Primal – A Short Study of Gotham City’s Scarecrow

An essay about the origin and the character traits of Batman’s Scarecrow and what makes him a great character.

The Scarecrow | Batman DC Comics

We are all ruled by the flux of our emotions. We all interact with the world through the gamut of common feelings we share as a species. Of those emotions, only a few of them have the intensity to be all-pervasive, none more so than fear. It motivates us. It hinders us. Fear dominates us completely.

Perhaps that is why The Scarecrow, a villain from Batman’s rogue gallery, is particularly impressive. The Scarecrow, otherwise known as Dr Jonathan Crane, is one of Batman’s most enduring and popular villains, and for good reason. As a character, Crane relies on fear and psychological warfare to terrorize Gotham City and achieve his ends. And while sometimes his ends are money or power, often he is motivated simply by the pursuit of knowledge in his field.

Dr Crane is a certified psychiatrist, specializing in the study of fear. This specialty is represented by his ‘Fear Gas’, a substance he created that induces panic and terror in his victims, and he often acts in the interest of improving this toxin. This is what makes Crane unique and terrifying, that he is detached from any semblance of morality, and often acts completely in a bubble of self-interest. He is the embodiment of his field – he is primal, and is fear incarnate.

The origin story of the Scarecrow is not fixed, as comic book stories get ‘retconned’ (i.e. amended for retroactive continuity) frequently. However, the generally accepted story goes that Jonathan was born out of wedlock. His father takes off before he is even born, and his mother shows no love or affection towards her son, leaving the baby with her grandmother without even attempting to bond with him. He suffered severe abuse from his fanatically religious great-grandmother, and was subject to further torment at school, being the victim of taunts and jeers due to his lanky frame and spindly legs.

In one particular incident, his grandmother locks him in an abandoned church, putting him in a suit drenched in a homemade chemical designed to enrage nearby crows, which would attack Jonathan. The trauma from the incident led him to develop an affinity for crows and fear, which would play into his eventual descent into madness.

The suffering wasn’t limited to his home however, as at school rocks would be thrown at him, and be called cruel names, including Scarecrow for his scrawny appearance. At seventeen, he asked a crush to be his date at a costume party, but she was romantically inclined with another boy, who was also a bully to Jonathan. The two of them tricked him – the girl leading him to a dark room where the boy was waiting with a Jack O’ Lantern mask. He scared him, chasing him for an extended period of time and eventually smashing a pumpkin over his head.

Jonathan swore revenge and when he was eighteen, he donned the same Jack O’ Lantern costume and brandished a gun at the pair in a parking lot, scaring them into having an automobile accident which paralyzed the boy and killed the girl. This is where Jonathan discovered a savage delight in frightening people literally to death, and would eventually be consumed by the identity of the scarecrow he became that night.

This is why Crane’s story is so tragic and alluring. At the heart of it, he is a frightened young boy, trapped in an environment of abuse and torture. He lashed out like a caged animal, forever fighting for survival, until he literally went mad. This madness drove him to villainy, as he put himself in positions of power and obsessed over his fixation with fear.

This caged animal behavior is apparent in his later actions as the Scarecrow – he has no inclinations towards anyone, often attacking temporary allies such as The Joker or the Injustice Gang. A sadistic psychopath, he had no emotion towards any being, aside from The Batman, who he fears. He operates outside the normal realm of thinking – fixated on improving his study of fear and his fear gas.

What makes Scarecrow a threat is not his physical prowess, but his mastery over mental manipulation. He is a trained psychiatrist after all, and using his methods of fear, he is able to subjugate other criminal bodies in Gotham City to do his bidding.

There are instances of Scarecrow overcoming his weak body and becoming a physical threat. In one story, The Penguin manages to briefly transform him into a creature dubbed “The Scarebeast”, where he developed super strength and became murderous. In another instance, he was incorporated into the Sinestro Corps, the galactic beings from the Green Lantern universe that derived power from fear. He became the Yellow Lantern and was overjoyed at having another medium of employing fright for strength. In some stories, he even has his own form of “violent dancing”, inspired from Crane-style Kung Fu.

However, what truly makes Crane sinister is that he truly has no need for enhancement. In recent stories, he has foregone his use of the fear gas due to ridicule from other criminals that he was nothing without it. He drove two inmates at Arkham Asylum (where he is frequently incarcerated) to commit suicide using just his words, terrifying the rest of the Arkham inmates. After manipulating the guards to free him, he commits a string of serial murders without his trademark gimmicks.

The Scarecrow is a true representation of the prey becoming the predator, rising above a tragic childhood of abuse and trauma in the most perverse of ways. Were he not so sadistic and compassionless, one could feel pity for him. However, he grabbed power through sheer effort and unbridled insanity, and now exists as another roadblock for Batman to defeat. There is method in his madness and panache in his simplicity. As a fearmonger and terrorist, he presents a wonderful challenge to Batman’s impassion and collectedness, and truly deserves his place in comic book history as one of the greatest villains of all time.