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How to win friends? The psychology of DC Comics' Scarecrow
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31 Days of Halloween

How to win friends? The psychology of DC Comics’ Scarecrow

Relationship advice with Dr. Jonathan Crane.

Welcome to today’s installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October, we’ll be talking to creators working in horror and sharing and recommending various pieces of underappreciated scary media — books, comics, movies, and television — to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

Halloween is all about costumes, darkness, and fun scares, right? So … wait, I can’t do this. I can’t treat Scarecrow as a typical Halloween personality. I’ve read enough of that for my lifetime. Let’s dive deep in a way that may make some readers uncomfortable.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

Don’t worry, no gore or expletives, but if you want a more traditional view on Scarecrow, listen to our Capes on the Couch episode about him. This one — this is about Scarecrow’s ability to kill indiscriminately make friends.

I’d love to tell you that a character named Jonathan Crane (and yes, the original DC comics give reference to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod by name) would become a well-adapted man despite horrendous childhood circumstances. Alas, that was not how things turned out.

How to win friends? The psychology of DC Comics' Scarecrow

Image credit: DC Comics

Crane was exposed to torture by a grandparent. Crows attacked him after pheromones were sprayed on him. Crane struck back, ultimately killing his tormentor (who also served as his guardian. Don’t lose sight of that). He was bullied unmercifully in high school, and was mocked after trying to date one of the bullies’ ex-girlfriends.

He survived, and devised a jump scare so bad that it killed Sherry, the object of his affection (again, don’t overlook this). He studied psychology in college (hooray!) and worked on perfecting a fear toxin (oh no) and ultimately killed his mentor (someone whom he admired. Do you see where this is going?).

Crane developed an association between fear and positive expectations. This is not healthy. His hierarchy of needs is inverted. Rather than fear being a source of avoidance or resolution, Crane uses it as a source of power, and … affection? I wouldn’t dare say love.

Even if we substitute the retconned origin (his father ran horrible fear experiments on him), we end up in the same place — a guardian responsible for fostering a young boy’s semblance of love is overloading his response to stress, so now he can’t tell the difference! With this firmly established, Crane now has a perverse method of connecting to the world, having to induce fear in others because it’s the only emotion he intuitively understands.

I probably don’t have to spell out how destructive this is for relationships, but I will anyway, in a bit of exaggeration. Let’s say you want to have your best friend over for drinks and snacks. You know what they like, so you mixed their favorite cocktail, and ordered their favorite pizza. There’s no guarantee the rest of the night will go as planned, but at least you’ve set yourself up for the most pleasurable outcome from the start.

Now, instead of the items noted above, imagine you find out their phobia of scorpions, and put a live one on the same pizza. And rather than lighting them up in Overwatch, you force them to play the entire catalog of Five Nights At Freddy’s in the dark, with shadows of scorpions dancing on the edge of the screen.

As a one-time event, maybe that person gets the “joke” and forgives you. Maybe. However, I can assure you it’s unlikely they’ll be willing to do whatever you want for the rest of their lives. In fact, they may want revenge. Does that sound like a way to build a lasting relationship?

Actually, it might be. See, what if there is a clear chasm in power? If this doesn’t involve mutual friends, but instead a kidnapped, unsuspecting bystander, then the risk of revenge is minimal. What if the attempt at retaliation is welcomed, because it guarantees future contact (anticipation is one of the strongest motivators of interpersonal bonding)? What If the primal fear response from one great scare is more important that any subsequent contact?

In that instance, the victim is irrelevant — any fresh face will do, because there’s less chance for extinction of the response. All of this allows someone like Scarecrow to recreate the bonding he was accustomed to as a youth. Reciprocity is meaningless; he doesn’t need complex discussions when a simple scream elicits the same dopamine release.

So, let’s translate that into the DC Universe. Scarecrow has novel attempts at positive emotional stimuli by coming up with another scheme (or being a part of someone else’s plan). He’ll likely get the “honeymoon phase” of any relationship by releasing his fear toxin to some brood of suckers and watching the chaos. Then he gets the “stable/adaptation” phase by dealing with the heroes (especially Batman) who clearly don’t have the same reaction and ultimately thwart his plans, all with the expectation that the hero will be back to repeat this again. There’s creepy stability in that life.

How to win friends? The psychology of DC Comics' Scarecrow

Image credit: DC Comics

Okay, maybe I’m being too negative here. We know fear can be bad, but it doesn’t have to be. There are myriad examples in the Batman mythos of people being willing to acknowledge their fear, and managing it for great results under arduous circumstances.

Like that time Batman overcame the fear toxin in Batman Begins.

Or the time Batman overcame the fear toxin in Batman: The Animated Series.

Or the time … hmm, you get the point.

Have a safe scary Halloween everyone. Don’t let fear stop you from accomplishing greatness!

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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