What is it about self-destruction that is so compelling? It feels terrible on all the obvious levels, sure, but on some deep, barren, emotional plane where the wind howls endlessly through the stunted trees, it’s also terribly satisfying. Somehow it feels right, even when it clearly looks wrong. It’s a voice on the wind that whispers you’ll never be any good, that you deserve all the bad things that happen to you. It’s the desire to jump from high places even when you’re sure you don’t want to die. It’s a kind of existential vertigo, and watching Doom Patrol made me realize that it’s a key ingredient in the formation of heroes and villains.
There’s a name for the random impulse to jump from high places. Two actually: the psychological classification is High Place Phenomenon (HPP), but the one I’m thinking of is the more poetic French description, l’appel du vide. The appeal of the void. I have experienced it for years and spent a fair bit of time pondering what could be causing it. At some point I googled it to find out whether there was something wrong with me and discovered both that it’s very common, and that it’s not indicative of a death wish. The hypotheses I found at the time were related to brain signal speed or depth perception, but it has always seemed to me that it’s basically the same as the impulse to stand up and scream in a quiet room or snatch something important from someone and smash it to pieces. It’s a response to the unbearable terror of doing something that horrifies you.
My theory is that the bizarre compulsion to do some awful thing that you are drawn to despite it being the last thing you actually want to do is rooted in an intense desire to resolve uncertainty. If the worst actually happened it would in some way be a relief to be able to stop worrying about the worst. Clearly it’s maladaptive – especially in the case of jumping off a cliff, where you would have roughly 10 seconds of relief before you no longer had to worry about anything at all – but your brain is technically offering you a solution to an immediate problem even if it causes another, bigger problem.
I recently discovered that my theory lines up quite well with what 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard had to say about it in his treatise The Concept of Anxiety (1944). He calls anxiety “the dizziness of freedom”, and essentially proposes that when standing at the edge of a cliff, the anxiety caused by our ability to choose to jump is actually much greater than our anxiety about the unlikely scenarios in which we accidentally fall. Any time we consider our own freedom to do something frightening, we experience a kind of existential anxiety that Jean-Paul Sartre called “the vertigo of possibility.” (The Transcendence of the Ego, 1936)
And this is where I think the appeal of the void and the impulse towards self-destruction play into the psychology of superheroes and supervillains. Let’s call it the Hero Mindset and the Villain Mindset (I feel like there’s a whole bestselling self-help book right there). Basically, heroes believe that no one deserves to suffer but them, and villains believe that everyone deserves to suffer like them.
Heroes are anxious all the time, terrified of making the wrong choice and failing the people they are sworn to protect, or worse yet, actually hurting those people themselves. They usually have a tremendous amount to lose – both personally and in terms of their self-image – if they can’t live up to their own ideals or what they believe is expected of them. The possibilities of what they could do with their powers and the consequences of their choices are hugely amplified, and so their anxiety increases proportionately. Arguably they live in a constant state of vertigo.
Villains are often so narcissistically consumed by their own experience that the possibilities and consequences of their actions have shrunk to encompass only the impacts to themselves, which frees them from that state of anxiety. All of their plans revolve around some singular focus, like revenge or world domination, making all possibilities that don’t contribute to their goal irrelevant. They have also frequently had some terrible thing happen to them where they lost most or all of what they were afraid to lose, so they are, in a sense, standing in the middle of the void already.
Heroes are aware of the vast possibility of what they might be able to do to save people, so any time they aren’t able to help someone they feel guilty. When something goes wrong, they look at their freedom and understand that they could have made different choices, and on some level they never stop believing that somewhere in the expanse of options there was a better one. For them, standing at the edge of the void is overwhelming. Any loss seems like their fault because they should have had the ability to prevent it. When heroes suffer, they usually feel like they deserve it.
Villains have often been transformed or traumatized to the point where they can’t see any options for themselves at all. The void for them is truly a void, empty of all possibilities but the path they see themselves on. Anything that goes wrong seems like someone else’s fault, something that was done to them, even if they might have made any number of choices that would have changed the outcome. Their actions stem from the conviction that they don’t deserve to suffer, and the terrible things that have happened to them are reason enough for them to make everyone else suffer as well.
It was watching Doom Patrol that made me think about the mindset of heroes and villains, in part because the heroes are simultaneously struggling to be heroes and refusing to be heroes. They feel monstrous and are paralyzed by self-loathing. Take Rita, for instance, a former film star who now dissolves into a giant mass of slime under stress, or Larry, who went from living in fear of admitting he was gay to living in fear of the negative energy spirit he now shares a body with. They are all terrified of themselves – how easily they could hurt people, and how heartbreaking it would be if they tried to help people and failed – but they keep trying anyway. They are angry about what has happened to them, but they embrace it and cling to it because deep down they believe they deserve it.
The villain, Mr. Nobody, on the other hand, is trapped alone in his own empty reality from which he narrates the story of how they find him. He’s literally in a blank white space all by himself and his sole focus is on getting them to confront him so he can exact his revenge for the results of an experiment that he willingly participated in. He rejects any possibility that the things that have gone wrong for him might be his fault, and remains convinced that if he can just punish other people enough it will make him feel better. After he succeeds at getting the revenge he planned, he lolls around in his white space wondering why he’s not happy. The conclusion he draws is that his revenge must be incomplete, so he concocts another plan to make his nemesis suffer even more. Essentially, the Doom Patrol are incapacitated by their vertigo and Mr. Nobody can’t even see that there’s a cliff.
One of the things I love most about Doom Patrol, though, is that it shows how heroes and villains are created out of different responses to trauma. Being drawn to create or prevent suffering, blaming themselves or the world, focusing anger inward or outward – what they do when they come to the edge of the same cliff defines them.
If you are experiencing symptoms of the vertigo of possibility, alex MacFadyen suggests drinking some hot cocoa and lying down for half an hour.