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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Holding out for a hero: why a dramatic narrative fulfils a deep-seated psychological need

Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee spoke to the base, ancestral dichotomy of the human psyche

A cosplayer dressed as Spider-Man during Vienna Comic Con. Lisi Niesner / Reuters
A cosplayer dressed as Spider-Man during Vienna Comic Con. Lisi Niesner / Reuters

There is an urban myth about a child who jumps from his bedroom window, wearing a towel as a cape, in pursuit of his superheroic dreams. In various retellings of the story, the child either dies or sustains permanent injuries.

There was, of course, no such child. It was simply a tale that was told and retold to serve as an example, a warning to impressionable children not to imitate the special powers of their superheroes.

Whatever form they take, whether as fables or entertaining yarns, we need and love stories. We also need and love storytellers. The global and heartfelt response to the death of Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee last week underscores this. Lee was widely heralded as an innovator in storytelling, spinning stories about superheroes with recognisable human and fallible qualities. During his time at Marvel, he brought us, among others, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk, timeless stories that have survived changing generations and eras.

The function and impact of such stories is something that psychologists and psychiatrists have a longstanding interest in. When comic books first became popular in the 1930s, there was, at first, alarm about the impact this medium might have on young minds. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published a book, Seduction of the Innocent, which attempted to spell out the psychological and societal dangers of comic books.

A bestseller at the time, it argued that comic books could have a detrimental impact on young minds and that they were a major cause of juvenile delinquency. The basic argument was that children imitated the behaviour they were exposed to and if that behaviour was violent and antisocial, the child’s conduct would be too.

Wertham’s arguments were a forerunner to the debates we have since had about violence in movies and on TV and our concerns about its presence in video games. These debates are ongoing and there remains a lack of consensus over whether antisocial behaviour is triggered by exposure to depicted violence and real-life aggression, but most studies are now centred on video games.

And while the 1940s and 1950s saw a shift away from the superhero format to darker comics depicting murder and illicit acts, David Hajdu, author of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America, argued that while the storylines could sometimes be shocking and did not always serve as morality tales, comic books were popular because the protagonists were often outsiders, people denied entry to society because they lived on the fringes. "It was immeasurably important because comics of all kinds – even superhero comics – were explicit, overt, opulent in their portrayal of the pride of [their] outsider status," he told NBC News. "Superman was the ultimate immigrant. He was an immigrant from another planet."

That narrative – that comic book heroes are not lesser but more empowered by virtue of being outsiders – is a powerful one for any child who feels disenfranchised or left out.

And as long as there has been language, there have been stories. The most engaging stories, be they oral, print or digital, tend to be dramatic, emotive and filled with conflict. Storytelling is thought to trace its roots back to ancient Sumer more than 4,000 years ago, with the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in cuneiform on clay tablets and relaying the tale of a supernatural being on a path to wisdom, with adventures along the way.

In the Arab world, the professional storyteller, or hakawati, has always been revered in society. The historic oral tradition has given way to new forms of media but every culture and society has its stories and those who tell them.

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Read more from Justin Thomas:

Young people are vulnerable to loneliness too

Psychologists cannot afford to ignore our valuable digital data trail

Why teachers need help just as much as their pupils

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The universality of storytelling and the shared themes we find across cultures has led some psychologists, most notably Carl Jung, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s one-time protege, to the idea that the protagonists represent archetypes; that is, shared aspects of our common psychological inheritance. In this view, superheroes and villains are contemporary manifestations of ancient elements of the human psyche: the hero, the shadow, the trickster, the mother.

Perhaps this psychoanalytic view helps explain our particular character preferences and obsessions. I have friends who have nearly come to blows arguing over the relative merits of Wolverine versus Captain America. Certain characters and storylines might speak to our particular psychological needs at different times in our lives, providing comfort and hope, along with a large dose of escapism.

It is also no coincidence that comic books emerged out of the Great Depression of the 1930s and peaked in popularity during the Second World War. The need for heroes, real or imagined, is never greater than in our darkest hours. In 1936, then US president Franklin Roosevelt said: “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and forget his troubles.”

In whatever form they are delivered, stories of superheroes are a powerful tool. They can be used for entertainment, education or to make a moral point. They can help us arrive at a deeper understanding of subjects that are difficult to communicate in a straightforward way. And they can be interpreted on different levels at different times. Some of their benefits might even lie dormant in our minds until a significant life experience allows us to see that story in a new light, perhaps helping us make better sense of a challenging situation.

Seen in this way, the storyteller can take the role of teacher, entertainer, moral instructor and perhaps even psychotherapist. The impact of Lee's creations will no doubt reverberate for many generations to come, on multiple levels.

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University