The psychology of The Punisher has been explored so much that it's almost cliche, at this point. Like, asking if Batman is really the crazy one!
The path to unlocking Frank Castle's pathology practically always leads to one conclusion: Post-traumatic stress disorder. And while that's almost certainly part of it, I think there's something else here. Something a bit more sinister. I propose that The Punisher is evil.
Frank Castle openly breaks the law all of the time. And I also don't mean that he's immoral. Whether or not you agree with it, Frank does have a moral code that he abides by. No, what I'm saying is that I think The Punisher is psychologically evil.
When Frank Castle puts a bullet through someone's head, what's going through his?
Introduced as a villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129, The Punisher is a vigilante who cleans up the streets of New York through domestic terrorism, Nope, that's probably a bit too political, let's look that back.
- "Frank Castle's not a terrorist."
- "Even your own paper says differently."
Introduced as a villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher is a person who does bad things to bad people. A seasoned United States Marine, Frank Castle had put warfare behind him until his wife and two kids were murdered. Seeking vengeance, Castle grabbed some guns and waged a one-man war against his family's killers. A war that he won. Like, wasn't even close. Since 1974, when he was introduced, The Punisher has become one of the most famous anti-heroes in all of comics. The man's even gone beyond the medium. I mean, we've talked before about how his logo was adopted by the real-life SEAL Team 3, among others.
Especially people who like guns. There's a saying in America that's been thrown around from time to time that, "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun." And to many, Frank Castle is that good guy with a gun. The one thing pretty much anyone knows about the guy is that he kills people. Murder is The Punisher's M.O., as we established earlier, he doesn't just waste anyone. The Punisher has a moral code. His targets are criminals and only criminals. Those who he believes deserve a one-way ticket to Mephisto's gates.
- [Punisher] "I think that the people I kill need killing, that's what I think."
- [Daredevil] "You left men hanging from meat hooks."
- [Punisher] "Yeah, nobody got hurt who didn't deserve it."
It's easy for us to buy that he's supposed to be the good guy because we're the audience. But what about the man himself? What drives Frank Castle to be the most famous executioner in all of comics? It's not about character motivations like revenge, or justice, or anything like that. I'm more interested in his psychology. So, let's explore that and find out if The Punisher really is Marvel's ultimate anti-hero. Or, if he's just as evil as his targets.
Now the big problem with this question should be pretty obvious: How would we even begin to scientifically diagnose something as broad as evil? Well thankfully, we are not the first people to give it a try. In 1997, a neuroscientist named Dr. Itzhak Fried, a name that I am almost certainly mispronouncing attempted to do just that. Fried wanted to diagnose evil as the disease that he dubbed Syndrome E. Fried devised a set of symptoms to define and understand the pathology of the most malicious individuals among us. And hopefully, prevent any disaster that they could cause. And if you think the E in Syndrome E stands for evil, you'd only be somewhat correct. As Fried explained in an interview:
"I made a decision not to use the word evil, as I thought it invited metaphors and biased the inquisitive mind. But I stuck with E."
Now, I know that labeling evil as a disease is kind of a peculiar thought. But let's run with this premise for a bit. At the very least, it does give us a term that's fitting for a comic book.
We often think of murder as something that rides on emotions, something impulsive. Where the intent draws from the situation from a loss of self-control. Giving into irrational, animalistic instincts. It even has a catchy name: a crime of passion. In fact, you may recognize this term having been thrown around in regards to Punisher's body count before. In the second season of the Daredevil Netflix series, Matt Murdock and company serve as Punisher's attorneys when he's arrested for you know, punishing! To help his case, an expert witness is put on the stand to explain Castle's mindset. Our boy Frank there was shot in the head. The witness points out that the bullet damaged the part of Castle's brain that affects sympathy and logical thought, creating a condition known as sympathetic storming.
Frank, as this witness explains, is in a constant state of fight or flight. He argues that Castle is always emotionally high-strung and that his lawbreaking could never be premeditated, never determined by rational thought and personal judgment in advance of committing it. The argument given is that every murder by Frank Castle's hands is invariably a crime of passion.
- [Frank] "And one who's suffering
from extreme disturbance, is it possible to willfully premeditate a crime?"
- "Any infractions would be considered crimes of passion."
So there we have it. Case closed, right? The show just gave us an explanation. But, I can't help but notice that that answer couldn't be further from the truth. In the context of the trial, it's clear that Foggy Nelson, one of Frank's attorneys, was using the expert quote-unquote, diagnosis, as a way to sway the jury, not necessarily to have any semblance of accuracy. Although Frank is, yes, undoubtedly passionate about killing criminals, especially when it comes to anyone connected to the murder of his family, he's rarely impulsive about it.
Frank's murders are calculated. Because of his code, which forces him to determine first if his target deserves the death sentence, pretty much every kills Punisher carries out, by definition, is premeditated. It's not really something that's emotionally impulsive. In fact, even in those rare moments when his assaults are reactive instead of proactive, he still doesn't seem emotional. Quite the opposite, he sometimes appears cold and detached. So much so, that he's almost like this force of nature. A monsoon of death and bloodshed.
We need a better diagnosis for Frank Castle than what the show is giving us. And this is where Syndrome E could help us out. In his paper on the subject, Fried attempted to outline the symptoms of Syndrome E. Behaviors that a person would exhibit while keeping the language, memory, and problem-solving skills intact.
A list of, how Frank stacks up with some of these signs. First was, repetitive acts of violence.
Next, there's rapid habituation. Which basically means that the more you commit violent acts, the easier they become. Frank's first kill or two might have been hard, but we definitely see that he's become desensitized to all that bloodshed over time.
Then we have compartmentalization, where one can care about their own family, yet enact violence on someone else who presumably has their own loved ones.
Next, we have obsessive ideation. It's basically the notion of clinging to an ideology that one believes justifies violence. Like Nazis, or ISIS, or the less political Hydra.
And again, this is another really obvious one that we can pin on The Punisher. It's all about his moral code that we talked about earlier. As long as he determines that the criminals deserve it, killing is justified in his eyes.
- [Micro] "I keep forgetting about your thing, Frank. Only do unto bad guys. Rob Badass Peter, so you can kill Psycho Paul. So on and so forth, what do you call that? Is that a code?"
And if you wronged him, he's not gonna stop until he has hunted you down.
Next, on the list, we have group contagion. It's essentially mob mentality, right? When someone starts behaving a certain way, it catches on and spreads to other members of the group. You might not think this would fall under Frank's condition because he typically works alone, but Punisher has shown the capacity to work with others. Like Micro, for example. And, without fail, Frank's violent nature definitely started to transfer over to Micro.
- [Frank] "He said that you never got your hands dirty."
- [Micro] "What did I do? What did I do? Look at my hands. I got me
hands dirty you piece of ass."
Further down the list, we have diminished affective reactivity. Much of the violence perpetrated by an individual is carried out not in a battlefield frenzy, nor in a burst of emotion, but with flat affect. As he carries out his kills, Punisher doesn't appear to be emotionally affected by any of his own bloodsheds. In fact, the only thing that seems to elicit some kind of reaction from Frank is the memory of his massacred family. And man that is rough!.
The next on the list is Hyperarousal. It's not that kind of arousal. In this context, Fried compares it to more of a surging anxiety that can cause things like increased irritability, constantly feeling like you need to be on guard, and even give you trouble falling and staying asleep. And, as I'm sure some of you are already commenting, hyperarousal is, of course, common in people with PTSD. I know, it's just one of those things that we can't escape when we're talking about The Punisher.
If you're unfamiliar, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that can occur within anyone who has experienced a profoundly traumatic event. Given Frank's backstory as a Marine and the fact that his family was murdered in front of him, PTSD could absolutely make sense as the catalyst for his tendencies. Does he show signs of having it? Absolutely, he has symptoms like nightmares, triggers, negative beliefs, and as we discussed, the thing that brought us here, hyperarousal. I'm certainly not arguing that The Punisher doesn't have PTSD. I think he does. But Frank Castle's pathology seems to extend beyond it. Displaying a mental state that point for point qualifies as psychologically evil.