Janina Scarlet knew she finally had a way to connect with her patient when the girl began talking about Veronica Mars. At a recent American Psychological Association conference, Scarlet, a psychologist at San Diego’s Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, recounted how the 15-year-old at first had trouble speaking about past trauma. In sessions, her parents did most of the talking. In fact, the only thing the girl would talk about was the TV show starring Kristen Bell.
On the show, Mars, a high-school student who moonlights as a detective, gets put through the teenage wringer. In the show’s first episodes, she gets date-raped, dumped by her boyfriend, and alienated by her friends. Scarlet said her teen patient felt connected to Mars, almost as though the character understood her. So one night after seeing the girl, Scarlet went home and binged a full season of Veronica Mars. When she met with the girl again, they talked about her depression, and Scarlet asked her how she thought Mars would handle the situation. The girl suggested Mars would make a speech.
After two weeks of preparation, the girl gave a short talk in front of her class, speaking about depression, self-harm, and the importance of seeking help. According to Scarlet, the result was practically a picture-perfect Hollywood ending: The girl’s classmates, many of whom were in tears, rushed over to hug her. The kids started talking about mental health. And the girl ended up starting a support group to help other teens.
To Scarlet, the girl’s story is an example of what she calls “superhero therapy.” Though the names for this practice vary—some call it “geek therapy”—Scarlet is part of a growing number of psychologists who incorporate pop-culture figures into their therapy practices in order to inspire patients. In the age of Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and infinite Batman movies, practitioners say it works for children and adults alike. (Scarlet primarily works with older teenagers and adults.) Why adults flock to this kind of therapy speaks volumes about the importance of superhero stories—and the nature of the psyche itself.
Scarlet has a superhero-like origin story of her own. In 1986, when she was 3 and living in Ukraine, an accident destroyed one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant 200 miles away. Scarlet says her family didn’t know what had happened until people started getting sick. Instead of developing superpowers, she spent a lot of time in the hospital. She suffered frequent nosebleeds that wouldn’t clot. Whenever the weather changed, she got migraines that would sometimes turn into seizures.
By the time Scarlet was 12, the Ukrainian economy was in shambles, and Scarlet’s parents were struggling to earn an income. Jews like her family were threatened with violence. Her parents filed an asylum claim, and within a year, they immigrated to New York. Scarlet didn’t speak English, and she would come to school wearing the same outfit multiple days in a row. When kids found out where she was from, they would ask her whether she was radioactive. “I had one friend, who didn’t go to my school,” Scarlet says. “Looking back at it, I realized I was going through PTSD and depression. There were days that I just wanted to die.”
In high school, Scarlet got a job at a local movie theater. One night, she watched a midnight showing of the new X-Men movie, and she was riveted from the movie’s opening scene, in which a young Magneto uses his powers to bend the gates of Auschwitz after being separated from his parents. Through the lives of the X-Men mutants, the movie explores themes of anti-Semitism, prejudice, and difference. Scarlet felt an especially intense connection with Storm, a character who can control the weather. By the time the movie ended, Scarlet was in tears.
Today, Scarlet looks a bit like a comic-book character herself, with bright-red hair and an impish face. She has remained a hard-core geek, gobbling up sci-fi and fantasy, Harry Potter and Star Wars. When she was doing her postdoctoral training in psychology at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton near San Diego, the soldiers she treated sometimes had trouble explaining their feelings. Occasionally they would use superhero stories—in which strong men are often traumatized or wounded—to explain their pain: I felt the way Bruce Wayne must have felt, and so forth. Scarlet began employing those same metaphors as she guided them through their emotions, and her style of therapy was born.
Scarlet now brands herself a “superhero therapist” on her website. She brandishes a sword and shield in her headshot. At the end of therapy sessions with new clients, she usually interviews them about their pop-culture interests. Some clients prefer standard, how-did-that-make-you-feel therapy, but Scarlet says people often seek her out because they have intense fandoms and want to incorporate them into therapy.
Josué Cardona, a pioneer of the similar concept of “geek therapy,” says openness to fandom can help therapists build a rapport with clients, easing the way for people who are averse to therapy by helping them open up about difficult-to-verbalize emotions. In some movies or books, Cardona says, “we can find experiences that represent how we feel better than we’re able to say ourselves.”
Plus, fandom is so central to some people’s identities that something as intimate as therapy wouldn’t be complete without it. “If you’re really into this stuff,” Cardona says, “you see the world through that lens.” If a therapist isn’t familiar with a client’s fandom, Cardona suggests that the therapist could ask the client to bring in books or to stream the show or movie in the office. At the very least, the therapist can read the Wikipedia summary.
The basic practice of introducing characters from pop culture into therapy isn’t especially new. “Part of what happens when we’re depressed is our view of the world becomes pretty gray. We have a hard time seeing alternatives,” says Lynn Bufka, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association, who is not involved with geek therapy. Fictional characters might help us see alternative paths and endings to our story. In psychology, these are known as “social surrogates,” or the non-friends whom we nevertheless treat as friends. These surrogates, one study notes, lead “to an experience of belongingness even when no real, bona-fide belongingness has been experienced.”
Fictional characters often go on missions to hunt demons, solve mysteries, or fight whatever lies in their path. In a related way, therapists often help clients overcome life’s obstacles by, say, encouraging them to challenge unhelpful thoughts or tell their partners what they really want. Seeing your favorite characters do versions of that, even if on a more cosmic scale, can be motivating.
As Scarlet has written in Self, she once saw a patient who was into Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The woman struggled to talk about an experience of sexual assault, but would open up when watching episodes of Buffy in which the titular teen hero experiences traumas of her own. At one point, Scarlet and the woman watched episodes of Buffy together. When Buffy told her friend Spike, “Everything I feel, everything I touch, this is hell,” the woman pointed to the screen and said, “That! That is exactly how I feel. Every day,” according to Scarlet.
“Over time,” Scarlet writes, “with the help of seeing the parallels between Buffy’s fictional experience and her own reality—[the woman] was able to see that our thoughts aren’t always accurate, and by changing her thoughts and her behaviors, her mental-health state began to improve.”
Coincidentally, Scarlet’s recent talk at the American Psychological Association conference about her approach resonated with me because of X-Men. When that movie came out, I, too, was an immigrant kid from the former U.S.S.R. who felt like my foreignness had marked me for life. I remember being soothed and enthralled by the idea of teenage freaks all living happily together in a special school for mutants.
Since then, however, my tastes have trended away from action and sci-fi, and I haven’t seen many movies with such pure, powerful protagonists. In fact, I wondered whether the rise of antihero TV shows might be messing up this superhero strategy. My favorite shows recently have been Succession and Fleabag, two series that are known for being fun to watch precisely because the main characters make terrible decisions. When it comes to these shows, I’m as committed as a geek could be: I read the recaps even if I’ve seen the episode, and I steer any and all conversations with friends toward the latest plot points. I’m one step away from buying an Argestes fleece. But I don’t really use the characters as inspiration. Actually walking in the footsteps of any of the characters on these shows—or, indeed, most “prestige” shows these days—would end in disaster.
Cardona says that’s too limiting a way to think about this style of therapy. It’s not “whatever that character did, go do it,” he says. Instead, the reasons a show resonates with you might provide clues to buried emotions that you struggle to verbalize. Scarlet suggests that some of the less admirable figures from comic books—think the Punisher or the Joker—might even represent parts of us that have a desire for justice or retribution. You don’t have to act like the Joker to feel like a down-on-your-luck outcast.
These explanations first struck me as too blindly faithful in the power of fictional narratives. Fandom, after all, can have its dark sides, with fans deifying their heroes, harassing detractors, and throwing fits when a character is cast as a person of a different race. What’s more, I was starting to get the impression that anything you’re into could be used to help you achieve anything you want. It almost seemed like superhero therapy could be everything and nothing. At points in my interviews with the geek therapists, I wanted to scream, “This isn’t ’Nam; there are rules!”—then I realized I was, in fact, quoting one of my favorite movies.
The thing is, therapy does put a lot of stock in narratives. Therapy is mostly stories. It’s rehashing that one time from your childhood, and then that one conversation with your boss, and then trying to make sense of it all through narratives. In that way, superhero therapy, while not perfect for everyone, is a valid way of coming up with better stories for your life.
And sometimes you need every possible implement on earth—no matter how vague or fictional or silly—to do that. Do I want to be just like Succession’s Shiv Roy, a sociopathic adulteress who engages in witness tampering? Not really. But when I’m facing a situation that’s so twisted and daunting that it’s going to take all of my competence and persistence and jumpsuits to get through it, I do want to be a little like her. In those moments, she’s my hero.