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Would someone have to be insane to become a costumed hero, or would they have to be something else entirely? While it is entirely reasonable that super villains can be psychopaths, why can’t superheroes too? And if psychopaths are born, not made, then doesn’t it make sense that some of them might seek out the most bizarre forms of employment?
Yesterday I was reading about psychopaths. Apparently, while it is a word used pretty broadly in discussion, in psychological terms it is actually a very narrow definition, used rarely. I was surprised to learn that a psychopath is considered neither sane or insane, but is a third group all alone. The other news to me is that psychopaths aren’t generally made by growing up in a damaging environment, but have been shown to have a different physiological make up. A child born into a family of healthy children can be psychopathic, even though his/her siblings aren’t, there is often no external reason for the difference, it is simply a neurological absence of emotion. They have an inability to feel. According to MRI tests done by Dr. Kent Kiehl, when we process emotion, the emotional nerve cluster of the brain lights up, but psychopaths in the same tests do not. The nerve cluster stays dark and there is no emotional activity in their brains. There is a defect.
Until now I always thought that every superhero and super villain had to have a back story, some long, drawn out story about their abusive childhood or whatever. I thought there had to be reasons and events which would lead to the desire to do something as outrageous and anti-social as putting on a wild costume and leading a double life, fighting (whether for justice or for evil.) I erroneously assumed that the adoption of an entirely false persona would be a constant act of will and effort, and that anyone living that way would have to be a little insane and damaged to live that way. It turns out that for a psychopath, deception is actually enjoyable and easy.
In his book Mask of Sanity, Dr. Hervey Cleckley says that psychopaths are a danger not only because of their inability to empathize and feel things as others do, but primarily because they are able to blend in so well. Behaving like everyone else and adopting acceptable, “healthy” behavior is an act of will instead of a facet of their personality. It is not simply a two-dimensional pretense, but an entire life, built from learned behavior patterns that are not actually felt. Psychopaths enjoy deceiving and wearing the emotional clothing of everyone else while actually feeling very little. In fact, it is possible that this emotional absence or void is what leads them to explore more extreme modes of behavior, like thrill-seeking and criminal behavior, in order to attempt to feel something through extremes. Since there is no moral or emotional hindrance, psychopaths have little compunction about doing whatever is necessary to get what they want with little or no regret.
All of this sounds like a perfect recipe for a super villain, doesn’t it? Suddenly we’re freed up from having to hear about their abusive childhoods, or their missing parents. After all, it would take more than insanity to cause a person to consider costume. What kind of disgruntled, anti-social criminal dresses up and targets superheroes while creating an elaborate secret identity? Clearly we’re talking about psychopaths, people for whom a secret personality is easy, not work, who already feel entirely separate from society. One of my favorite villains; the Joker, is obviously a psychopath and I’m sure this is all pretty standard. It just makes sense. However, we’re missing a great opportunity here. While psychopaths are often criminals, we need to examine what happens when they aren’t. Could the emotional disconnect which creates an effective criminal out of a psychopath, just as easily be subverted to become the origin of a superhero?
Psychopaths aren’t murderers and criminals by their nature, they’re simply people without compunction. Naturally this can make them callous and cold, but it doesn’t automatically make them dangerous. In fact, in cases where it has been demonstrated and proven to psychopaths that they will personally benefit from abiding by rules, then it is possible they can become relatively well assimilated into society. Let me explain, where traditional treatment is used, (like psychotherapy or counseling), the sessions merely act as a kind of unintentional specialized training to help psychopaths more effectively mimic healthy emotional behavior. They are not treated or helped by traditional therapy as any insane (or sane) person might be. But Dr. Robert Hare developed a system whereby by accepting that the psychopath may never be anything but rational and uncaring, and used logical process to demonstrate that it is in their own interest to behave appropriately. Apparently there are criminal rehabilitation systems which are testing out this process, offering instant rewards for psychopathic subjects who follow the rules, appealing to their need for instant gratification and it is shown to be relatively effective. This is the first treatment in the history of psychopathy that has been been effective at all.
Extending this concept to the world of fantasy and comic books, it is reasonable to assume that a psychopath who encounters the superhero lifestyle could be shown to appreciate the jobs fit for the unique talents. Unlike any other job a psychopath could hold, it is entirely reasonable to have a well-developed secret identity. Lying is an essential skill. There is little need to work with a team or accommodate any office politics. Violence and vandalism are likewise an essential component of the job, and an ability to do so dispassionately would be useful for a superhero (squeamishness and empathy would actually be a drawback.) Being encouraged to fight crime and do so within a certain, previously agreed upon set of boundaries (i.e. no killing, only damage criminals) would pay great dividends for a psychopaths. Instead of being vilified and hated, he could be appreciated and famous, while still retaining his secret identity and being able to live as a “normal” person for a proportion of the time. To my mind a hero like Superman (who is anyway alien, and his mind works differently from ours) would be an excellent candidate for this. Rather than having to sit through endless, tedious rewrites of his damn origin story, we could simply accept that his brain operates outside of regular moral constraints. For many superheroes, I would find it a welcome relief not to have to listen to their seemingly endless, emotionally loaded, rambling inner dialogues. I’m not saying they’re all psychopaths, I’m just saying that I’m very open to a few of them turning out this way. So next time we get a retcon-ned back story, let’s see if someone can’t come up with something a little less whiny and a little bit further outside of the everyday.
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