Written in December 2010. Please do not re-post without permission. If citing, please link back and use proper citation format. Thank you.
Dualism and Demonology: Analyzing the Ghost Rider
It’s a common phenomenon in the world of the comic superhero: the meek and mild-mannered day-worker dons the polyester cape of criminal justice when darkness falls or danger calls, saving the world in gallant anonymity time after time. He is called a hero, lauded by cityfolk, commended by mayors, and loved by all. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman—all of these superheroes share the same dualistic hallmarks that have made them great American icons for decades, whether they hail from DC, Dark Horse, or the Marvel Family. But there is one hero whose super alter ego comes from far less auspicious origins, and whose destiny is imbued with hellfire and brimstone: the Ghost Rider.
Johnny Blaze was once the typical portrait of a lower-middle class American teenager. Born in Illinois, Johnny spent his childhood working the carnival circuit with his parents, Barton and Naomi, and their friend Craig “Crash” Simpson, as part of a motorcycle-centered stunt act (Wikia, 2010, para. 1). The Blaze family was ultimately torn apart when Naomi left Barton and took Johnny’s two siblings, Danny and Barbara, with her. Her abandonment caused Johnny untold psychological damage, and it wasn’t much later that Barton was killed in a stunt accident, leaving Johnny without any family at all.
Then, in a fortunate turn of events, Johnny was taken in by Crash Simpson and his wife Mona, which ended Johnny’s miserable stint of childhood trauma. With the Simpsons’ help Johnny was able to happily integrate with his new family and even suppress some of the terrible memories of his past. Things finally seemed to be working out for him: he had a family again, was part of a great stunt show in the Crash Simpson Stunt Cycle Extravaganza, and had even found himself a sweetheart in the form of Roxanne Simpson, Crash’s daughter. But, as with the fate of so many tragic heroes, this brief period of joy in Johnny’s life was not to last.
When Johnny learned that Crash was suffering from terminal cancer, his desperation to save his adoptive father drove him to search for a cure himself . . . in the form of occult. Magic seemed the only way to save Crash’s life, and Johnny studied tirelessly until he finally found the incantation he needed, one that would supposedly summon Satan. Johnny successfully completed the spell, summoning Mephistopheles, though Johnny was unaware just who this being was; apparently one devil was as good as the next. In the subsequent parley, Johnny agreed to sell his soul to Mephisto in order to cure the cancer that was killing his father—and Mephisto was happy to oblige. Crash’s cancer was immediately cured, and Johnny’s soul was marked for Hell when his day of reckoning would come.
Regrettably, there are certain occupational hazards that come with being a motorcycle stuntman, and it wasn’t long after Crash’s miraculous recovery that the man gave his nickname an ironically literal meaning. During a stunt attempt to jump over twenty-two cars on his motorcycle, Crash Simpson became yet another victim of miscalculated physics, and died in the ensuing crash. Grieving, furious, and feeling betrayed, Johnny confronted Mephisto and accused him of going back on his word. The devil, smug and clever in the way that most devils seem to be, patiently explained to Johnny that he had kept his word—Crash’s cancer had been cured, and that was the deal. Nowhere in their agreement was there any mention of sparing Crash from any other form of death. In any case, the man was long gone and now it was time for Johnny to ante up.
For a moment it appeared that Johnny was going to be dragged to Hell on a technicality, but then his beloved Roxanne burst onto the scene and drove Mephisto away by declaring her love for Johnny; and love, it is widely believed, is the strongest devil-repellent out there. But Mephisto wasn’t going down without a fight—if he couldn’t take Johnny’s soul to Hell, then he’d make sure that Johnny would never be able to take the hell out of his soul. Mephisto summoned up a fiery demon known as Zarathos, and bound the evil spirit to Johnny’s soul. As a result, Johnny was transformed into a terrifying apparition of bones, leather and fire, his bare skull wreathed in a blaze of hellfire. This transformation extended to his motorcycle as well, turning it into a flaming-wheeled [de]monstrosity capable of far greater traffic offenses than any of its man-made brethren.
Johnny Blaze, also known as the Ghost Rider, was now Mephisto’s slave. While still in possession of his soul, and for all appearances just a normal man during daylight hours, at nightfall, or in the presence of evil, the Ghost Rider flared up in Johnny’s soul and transformed him into a demon. His purpose, according to Mephisto’s job description, was to punish the wicked and return the evil to Hell, which Johnny reluctantly did. However, in an attempt to exert some control over the demon possessing him, he also strove to protect the innocent whenever he could, thereby retaining a tiny shred of his humanity as he battled against Zarathos for dominance of his body. It was, needless to say, getting a bit crowded in there.
A man by day. A demon by night. The Ghost Rider is a far cry from other Marvel superheroes who utilize this sort of dichotomy in their noble efforts to fight villains and save the day. Johnny Blaze is not a willing superpower like Peter Parker (Spider-Man) or Clark Kent (Superman), but a devil’s mortal slave. His costume is bike leathers and flames, not bright red spandex or billowing capes. He suffers from his curse, is feared by all who lay eyes on him, and is routinely responsible for great destruction and loss of life (though most of those lives fall under the category of Sinners Who Had It Comin’, or wicked entities who have escaped from the prisons of Hell).
Two beings sharing the one body, as different from one another as night and day. This is hardly a new concept. Simply mention the words “Jekyll and Hyde” to anyone and he will immediately understand the implications, regardless of whether he has read the book or not. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps the most widely-recognized and enduring example of dualism in fiction, possibly even the first literary work in which the subject of the “duality of human nature” has been thoroughly examined (“Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, Wikipedia). There is even a dictionary entry for “Jekyll and Hyde”, as cited from the Collins English Dictionary: Jekyll and Hyde
a person with two distinct personalities, one good, the other evil
(as modifier): a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality
Published in 1886, Stevenson’s novella explores the mystery surrounding the successful, well-liked Dr Henry Jekyll and his young ward, Edward Hyde, who is a product of the doctor’s experimentation in dividing a person’s good side from his bad side. The experiment was a success, but an unfortunate consequence was the emergence of the dastardly Hyde, who is described by other characters as being “troglodytic” and “radiating a foul soul” (Stevenson 1652), and whose unwarranted acts of violence against a young child and the brutal murder of an elderly man make him a fiend in the eyes of Victorian Londoners. Only a man devoid of reason, feeling, and compassion would be capable of committing such heinous acts—there could be no other explanation. So it is with the Ghost Rider, whose lack of flesh and hellish powers make him invulnerable to pain, consumed by vengeance.
Both Jekyll and Johnny have paid a heavy toll for meddling with forces beyond their control, whether scientific or supernatural; now they must share their mortal coils with embodiments of wickedness and evil, and constantly fight to suppress these reckless, violent apparitions lurking beneath their human exteriors. Both of these good, kind-hearted men have suffered greatly for no other reason than the desire to help others, Jekyll with his experimentation to separate good from evil, and Johnny with his desperation to save his adoptive father from death—selfless, noble acts, undeserving of punishment. It seems ironic that all of their suffering could have been avoided if they had only been a little more selfish, a little less ambitious, or their souls a little less good.
Though Jekyll’s tale ended in tragedy in 1886, Johnny’s continues to play out in comic books to this day, and while his fate remains a mystery, his struggles are a definite certainty. Perhaps one day fans will see a conclusion to the long-running Ghost Rider comic arc, but with the popularity of the Rider—no doubt fueled by the staggering difference between himself and more “traditional” superheroes—that day seems only a far and distant possibility. But if there is one thing that can be ascertained from the stories of Henry Jekyll and Johnny Blaze, it’s that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
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