I first began to get acquainted with Jungian archetypes as part of my fiction writing. There are a number of different versions of the archetypes that are useful for writers but the one I have mostly used is a list of twelve that includes such archetypes such as The Fool, The Lover and The Warrior. Almost all well-written characters in literature and film can be placed into one of these archetypes and the archetypes prove to be handy tools to guide the development of a character. Much like the classical 3-act plot structure helps keep the story on the rails, the Jungian archetypes help to ensure a character’s personal attributes ring true. They are not hard and fast rules, just guidelines that have stood the test of time.
This raises the question of why they have stood the test of time and the Jungian’s answer would be: because they tap into the collective unconscious. Back when Jung and his collaborators were first working through the emerging psychology of the unconscious, one of the data points they were using were fairy tales and myths. By definition, fairy tales and myths had been around for a long while and the ones that had survived were almost certainly touching on something fundamental. Such stories feature simplified characters and one of the effects of this simplification is to strip away the rationalisations of the conscious mind and get down into what is essential including what is essential at the subconscious levels.
The primary storytelling medium in modern times is film and the type of film which most corresponds to fairy tale and myth is the superhero film. In fact, it’s not uncommon for superheroes in film to be named after or based on characters from classical myth. Many superhero films are adapted from comic books and therefore incorporate strong visual elements with less attention given to complex characterisation and more to action. As the Marvel franchise can attest, such stories are as popular as were the myths and fairy tales of old and from this we can deduce that they resonate strongly with the unconscious. In the Jungian sense, they should be the perfect place to go looking for archetypes and, when we do so, it turns out that superhero films have something very interesting to tell us about a subject that has been at the centre of corona: masks.
I noted in my post on The Devouring Mother that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to show that masks work to prevent the transmission of respiratory viruses. Numerous randomised control trials have found no effect of mask wearing. In the last year or so, we have conducted a mass experiment on the subject which has confirmed exactly what we already knew. Mandatory masking, wherever it has been implemented, had no noticeable affect case numbers at all. In fact, due to most governments deciding to make them mandatory during the northern hemisphere summer, masks appeared to cause case numbers to go up.
Most European and North American governments made masks mandatory around August which is the seasonal low point for respiratory viruses. No sooner were masks mandatory than case numbers started to rise and continued to rise in the march towards winter. Of course, this is just correlation and not causality but most of the “science” around corona has been correlation and not causality so why not let it cut both ways. The truth is, masks never had anything to do with the ‘science’. Within The Devouring Mother archetype, they are to do with dominance and submission. But, as we are about to find out, they are more than that. Superheroes love to wear masks. So do supervillains. But the masks they wear are very different and this difference reveals something about what masks symbolise in the unconscious.
As an exercise: picture in your mind a superhero; not any particular superhero, just a generic, run-of-the-mill, about to save the world kind of superhero. What is your superhero wearing? Chances are they are wearing a cape. The cape is the article of clothing most synonymous with superheroes, hence the facetious saying “not all heroes wear capes”. A pair of spandex tights probably comes in a close second. There is also a very good chance your superhero is wearing a mask but it won’t be the kind of mask people have been wearing in the last year. It will be a mask that wraps around the superhero’s eyes. Possibly one of the earliest examples of this kind of masked superhero was Zorro who appeared in 1919 but there have been countless others since then. We’ll see a few of them shortly.
This kind of mask is derived from the masquerade mask and the intent is to hide the character’s identity. The concept of the alter ego is another standard trope of superhero stories and the mask reinforces that trope. Just as the masquerade mask allows people to drop their normal personality and free themselves from social constrictions, so the superhero’s mask allows them to tap into their deeper strengths and, in doing so, perform amazing feats while not having to ruin their normal lives or risk being caught by the authorities.
Now let’s try the same exercise with a supervillain. Try to picture a stereotypical supervillain in your mind. Chances are this will not be such an easy exercise. Supervillains tend to come in different shapes and sizes and don’t fit an obvious pattern as much as superheroes. What most supervillains will have in common is an exaggeration of some part of their physical or non-physical characteristics. They might be way too big or way too small, they might have a huge head or a small head, huge eyes or small eyes. They might be super smart as in the evil genius or psychopathically lacking in empathy. Put simply, they are abnormal in some way.
Supervillains can also wear masks but there is a crucial difference between the mask of the superhero and that of the supervillain. The supervillain’s mask is not meant to hide their identity, it is a crucial part of that identity. Supervillains are not acting as an alter ego, they are bad to the bone and the mask is a public demonstration of that fact. Sometimes, as in the case of Darth Vader and Immortan Joe, their mask is necessary for their very survival.
Let’s now have a look at some visual representations of the differences between the two kinds of mask. (To keep it symmetrical, I’ve included some heroes that don’t wear masks).
It’s not the case that all supervillains wear masks over their mouths but it is the case that all characters in superhero stories who wear masks over their mouths are villains. I couldn’t find a single example where a hero character had their mouth covered. It can happen that a hero wears a full face mask, which technically does cover their mouth. Such characters fall into two main types.
Firstly, there are the anti-heroes such as V in V for Vendetta. By definition, these are heroes who have something wrong with them. Though they act for good, they carry a fatal flaw within and the mask is a cover for that.
Secondly, there are shapeshifter characters such as Spiderman, The Hulk, Iron Man or The Mask. In these cases, the mask (whether alone or as part of a larger outfit) symbolises a complete transformation. The mask confers special powers on the character and they shapeshift out of their ordinary existence and into something else. Often it is part of the hero’s journey in such stories to learn to use their new powers wisely. These are just an extension of the alter ego trope and thus the full face mask is an extension of the eye mask and represents more strongly the fact that the hero has left their normal life and personality behind.
As one final bit of evidence, George Lucas designed Darth Vader’s helmet in Star Wars based on the masks and helmet traditionally worn by the samurai in Japan. Those masks were designed to protect the wearer while also instilling fear into an opponent in battle (just like we have had fear instilled into us in the last year by being surrounded by people wearing masks). Nevertheless, when Tom Cruise played a samurai (kind of) in the movie The Last Samurai, he went without the mask.
These exceptions prove the rule. Masks covering the mouth are exclusively the domain of bad guys. On this subject, our culture (reflecting the unconscious mind) is quite unanimous: wearing a mask over your mouth signals there is something wrong with you; something to be feared.
Way back in part 9 of this series I noted how masks became tied in with a kind faux-heroism at the start of corona. People who were trying to convince others to wear masks would reference some sportsperson or sports team who were wearing masks and say something like “if they can do it while playing sports, you can do it while going to the supermarket.” I noted at the time that the tone of these calls was derogatory in nature. They didn’t call for real heroism but rather simply to fall in line and do what you were told. Re-analysed through the lens of The Devouring Mother archetype, such calls make perfect sense as emotional manipulation and a way for the acquiescent children to put the rebellious ones in their place. “If you’re one of us (the good guys, the heroes), you’ll wear a mask.” Of course, caving in to the mob is the opposite of what a real hero does. That was the first problem.
The second problem was that the wearing of a mask over the mouth has deep roots in our collective unconscious and simply asserting that it is now heroic or good to wear a mask doesn’t function at the lower levels of the psyche. Rory Sutherland, who I otherwise usually enjoy, made a valiant attempt to try and re-symbolise mask wearing as a kind of adventure we could all go on for a little while as if the mask was a fashion statement symbolising that you were a bad mofo out looking for trouble. The way to do this was to wear a cool hat and perhaps a bandana over your mouth instead of a proper mask. That way, at least you could look like you were about to rob a 7-11 and you would retain some outward appearance that you weren’t just conforming with the crowd. But that idea was never going to work. Archetypally speaking, the mask covering the mouth is reserved exclusively for the really bad guys not the cool, witty, fun-to-be-around, just-looking-for-a-bit-of-trouble bad guys. Any successful marketer, just like any successful writer of superheroes and supervillains, knows that their work must resonate in the unconscious and, as we have seen above, the unconscious is quite clear on the subject of masks that cover the mouth.
What the archetypes tell us is that covering the mouth symbolises badness, illness and wrongness. But that is exactly in keeping with the topic of the last post. In cases of Munchausen by Proxy, the mother feigns illness in her otherwise healthy child. The mask is the symbolic expression of that. With corona, we ‘quarantined’ healthy people in their homes and made healthy people wear masks. We treated healthy people as if they were sick and we dressed them appropriately. There is a logic to it but it is a logic that requires The Devouring Mother archetype to understand. “We are now sick until proven healthy,” has been one of the objections during corona and this is absolutely correct. The Devouring Mother wants you to think you are sick and that those around you are sick. That is the very definition of Munchausen by Proxy and that was always the point of the masks.
This also fills in another piece of the psychology we have seen on display during corona. I have already noted that the acquiescent children of The Devouring Mother are almost wholly concerned with dividing the world into the “good people” and the “bad people” (much like superhero films have good guys and bad guys. Another synchronicity?). During corona, being a ‘good person’ meant wearing a mask over your mouth. The problem with that is that wearing a mask over the mouth is the domain of bad guys (in the collective unconscious). Why would the people trying to be ‘good people’ want to dress like bad guys? This apparent paradox is resolved once we incorporate the Munchausen by Proxy concept. Within the Munchausen by Proxy frame, being a ‘good child’ is synonymous with either being sick or feigning sickness. That is what the mother wants and what the child learns to want. When applied to corona, the desire to wear a mask is the desire to please the mother by feigning sickness. At the same time, the mask mandate is a way to punish the rebellious children and force them to conform by also symbolically feigning illness. This desire to please the mother by willingly playing the game of faking illness corresponds to real life. In real world cases of Munchausen by Proxy, psychiatrists have noted that the child can learn to desire the attention they get from The Devouring Mother when pretending to be sick. Hence the enthusiasm for masks on the part of the acquiescent True Believers during corona.
As one final side note on this, I have already mentioned in this series a fascinating conversation I once had with an Indian doctor who had emigrated to Australia. I asked her what was the main difference she noted and she said “in India, my patients were actually sick.” She estimated about half of her patients in Australia didn’t have anything physically wrong with them but that their problems were “in their head”. This is Munchausen by Proxy at the social level. The medical industry has metastasised in the last several decades largely on the back of exactly this psychology. The psychology of The Devouring Mother.
All posts in this series:-