Another archetype of masculinity—recognizable over decades of novels, poems, songs, films, TV shows and comic books—we might call “the Beast in Me.” This inner wild man represents the impulsive anger, wildness, and anarchic freedom men know to repress by default, but which fights to escape. Though fearsome, this force arguably serves as the source of a man’s power and, if (big if) that power can be harnessed, control over one’s environment—indeed, power and control have been traditional markers of masculinity, though largely wrong-headed ones.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had something similar in mind when he coined the term “id” to describe the part of the psyche that drives us to our primitive needs and desires. Remember, it was Freud’s disciple Carl Jung who developed the concept of the “archetype,” as well as the specific archetype of the Shadow, or dark side, that all of us want not to believe we have. Both the id and the Shadow could describe what I’m calling “The Beast in Me.”
Let’s start with the song “The Beast in Me” (1994) by Nick Lowe, here performed by the legendary Johnny Cash (a.k.a. “The Man in Black”).
The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day
And by night rants and rages at the stars
God help the beast in me
The beast in me
Has had to learn to live with pain
And how to shelter from the rain
And in the twinkling of an eye
Might have to be restrained
God help the beast in me
Sometimes it tries to kid me
That it’s just a teddy bear
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air
And that is when I must beware
Of the beast in me that everybody knows
They’ve seen him out dressed in my clothes
If it’s New York or New Year
God help the beast in me
The beast in me
The singer describes two opposed elements to his psyche: the one it’s relatively safe to show others “by day” and the other, darker side that is barely restrained, and defined by anger, pain, and a lack of control.
Our prototypical example of “the Beast in Me” comes from the perennially popular “wolfman” archetype, which is six-hundred years old. In the typical werewolf narrative, an otherwise ordinary, rational man is plagued by an animal that bursts into dominance with every full moon. These beasts within are liberating in terms of their unhesitant, confident power, their gratifying exercises of violence and sexuality, but they know no bounds. Films such as The Wolf Man (1941), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Wolf (1994), and eventually the Twilight Saga (2008-2012) and TV series like Being Human (2008-2013 in the U.K., 2011-present in the U.S.) and Once Upon a Time (2011-present) have kept the werewolf archetype alive in American pop culture.
The likewise popular vampire mythology—most famously developed in Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula—also reflects “the Beast in Me” in the vampire’s insatiable taste for blood. As vampires have become more heroic figures, they often wish to repress that bloodlust. Many modern authors have treated this dilemma as a metaphor for the disease of addiction, a real-life “Beast in Me” often described as “the monkey on my back.”
Another influential version of “the Beast in Me” arrived in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which sets a narrative standard for the archetype with its story of Dr. Jekyll, a rational man of scientific intellect, fighting to suppress the beastly Mr. Hyde, a horrified Jekyll’s nocturnal alter ego. By way of a potion, Jekyll suffers from a dissociative identity disorder, a real psychological condition that, in literature, often symbolizes our struggle with identity in a world that tells us—through social pressure or moral judgement—who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to behave. But repression of the id—the pressure of bottling up primal needs and desires—inevitably results in explosive loss of control, like a shaken-up soda can when the top pops. In the strange case of Jekyll and Hyde, repression gives way to vicious murder. Perhaps, as in our understanding of “multiple personalities” a sane acknowledgment and integration of them—our Jekyll and Hyde, our id and ego, our self and shadow self—would enable us to be whole: no longer in denial of base instincts, but instead the confident master of them. (Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club also puts forward a “manly” shadow/id character in Tyler Durden, who represents unfettered freedom from societal pressures, but also rampages out of control of the unnamed narrator.)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde anticipates the sympathetic variation on that popular modern genre of the serial killer narrative: the reluctant or anti-heroic serial killer. The enormously popular Showtime series Dexter (2005-2013)—derived from Jeff Lindsay’s series of novels—describes a man named Dexter Morgan and his inner “Dark Passenger,” an irrepressible urge to kill born from the blood of a childhood trauma. Dexter’s origin touches on the cycle of abuse: how an abuser (the man who killed Dexter’s mother in front of him) creates a victim (the infant Dexter) who becomes an abuser (the adult Dexter, who nominally justifies his murders by choosing “monsters” as his victims). Many postmodern stories explore the splintering of the psyche under the complex pressures of the modern world (the 1997 film Lost Highway is among the best).
A somewhat subtler version of the “Beast in Me” appears in the popular TV series Breaking Bad (2008-2013). Upon learning he has cancer, mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White “breaks bad” to cook meth, begin dealing it, and eventually become a violent drug lord. While continuing to maintain his public persona of Walter White, he cultivates a threatening “Mr. Hyde” he calls “Heisenberg.” Unlike the ineffectual, emasculated Walter, Heisenberg becomes celebrated as a genius, an artist of chemistry, and the most fearsome man in the greater Albuquerque area: a mastermind seemingly capable of anything, including murder. Though Walter apparently sets out on his criminal life as a means of providing for his family (fulfilling his self-identification as a father), time tells that an equally important motivation is Walt’s monstrous ego, once deeply wounded when a tech company he co-founded went on to enormous financial success without him.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reworked the Jekyll-Hyde paradigm in their comic-book antihero the Hulk, introduced in 1962. Eventually understood to be a product of a physically abusive father (as much as of “gamma rays”), the Hulk emerges from Bruce Banner when circumstances trigger his anger. The cycle of abuse creates a psychology of fear not unlike those found in “The Beast in Me” stories. The hero fears what is in himself, fears becoming a monster like the one who abused him—fears who he will become when and if he repeats the cycle of violence that made him. Once emergent, the Hulk can be a force of great, if euphoric, destruction (“Hulk smash!”) but also of heroism, if his inner Bruce Banner can direct the force to good ends.
A villainous variation in comic books comes from Two-Face, from Batman’s rogues gallery. Created by Bob Kane (who cited Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as inspiration), Two-Face was crusading Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent, until a crime boss arranges for Dent to get half a faceful of sulfuric acid. The trauma causes Dent, with half his face now horribly disfigured, to adopt something like a split personality, choosing actions of good or evil by the flip of a coin. Two-Face also reflects the duality of Batman, who also has two faces: the masked, nocturnal “dark knight” Batman and his playboy-by-day secret identity of Bruce Wayne. Even if he wanted to, the compulsive Wayne couldn’t stop the “beast in him” from preying on criminals every night. With both characters, the constant tension comes from whether or not the good side will prevail over the dark side in a situation that tempts brutality from the criminal Two-Face or the vigilante Batman—”two sides of the same coin.”
Even kids’ books have a story that speaks to “the Beast in Me”: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963). In this bestselling picture book, young Max wears a wolf costume and runs wild around his house. Magically, he sails to an island of beasts, proves his dominance, plays, and returns home. The story has often been interpreted as a psychoanalytic look at a child’s anger, and Spike Jonze’s 2009 film adaptation goes yet further in suggesting the island beasts are aspects of the boy’s psychology.
Is there truth in “The Beast in Me,” this recurring fictional model of masculinity? Consider crime statistics by gender. According to 2013 Department of Justice statistics, 93.4% of the U.S. prison population is male. Ever wonder why? Certainly there are injustices in our business sectors and justice system that contribute, but they don’t much explain why men are such an overwhelming majority of prisoners.
99% of rapists are male. The DOJ’s 2008 acknowledgement of 216,000 victims of sexual assault in penitentiaries (many assaulted multiple times over the course of the year) has been interpreted as “making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women” (Glazek).
What about the psychology of mass shooters? As noted by journalist Tom Deignan, “there have been 56 mass shootings in the nation in the past four years alone — an average of more than one per month…in the past 30 years, just one so-called ‘mass shooting’ — an act that leaves at least four people dead — has been carried out by a woman.” How about serial killers? The Radford University Serial Killer Database shows that between 1900 and 2010, serial killers have been, on average, 90.2% male (Aamodt).
Are these not angry men whose beast within becomes unleashed? Of course, not every male is a powder keg waiting to blow…not by a long shot! But do men have their own brand of anger issues they tend to be ill-equipped to deal with? Does male anger tend to simmer, build pressure, then boil over with destructive power, on small or large scales (from trashing a room or a fistfight to murder or war)? Perhaps—and if so, perhaps it is inborn, or perhaps it is socialized into them as “appropriate” male behavior: here is the great debate of nature versus nurture.
Perhaps the archetype of “The Beast in Me”—with its focus on anger and violence in men—illuminates a longstanding psychological assumption about gender. In her 1974 essay “Family Structure and Feminine Personality,” Nancy Chodorow posited that gender identity formation for boys involved a psychologically painful separation from the mothers who bore them. To avoid feminine gender associations (which lead a boy to be branded “sissy,” “Momma’s boy” or, simply, “girl”), boys are forced to individuate, an early trauma forming when mothers reluctantly encourage sons to stop clinging to Mommy, stop emulating Mommy, become independent, and “man up.”
In doing so, a boy may tamp down and assimilate a resentful anger about having been seemingly kicked to the curb by the person he loves the most in the world, the hard-knock lesson that perhaps life isn’t about love after all, but about self-sufficient survival (in the extreme of a Freudian “Oedipal complex,” like that plaguing Norman Bates of Psycho, such issues become dangerously confused, with unresolved childhood mother-love becoming the motivation and fuel for “The Beast in Me”). Maybe this reservoir of masculine anger seen in so many men and male characters results from social pressures, or maybe it’s an existential mystery, a primal force, or even a symptom of testosterone—something essentially, biologically male that no man can explain but all men must learn to tame at some point in their lives: the sooner, the better.
Deignan, Tom. “The gender behind mass shootings: Opinion.” NJ.com. New Jersey On-Line LLC, 10 March 2013. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.
Faerdhinen. “Johnny Cash – The beast in me.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 3 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.
Glazek, Christopher. “Raise the Crime Rate.” n+1. n+1 Foundation, 26 January 2012. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.