Psychologists are showing growing interest in so-called "superhero" or "geek therapy," which are forms of therapy that use pop culture figures, such as characters from movies or TV, to help patients express their thoughts and feelings, Olga Khazan reports for The Atlantic.
What is 'superhero' therapy?
Janina Scarlet, a psychologist at San Diego's Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, is a champion of superhero therapy and coined the term "superhero therapy."
In a piece published last year in Self, Scarlet recounted how superhero therapy worked for a patient who was a fan of the TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." According to Scarlet, the patient had been sexually assaulted and struggled to discuss the event. However, the patient became more open when she watched episodes of Buffy, in which the titular main character also experiences traumas.
Scarlet and the patient were watching an episode of Buffy together when Buffy exclaimed, "Everything I feel, everything I touch, this is hell," which led Scarlet's patient to point at the TV screen and say "That! That is exactly how I feel. Every day."
Scarlet in the Self piece wrote, "Over time, with the help of seeing the parallels between Buffy's fictional experience and her own reality—[the patient] 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."
Separately, Josué Cardona, who has pioneered a similar form of therapy that he calls "geek therapy," said that fandom is a key component of therapy for people who are highly interested in a show, movie, book, or other form of fandom. He noted that fandom is so intimate and central to a person's identity that therapy isn't complete without it. "If you're really into this stuff, you see the world through that lens," he said.
Further, Cardona explained that a therapist can build rapport with patients by showing openness to a fandom. This can help people who are averse to therapy express emotions that are hard to verbalize, Cardona added.
Cardona said if a therapist isn't familiar with a patient's specific fandom, they could ask the client to bring in books or stream the show or movie with them in the office. At a minimum, the therapist could read a Wikipedia summary, Cardona said.
Why it might work
Lynn Bufka, a psychologist at the American Psychological Association, who is not involved with geek or superhero therapy, said fictional characters can help patients find different ways to solve their problems when they might not otherwise be capable of doing so. "Part of what happens when we're depressed is our view of the world becomes pretty gray," Bufka said. "We have a hard time seeing alternatives."
Psychologists refer to these fictional characters as "social surrogates," or people who aren't our friends but whom we treat as friends. According to one study, these surrogates can lead "to an experience of belongingness even when no real, bona-fide belongingness has been experienced."
However, Cardona warned that it's important not to think of geek therapy as "whatever that character did, go do it." Instead, a fictional character could help provide clues to emotions that a patient isn't able to verbalize. According to Scarlet, even some villains or antiheros from comic books, such as the Punisher or Joker, could help represent parts of a person that wants justice or retribution. "You don't have to act like the Joker to feel like a down-on-your-luck outcast," Khazan writes.
Much of therapy is about narratives and stories, Khazan writes, which is why superhero therapy can make sense for some people. "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," she writes. "In that way, superhero therapy, while not perfect for everyone, is a valid way of coming up with better stories for your life" (Khazan, The Atlantic, 10/22).