of being the most intriguing Batman villain created when I was alive.
Arnold Wesker is a shy withdrawn man who has repressed all his anger,
frustration, and aggression. An accomplished ventriloquist, he
expresses his negative thoughts through a dummy named Scarface, who
Wesker is convinced is a totally different person. Scarface becomes a
ruthless gangster who treats Wesker as his pathetic valet, constantly
denigrating him in public, and Wesker believes that they are two
entirely different people.
He’s got a clear mental issue – dissociative personality disorder
brought on by repressed anger, and he clearly his consciousness is
not responsible for his actions. As far as his consciousness is
concerned, the Ventriloquist is an innocent man held hostage by a
villain, and whenever anyone confronts him, he sincerely announces
that (“It wasn’t me! It was Scarface! He’s the one you want!”).
After being persecuted by Scarface, Catwoman attacks the
Ventriloquist and is about to claw his face, and when the
Ventriloquist begs for his life, our sympathy is with him – he
think he’s innocent. There is also a perfect moment of unreliability
in his first appearance on the cartoon, where Batman convinces
Scarface that Ventriloquist has betrayed him, and Scarface demands
that his goons execute the Ventriloquist. The goons, of course,
hesitate, as they know that killing him would also kill their boss,
and Scarface is enraged at this “betrayal.”
Perhaps most tellingly, the doll Scarface is destroyed in the climax,
and then we see Ventriloquist at Arkham Asylum some time later. The
doctors are happy that he seems to be making a full recovery. But
then we see he is secretly making a new Scarface doll. Usually when
there is a scene at the end of a Batman episode that shows the
villain will return, the emotion is menace – the villain will
escape and cause suffering. But here the emotion is tragedy – not
that the Ventriloquist will hurt someone (though he likely will do
that too) but that he is not free of his mental issues.
One of the most peculiar of Batman villains – Maxie Zeus thinks
that he is the Greek god Zeus and he fits everything into this
delusion (such as thinking of Batman as Hades). Probably no villain
is as disconnected from reality. He is often ignored in the comics or
treated as a joke because his delusion is so ludicrous – but that’s
what makes him truly insane.
The Animated Series episode with Maxie (“Fire from Olympus”) is a
powerful and strange story because it truly explores what makes an
insane villain so dangerous and yet so sympathetic. Maxie Zeus is
accompanied by two henchmen and his girlfriend Clio. Clio is a
compelling addition because she is his loved one viewing his fall
from insanity, begging him to return to lucidity. She stands in for
numerous people who witness their loved ones fall from reality, and
desperately try to help them without knowing how.
Maxie’s most prominent crimes are ones that seem so reasonable in his
own world. He destroys police zeppelins that get close their tower
merely because “mortals are not supposed to approach Olympus,”
attempts to murder people who renege on deals with him because they
have “shown disrespect to the gods.” His actions are so divorced
from reality that it is impossible not feel sympathy for Maxie and
for Clio. And tellingly, Batman convinces her to help defeat Maxie
because Batman claims he can get the man the help he needs.
Then, when Clio tries to make him see reason, we have the perfect
moment of unreliability. He believes her actions are because she is
“merely” a demigod. He chains her to his lightning machine so
that the “lightning of Zeus” will purge her of her mortality,
making her a full goddess at Maxie’s side. His goons start to
question him, just like the Ventriloquist’s men did.
And then, we have the ending – which manages to be both funny but
also very sympathetic towards Maxie Zeus. He’s in a straight jacket,
being rolled through Arkham, and is utterly happy, because he
mistakes the Joker for the trickster god Hermes, Poison Ivy for
Demeter, and Two-Face for Janus, and is convinced that finally he is
in Olympus. The final image is not a villain who we can be happy is
incarcerated but a poor victim trapped in his head.
are a few other villains in Batman
are clearly insane. For example, Killer Croc is often so animalistic
he seems almost entirely motivated by instinct; it’s hard to blame
someone for his actions when he just starts screaming “Hungry!
Pain!” Humpty Dumpty is a savant great at taking apart machinery
and fixing it, and he eventually decided that the reason his
grandmother was so abusive was that she must be broken – so he took
her apart to fix her. But they’re rare. Certainly most of the more
prominent characters do not feel insane at all.
What would they be like if they were actually crazy?
Two-Face is almost there. He clearly has an issue that takes away
control of his actions, he often recognizes he has issues, and he has
loved ones grieving for him, and Batman clearly considers him to be a
damaged person to be helped rather than a criminal to be punished.
However, he falls apart a little because of the lack of specificity
of his mental problem. He’s frequently referred to as having multiple
personalities, but that is very rarely represented – and seems more
like an attempt to just add more duality imagery to him than a
thought about how he should be perceived. Perhaps more importantly,
insanity means being so separated from reality that you cannot judge
right and wrong, and Two-Face’s issue is he feels a need to flip a
coin to decide his actions, but the coin flip is always between
“good” and “evil” actions – if he is able to separate what
makes an action good and evil, and he uses definition that regular
people do, then he clearly does understand right and wrong – he
just chooses to ignore it.
For Two-Face to be truly insane, his coin flip should not be about
whether to be good or evil, but about deciding what the “good”
choice actually is. Studies have shown that any choice we make is
ultimately with our emotions, our “gut” — if the emotional part
of the brain is damaged, then no matter how much reasoning the person
is still capable of, they will be unable to make proper choices. If
part of Two-Face was damage in whatever scarred them, then he could
potentially have no ability to judge his own actions. That would
present someone highly sympathetic and clearly dysfunctional, a
person robbed from any internal sense of meaning.
One problem with that is that it does separate Two-Face from the
iconic-ness of his coin, which represents the choice between good and
evil. It is possible that it could still often represent the violent
vs non-violent choice (“do I shoot this person or not”) — but
frequently which choice should be made with the scarred side is
arbitrary (“do I rob this store or the other?” “Do I shoot
Batman or Robin?”). It would dilute the purity of Two-Face’s
iconography, but would make his situation more philosophically
compelling, and ultimately make him a more sympathetic and
accurately insane character.
Poison Ivy is a seductive woman with an affinity with plants, and an
eco-terrorist ideology. She is an iconic Arkham inmate, but what
exactly is her insanity? Caring about the environment is not insane –
neither, for that matter, is killing people over it – though it is,
of course, criminal. To be insane she would need a harsher separation
from reality, and more confusion on why others don’t see things her
Giving her a warped sense of empathy could work. She has an easier
time feeling empathy for plants than for humans. She thinks back in
sadness at when her grandparents’ house burned – not because the
grandparents died but because their rose bush did. Ivy can’t
understand why other people are so cruel to plants. If one goes this
route, it would make sense for Ivy to only eat the parts of plants
that doesn’t harm them – she eats fruit and nuts, but never roots.
She feels about eating carrots the same way that most people feel
about eating human flesh (or at least monkeys). Ivy is earnestly
baffled why she’s considered a villain for murdering a CEO whose
Harley suffers from the association of chaotic behavior with
insanity. Of course she’s insane; she’s so weird! But then what
exactly is her craziness? Harley is at her most frightening when she
is bubbly and goofy while doing terrible things. There’s a bit where
she has Catwoman strapped to a conveyor belt, and is about to turn
her into catfood. Harley is joking, and seems to honestly think that
Catwoman will appreciate that in death she’ll be helping some cats.
Harley does not take life seriously. She treats it like a game. What
if that’s what she literally thought life was? That it was just fun,
with no serious consequences – like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.
People may fall off buildings, be set on fire, but in the end no one
is really hurt. There are no consequences. It would make her bubbling
personality very dangerous.
Batman villains have changed more dramatically than Mad Hatter. First
he was just a villain who looked like the Alice
in Wonderland character,
then someone obsessed with hats, then someone obsessed with Lewis
Carroll, then someone whose obsession moves between hats and Carroll
depending upon the author. He often feels like a character who was
declared insane by the authors simply because he has “Mad” in his
name, and then made to giggle and quote Alice
in order to feel crazy without any real thought to what exactly his
Mad Hatter’s two obsessions, the Carroll one is far more interesting
than hats, and easier to build an insane outlook on. The Alice
are full of bizarre outlooks, logic puzzles, and weird philosophy,
and it is easy to build an insane perspective from them. The most
effective Batman stories with the Mad Hatter play up the dreamlike
subjectivity of the Alice books, producing a character who doesn’t
really believe that the world is real – it’s all just something
dreamed by the Red King (or possibly Mad Hatter himself). A world
full of all sorts of backwards logic, including that the best way to
go over a gate is to stand on your head and that words can mean
whatever you want them to mean. The Mad Hatter is a person who
believes he has stepped through the mirror into Looking-Glass Land, a
realm where flowers talk, rabbits have waistcoats, and everything is
a dream. When he becomes a man suffering from delusions,
hallucinating his dream realm, he becomes a far more compelling
Riddler is a man obsessed with proving he is smarter than the
smartest man (who he thinks is Batman), and so he constantly leaves
riddles, forcing Batman to try and solve them. In later stories, they
have played up the riddles as a compulsion, that he finds himself
unable to not leave them behind. This can clearly mark him as
abnormal, but crazy? No. It’s the sort of thing that might get a
psychiatrist to visit him in prison but not get him sent to a
It would be hard to reinvent the Riddler to make him actually insane,
as his defining trait beside riddles is his total lucidity. He very
clearly understands his environment, and knows the laws, and how they
can be played with. The only way to make him insane while keeping
that cunning is to make him some sort of solipsist who believes that
no one is actually real except him and Batman. It would explain why
he is so obsessed with Batman, and why he doesn’t care if other
people are hurt as part of the schemes. Unfortunately, it would also
make his issues pretty similar to Mad Hatter’s – a genius who
basically believes the universe is a dream operating under its own
logic. Honestly, I feel Riddler would be better served as being
reclassified as abnormal but sane.
The Scarecrow. A psychologist who dresses up like a Halloween
decoration and is obsessed with spreading fear. In some stories, he
is spreading fear just for the hell of it, but in others he seems to
be doing some psychological experiments. What is his insanity? It’s
something that is never really established. He is creepy and
obsessed, but besides that there really isn’t much.
Is it some extreme megalomania combined with delusion? Sometimes the
way he talks, he almost sounds like he thinks he’s some sort of god
of fear. Is it that he prioritizes scientific research so much that
he cannot understand why people are shocked by his actions? That sort
of mad scientist approach could be a direction to go. Possibly he
might even think that people facing their fear, even if they die, is
what they need to do. Though admittedly all of these move him away
dramatically from his normal personality. He is so clinical and yet
sadistic that it is difficult to reinvent him in a way that seems
arch-enemy. When one asks “Is the Joker crazy?” Most people would
answer “Of course, he is. He’s the Joker!” What then is his
mental issue? Sure, he’s weird and wild, and does all sorts of funky
things, but what exactly is his problem? It’s something that
surprisingly few people are interested in exploring – probably
partly because one big element of Joker’s appeal is how mysterious he
is. However, I feel that if you are going to present an insane
character, then it is important to explain how he is insane.
Otherwise, go another direction with him
suggested that Joker’s brain has difficulty processing sensory
information, so that he is constantly interpreting it in a different
way. That’s used to explain why different stories have dramatically
different takes on him – joyless assassin, goofy thief, giggling
serial killer, etc. Others (including Alan Moore) have suggested that
Joker is such a complete nihilist that not only does he feel the
universe is one big pointless joke, but he believes then that the
only moral imperative is to teach others of this cold hard fact. The
world is chaos, and everyone should know it. Or, in a more
light-hearted way, he just sees everything as a cartoon, just like
Harley does. In this case, the one moral imperative is to get
everyone to laugh.
lot of people also like to think of the Joker as one of the DC
Universe’s ultimate embodiments of pure evil. If he is insane, then
by definition he can’t be that. Then Batman is an unfeeling brute
beating up a man not responsible for his actions. This is an
interpretation many people are not comfortable with. Fair enough, but
in that case don’t call Joker and his ilk crazy.
“What interests me…is the fact that he functions as a lightning rod for a certain breed of psychotic. They specialize in absurdly grandiose schemes, and whatever the ostensible rationale–greed, revenge, the seizure of power…their true agenda is always the same: to cast Batman in the role of Nemesis.” –Henri Ducard, Batman
Comics sadly have a bad history of treating people with mental issues respectively. This is especially true in superhero comics, where insanity is often used as a villain’s motivation, and especially especially true in Batman comics, where most of his villains are considered insane and sent to Arkham Asylum as opposed to prison.
This is actually a relatively recent
addition. Originally Batman’s enemies were considered no more or less
insane than any other villains. In fact, there was an early comic
strip in which the Joker faked insanity
in order to be transported from prison to a hospital (so he could
escape on route). It was only in 1974 (35 years after Batman was
created) that Arkham first appeared in the comics, and was in the 80s
when it was decided that most of Batman’s enemies were crazy rather
than being merely eccentric, and so it became the go-to place for
Presumably this was an attempt to give more depth to the villains, an explanation for their bizarre crimes and actions. Why does Riddler always leave riddles? He’s obsessive-compulsive. Why does Joker tell jokes all the time and commit bizarre crimes? He’s lost touch with reality. However, this decision has some pretty deep problems. Firstly, making insanity the main motivation of the rogues gallery for the world’s most popular superhero results in further demonizing an already derided minority. If you think of crazy people in popular culture, Joker, Two-Face, and other miscreants spring readily to mind. Secondly, it shows a serious ignorance of what insanity actually is.
To be classified as psychologically abnormal, a person must have behaviour and/or thoughts that are very different from regular people and which hamper the person’s ability to interact with themselves or with others – to function well. Thus, if you fill several rooms in your house with dolls that you talk to but you also hold down a good job, feel good about yourself, and have positive relationships with others, then you are not abnormal, just eccentric. But if you yell at people about what the dolls are saying and are unable to interact with people in a comfortable way, then you are abnormal. Now, insanity is actually more of a legal than psychological term – to be criminally insane means that you committed a crime but your mind is such that you were incapable of realizing that what you were doing was wrong – thus, you are ultimately innocent of your actions. You’re not criminal, you’re sick. That’s why you’re in a hospital rather than a prison.
In this context,
only a few of Batman’s enemies would be considered properly insane.
Maxie Zeus thinks he’s the god Zeus, the Ventriloquist has so
repressed his anger that it manifests in his wooden dummy – which
he thinks is a living person, sometimes Killer Croc is written so
that his thoughts are more like an animal’s than a man’s. But most of
the prominent villains are merely abnormal – Riddler is
obsessive-compulsive about leaving cues, Poison Ivy kills to protect
plants, Scarecrow is a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur, but
they still understand that their actions are wrong – or at least
will be so judged by society. They are responsible for what they do.
it is a trope of the Batman franchise to constantly remind us that
the villains are responsible for their actions. Often a psychologist
or other concerned citizen will accuse Batman of being a brute for
mistreating people who are mentally ill, that these poor individuals
are victims rather than criminals. This happens in the regular
comics, in Batman the Animated Series,
in The Dark Knight Returns…
and every single time, the villains attempt to kill the psychologist,
either resulting in that individual’s death or in a last-minute save
by Batman that makes the individual realize that Arkham’s inmates are
monsters that need to be controlled, not victims deserving our
many of you might take offence to the idea that Joker or Scarecrow
are merely misunderstood victims. Is that really fair considering how
many people they’ve murdered? Plus, then it makes Batman seem like a
villain, beating up the mentally ill who are ultimately innocent.
Fair enough. I think there’s a lot of problematic elements in
treating people like Joker as victims – but if you don’t want to do
that, then don’t classify them as being insane. By definition,
someone with criminal insanity is a victim – a victim of their
trauma, of their lives, of their own brain.
is a lot of stigma towards people with mental issues, and a lot of
people complain about criminals being declared legally insane and
sent to the hospital rather than prison. Stories like Batman,
where people who are clearly villainous but still classified as
insane, encourage this perception – that being declared insane is a
way to “cheat the system.” In reality, very few lawyers use it as
a defence for their client, and even less cases end with that being
the sentence. And, interestingly enough, when a person is declared
insane, he is generally sent to the hospital longer than he would be
in prison (as he is not there for a set time but until cured).
would claim that the Batman comics
do not demonize the mentally ill because the heroes have issues as
well. Don’t people often think of Batman himself as being crazy? Okay
then, what is his craziness? It’s not that he dresses up like a bat
and drives a bat-shaped car – Catwoman is considered one of his few
sane enemies and she basically has the same animal shtick, to say
nothing of various “sane” superheroes who have costumes equally
strange. Is it that Batman’s obsessive-compulsive, utterly driven in
his war on crime? Well, once again that could fit numerous
superheroes, who are not considered crazy. Besides, even if that were
true, it would at most make him abnormal but certainly not crazy –
by definition he knows what right and wrong are. But more
importantly, Batman’s sanity is almost never engaged with by the
writers in a serious way, just hand-waved as an explanation for why
he’s so intense and usually used to simply make him seem more badass
(“he’s not human!”). If Batman’s sanity is questionable, then
clarify in what way, and treat the topic with understanding and
sympathy. If you don’t want us to pity Batman, then don’t pretend
The mentally ill
are a prominent minority and one that, virtually by definition,
suffers a lot. Pop culture should be used to help us understand these
people and feel sympathy for them, not encourage us to treat them
like criminals and punchlines. Storytellers have a responsibility.
“Ah, Geraint,” said Gwalchmai, “is it thou that art here?” “I am not Geraint,” said he. “Geraint thou art, by Heaven,” he replied, “and a wretched and insane expedition is this…. Come thou and see Arthur; he is thy lord and thy cousin.” “I will not,” said he, “for I am not in a fit state to go and see any one.” Thereupon, behold, one of the pages came after Gwalchmai to speak to him. So he sent him to apprise Arthur that Geraint was there wounded, and that he would not go to visit him, and that it was pitiable to see the plight that he was in. And this he did without Geraint’s knowledge, inasmuch as he spoke in a whisper to the page. “Entreat Arthur,” said he, “to have his tent brought near to the road, for Geraint will not meet him willingly, and it is not easy to compel him in the mood he is in.”
– “Geraint ap Erbin,” The Mabinogion
The stories of King Arthur is one of
those funny things that have conjured so many cultural tropes and
images that a lot of people think they know more about it than they
actually do. For example, I’ve heard people comment that they prefer
characters who are more complicated and flawed, and so perfect heroes
such as King Arthur and his knights are not interesting.
But King Arthur and his knights are so
deeply flawed. One of the most regular themes in the Arthurian
Romances is how great ideals and moral codes crumble and break
eventually. The whole arc of Arthur is that he created the perfect
kingdom but it was inevitably destroyed – not by an outside force,
but rotting from within due to the sins and weaknesses of the
knights. Infidelity, petty jealousy, incest, betrayal, feuds,
vengeful murder – all of these help to shatter the Round Table. So
It is fascinating to look at how older
cultures viewed mental issues, especially things like anxiety or
depression, where it is often ambiguous whether the person is
suffering from a disorder or if that’s just their personality. In
King Arthur stories, characters are frequently pushed to the breaking
point by traumatic events, when their views of themselves are
The most famous break is with Lancelot.
He is seduced by the princess Elaine when she’s disguised as
Guinevere, and once Lancelot realizes that she wasn’t the woman he
thought she was, he leaps out of a window and runs screaming into the
forest. It’s an ironic scene, for if he had had sex with Guinevere,
that would have been the supreme betrayal of his vows to King Arthur,
and yet it is having sex with Elaine that shakes Lancelot to the
core. He feels he cheated on the queen, sullied himself with someone
he didn’t love, and so he lives like an animal in the wild for
The theme of trauma reducing a man to
an animal shows up in several Welsh Arthurian stories as well. In the
Welsh version of the “Lady of the Fountain,” the hero Owain
temporary leaves his fairy wife, the Lady of the Fountain, to return
to King Arthur’s court. He becomes so wrapped up in Arthurian
adventures that he forgets to return to her, and after waiting months
for his return, the Lady eventually discards him as he discarded her
– appearing to him in court to deride his faithlessness and then
using her magic to hide her valley from him forever. Owain goes mad
with the guilt and loneliness, and he spends the next few years
living naked in the forest, eating raw meat. Similarly, the
semi-historical Myrddin (who the Arthurian Merlin was partly inspired
by) in “The Life of Myrddin” was traumatized by his involvement
in a great battle, and so fled naked into the forest, where he ate
moss and apples, befriended the beasts, and refused to return to
human society, snarling like a wolf whenever someone tried. It is
perhaps problematic to identify someone in the middle of a nervous
breakdown as akin to a wild beast, but a storm of emotions causing
someone to flee into their head and into the wilderness is a feeling
I can strongly identify with. Sometimes so much force is exerted on
the self that one wishes for the self to be blotted out.
“Geraint ap Erbin” is another Welsh
Arthurian story in which the warrior suffers from mental issues, but
in a dramatically different way. The first half of the story is about
Geraint winning the lady Enid by impressing her in a tournament, a
pretty traditional Arthurian Romance. The second half involves
Geraint being forced to leave Arthur’s court to take charge of his
father’s domain in Devon, giving up his adventures to instead become
a ruler and bureaucrat. Geraint hates this, constantly yearning for
Arthur’s court, and eventually shuts himself in his room, too
depressed to deal with any part of the court. Geraint believes that
since he can no longer be a warrior and adventurer, he’s a failure as
a man, and so he starts to suspect his wife Enid of infidelity –
deciding that there’s no way that she could ever love a failure like
him. In a storm of envy and depression, he drags Enid with him out of
Devon, determined to fight battle after battle in order to prove to
her and himself that he is still a man… or die in the attempt.
Geraint’s suicidal obsession and his
verbal abuse of Enid ring much more realistically than the other
characters’ descent into animalism, which makes it especially
shocking to read. There’s an intense moment where Arthur finds
Geraint almost dead from numerous wounds, both he and Enid dressed in
tatters, and the king is angry and frightened – demanding to know
why Geraint is putting himself and Enid through hell. It is very hard
for people who don’t suffer from depression or anxiety to understand
exactly why we who do are acting the way we are – it seems
illogical, bizarre, and self-destructive (and often is); this moment
in the “Geraint” Romance is startling for its psychological
There are various examples in stories
all over the world of characters struggling with mental issues. What
makes the Arthurian stories that struggle with this topic especially
striking is that King Arthur and his knights are supposedly
archetypes of masculine heroism and strength, perfect paladins pure
of thought and deed. By showing them being undone by their guilt,
self-hating and self-destructive because they fall short of their
ideals, it reminds us that depression can strike down all of us. All
of us are vulnerable, even the greatest knights of the world.
“The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.” -Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
To honour Mental Health Month and my own struggles with anxiety and depression, I will be exploring various examples of characters with mental issues throughout literature and popular culture, starting with perhaps the most gut-wrenching: Frankenstein’s Monster.
Arguably the greatest horror novel ever written, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein produced the most compelling horror icon of all time. The Monster himself is terrifying — a huge and hideous product of an unnatural birth — but also someone who we feel such empathy for. It is telling that the two most iconic version of the story (the Mary Shelley novel and the James Whale movies with Boris Karloff) initially envisioned Dr. Frankenstein as being the protagonist and named the story after him, but most people think of the title as referring to the Monster rather than the scientist because the Monster is far more memorable, and it is he who feels like the real protagonist.
His suffering is anyone who has suffered from mental issues such as depression or anxiety can sympathize with. The Monster feels different, unnatural, wrong — he knows the population of the world is divided between himself and everyone else, that he has been made imperfectly, falsely. When I am at my darkest, I myself often feel like a “patchwork man,” a bunch of pieces that don’t seem to quite fit together, a soulless automaton rather than a real person.
When in the depths of depression, one feels unloved, incapable of being loved, which is the great curse of the Monster. He has been defaced by the Mark of Cain, though unlike Cain, it’s not a punishment for any crime he did. He is desperate for a place in the world, but cannot find it anywhere he goes. The more the Monster is rejected and persecuted, the more his hope is consumed by desolation and rage. Many people who experience mental issues feel intense frustration for who they are, that they are fighting against themselves, against pieces of their mind that don’t seem to quite fit together. The Monster knows why they don’t fit — because he was made improperly by a person who thought himself God.
Dr. Septimus Pretorius: Do you know who Henry Frankenstein is, who you are? The Monster: Yes, I know… made me from dead… I love dead… hate living. –Bride of Frankenstein
Speaking for myself, I have always found Karloff’s interpretation of the Monster to be even more compelling than the original. His treatment in James Whales’ Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein is one of the most emotionally intense performances in cinematic history. Perhaps it’s because the Monster here feels closer to me. He’s not just broken in body as Shelley’s Monster is, but broken in head.
Karloff’s Monster has a hard time understanding the world, a hard time communicating. He has impulses he cannot understand, which often take control of him (here derived from a murderer’s brain that he was cursed with). Shelley’s Monster is always very cognizant of all the damage he caused, coldly striking in vengeance against a humanity that rejected him, but Karloff’s Monster is confused. He drowns a girl under the mistaken belief that she’ll float as happily and prettily as the flowers that he and she were tossing into the water. He happily follows Dr. Pretorius when the mad scientist suggests that he can make a friend for the creature, and then howls in frustration and betrayal when that doesn’t happen. Karloff’s Monster was brought into the world unable to understand it, and remains baffled and pained by whatever’s going on. He is us as we try to claw our way through life, seeing other people who find it so much easier than we do. He is us living in a world that seems to be built for other people.
I have screamed at the sky, demanding the universe tell me why I was built this way, why my brain seem to respond to things differently from how other people do. Why does this storm of negative emotions seem to crash through my body? Why do I feel false, broken? The Monster knows why. Because his creator built him not knowing what exactly he was, then tossed him into the cold, leaving him unable to know how to cope with existence.
In a weird way, he fulfills a strange fantasy I’ve had — wouldn’t it feel nice to punish the God that made you such a broken person? Who decided that you should have a mental storm most other people don’t? Wouldn’t it feel good, just for a little bit — to drag that being down to the depths of depression that you regularly god? Of course, it wouldn’t make anything better. In the novel, the Monster tortures Frankenstein, murders everyone he loves, and then forces Frankenstein into a long and tortures death in the snows, and seeing the corpse just makes the Monster sob, makes him rant about how pitiful he is, and decide to burn himself to death with Frankenstein’s corpse at the North Pole. In Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster does the opposite, deciding that Frankenstein and his wife should go and live because he is “alive,” whereas the Monster and his bride are “dead…. We belong dead.” I feel that the Monster saving Frankenstein has less to do with any real forgiveness and more him wanting someone to remember him positively — to get some satisfaction as he kills himself.
The Monster: We belong dead. –Bride of Frankenstein
The horror of Frankenstein is not that we will be attacked by the Monster, but that deep down we are the Monster. That we are soulless automatons who have been “made wrong,” beings damaged and then discarded by our creator. We have bodies that don’t do what they’re supposed to, minds that don’t do what they’re supposed to, impulses that drive us mad, and there is no one else like us, and if there were, they would reject us too (as the Bride rejects the Monster), for who could truly care for us — even fellow freaks would try to be with normal people. We are, as Karloff’s monster succinctly said, “dead.”
If the Monster can be a metaphor for mental issues, that feeling of lonely brokenness that frequently haunts our brains, then what is it ultimately saying about those issues? It is how they can possess the person who feels them, take over their lives. How it leads to fear, to frustration, to rage. How it can make us lash out against those we blame for our pain. How in the end, when it takes us over, the person we most lash out against is ourselves.
Though certainly not the most empowering image of depression and mental issues, perhaps nothing better captures the isolation and imagery that it produces than Frankenstein. We are all Frankenstein’s Monster, but unlike the Monster, we cannot punish our creator. We can only hurt ourselves. At the end of both the novel and Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster commits suicide — either burning himself alive along with Frankenstein’s corpse in a funeral pyre or pulling a convenient switch in the lab to blow him to atoms. Are the stories saying that this is the only possible ending for those who feel dominated by mental issues?
The ultimate motivation for the suicide is desolate loneliness. The Monster feels no one cares about him, he is truly alone. However, we in the real world who deal with these issues are not alone ourselves. There are other people out there who suffer from similar issues, and we can reach out to each other. We can tell each other that we are not dead, we are not automatons, robots, or zombies. We are human, we are people. We are not broken. We are merely different. And we are not alone. Maybe often we with mental issues feel like we cannot save ourselves, but we can save others who are similarly touched — we can save them because we understand what they’re going through, because we can show them they are not alone. Unlike Frankenstein Monster, we are not alone.