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Psych Ward

Psych Ward: The Red Skull

Our therapist examines what drives a monster

By Tim Stevens


With the seeming demise of the Red Skull, it seems unlikely there will be any further need for this theoretical paper on his life and personality. Thus, please place this in storage. However, given the Skull’s propensity of proving reports of his death to be inaccurate, l would ask that you find a place for it that is easily accessible at a moment’s notice.

Thank you

Whether evil people are born or made is an area of considerable interest to psychology. The subject, Johann Schmidt, better known as the Nazi terrorist and super villain Red Skull, provides an excellent case example by which to investigate this question.

Before going forward, it should be noted that information on the subject prior to his conflicts with Captain America are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. People who have offered testimony to his life have often disappeared, recanted, or insisted that what they said was misrepresented in later reports. Thus, this paper takes a “best guess” approach in reporting the facts of Schmidt’s life.

The subject was orphaned early in life following his father’s suicide. Earlier, his mother died during the course of childbirth and it is said that the event unraveled Schmidt’s father leading to attempted filicide initially and, after being stopped, possibly the father’s taking of his own life. The orphanage failed to be a better environment and it is likely that the subject was, at the least, neglected and, more likely, mentally and physically abused while being malnourished and forced to labor excessively.

It is unclear the nature of his personality immediately after this experience. What is known is that he fell for a same age peer, possibly of the Jewish faith, and had his interests rebuked. Reacting badly, he murdered the girl. This appears to be the tipping point in his life and it can be said that The Red Skull was born in via this homicide. However, it is this writer’s hypothesis that Schmidt had already developed features of Antisocial Personality Disorder by this point (APD). Thus, seeking the relationship was not a healthy attempt to connect with another person but rather one based on the desire to control someone. It was his earliest attempt at proving his inherent superiority over those around him. When the woman rejected him, he had to kill her because to not do so would be to accept the perspective that they were equal or, more likely, that she was actually healthier, happier, smarter, etc. that him and did not need him. Again, though, this writer stresses the hypothetical nature of this idea.

At some time after this, the subject fell into favor with Adolf Hitler and began the training that would lead to his ascension to The Red Skull. While it is easy to embrace the simplistic theory that Schmidt was drawn to the movement by its emphasis on anger towards the Jewish people given his earlier rejection, this writer would point to the idea that any doctrine of superiority would have appealed to the subject. He was someone in desperate need, driven by his damaged psyche, to establish himself as better than those around him; it was the only one for him to “survive” his brutal upbringing. Thus Nazism was a natural fit.

This also may explain his later obsession with Captain America, long past the end of World War II and the decimation of the Nazi party. While the Skull has, from time to time, attempted to perpetuate and champion the ideas of Nazism, more often than not these plans have boiled down to attempts to destroy Captain America and/or destroy that which Captain America values. This would explain why, for a time, the Skull seemed to abandon Nazism entirely and focus instead on projects like seizing control of the Commission and funding the Watchdogs, an anti-government militant group.

Captain America consistently proved to be the Red Skull’s “better” and for the subject’s beliefs about himself—and thus his worldview—to remain in place, he has to prove this to be untrue. Thus, much of the Skull’s actions and attitudes can be viewed as a sort of compensatory narcissism designed to distance himself from his past. To accept his past is to accept his inherent flaws and humble background and Schmidt cannot do so without significant psychological disruption. Long-term, of course, this would be far healthier for the subject, but short-term it would require “weakness” or vulnerability and Schmidt lacks the emotional strength to take that journey.

The work of Doctors Greg Pak and Mirko Colak has proven indispensible in developing this perspective on Johann Schmidt, The Red Skull. Their research can be read in RED SKULL #1, available now, and RED SKULL #2, on shelves on August 3. Schmidt can also be seen in the film “Captain America: The First Avenger,” in theaters July 22.

Psy D. Candidate Tim Stevens, MA is a Practicum Trainee at a Federal Correctional Institute and a Dialectical Behavior Therapy Consultant.

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