Overview: Bruce Wayne was terrified of bats at a very young age. After falling into a cave below Wayne Manor, Bruce was paralyzed with fear, and his father, Thomas Wayne, had to rescue him. This is the quick answer as to why Bruce would eventually choose a bat as his symbol to instill fear in criminals, but there’s a much deeper, psychological level that we’ll explore below.
The creation of the main protagonist is a study of psychology in its own right. Bruce Wayne suffers the insurmountable trauma of watching his beloved mother and father gunned down before his very eyes. At the age of nine (though sometimes depicted anywhere from ages 8 – 10 depending on the retelling), he experiences the fear of losing everything he has ever known, including love, security, and stability, and is now faced with the unknown. If it was not for the care of his butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who knows what could have happened to this child.
Batman is a character born out of trauma. This trauma could have led him to the asylum himself. Instead, he used his trauma to channel his mission, a mission that will eventually see him patrolling the streets and rooftops of his beloved Gotham City at night, hunting down criminals and rescuing others. He makes a vow to his parents’ graves that no one will suffer the loss and fear he did. This mission defines his life of training and study at his very young age through adulthood. Even after all his study and training, becoming a master criminologist and combatant in numerous forms, he quickly learns on his first outing that something is missing.
Early on Bruce knows that he has to keep his identity hidden. He designs the disguise of a street person complete with a noticeable scar on his face to draw the eyes of his adversary away from his identity as the wealthy socialite Bruce Wayne, whose image can be found on any newsstand and magazine rack. But Bruce learns that this is not enough.
Bruce finds himself in a fight in which he is viciously stabbed in the leg by the street walker he was trying to protect, faced with a hand-to-hand fight with master fighter Selina Kyle (later to become Catwoman) and finally being shot by the police who arrive on the scene after the commotion. He is barely able to escape this scene, but he finds himself quickly dying. Bruce slumps into his study with a bell that when rung, Alfred, who is a practiced field medic, will immediately work to save his life before he bleeds out, but Bruce will not ring the bell. He will not ring the bell until he comes up with a gimmick. A gimmick to strike fear into his adversaries and then give him an advantage. Suddenly a creature crashes through the window of his study. That creature is the subject of his own fear as a child, the creature of the night — a bat — and the Batman is born.
There is a telling of the Batman story that includes a very young Bruce falling into the caves beneath Wayne Manor, coincidentally the caves that will become his base of operations, the Batcave. He is paralyzed in fear, and his father has to climb down to rescue him and assure him that it will be alright. It can be interpreted that this is just the fear of a child to a monster, but studies have shown that there may be more to that.
Before we get to the research let us track the journey of the young, traumatized boy and how he became that which he feared most as a child, a bat.
At the grave sight of his parents, Bruce Wayne makes a promise. He promises his parents that he will avenge them, not as a form of vengeance even though some may feel differently, Bruce vows that no one else will suffer his pain. To do this, he has to acquire the resources and the intelligence to carry this vow out. Bruce starts his journey; he travels the world. He does this so he can learn for the best combat masters in the world. Bruce trains with ninjas, samurai, and other martial artists. His goal is to master the fighting styles of everyone he encounters. He knows the danger that he will face, and he needs to be able to take care of himself in the field. He becomes a very skilled combatant. In his prime as Batman, he knows where and how hard to strike in order to defeat his opponents effectively and quickly. He is fast, able to dodge strikes and projection weapons when used against him. Though Batman is one of the deadliest fighters in the DC universe, fighting is not the only thing he has mastered. He studied under the smartest and most successful criminologists in the world, becoming the world’s greatest detective. Aside from his detection skills, Bruce created a state-of-the-art crime lab in his Batcave, the same cave he fell into as a child all those years ago. Lastly, Bruce Wayne also became a master psychologist and knew just how to utilize the disguise of the bat to instill fear in his enemies.
Part of Batman’s expertise is his understanding of the science of fear. The human has developed the innate response to fear and that is the fight-flight-freeze system (De Young 2010). When faced with fear, the common reaction is to avoid that fear. In the case of Batman, the first reaction is to run from the 7-foot bat in front of you, and when that fails, the attempt is to fight. The mind is already clouded with fear, so the attempts at combat are ineffective at best, and this bat-creature is able to take down the opponent. The question then is what if the bad guy has a gun. Batman’s suit has the answer, as Batman coats his suit with Kevlar. When the bullets fail to stop this monstrosity, this inspires more fear in the perpetrator. This proves to be much more effective than when he fights a common street person.
Bruce is able to tap into his enemy’s self-confidence. Zaki Hassan and his colleagues studied the effect of fear on self-confidence. They found that fear can lead to poor interpersonal skills that then directly affect confidence (Hassan, 2021). Typically, Batman works against gangs and criminal enterprises. He then is able to weaken the strength in numbers argument by using fear to erode the unity of his enemies and in turn erode their self-confidence. Batman uses fear to even the odds.
Why do bats instill this type of fear in people?
Writers of mythology frequently equate bats to vampires. Batman in his design can be looked at as a monstrous vampire bat. The vampire is one of the oldest monsters in fiction (Sartin, 2019). In addition to the murderous tendencies of the creatures, their ability to transform into bats brings an added fear. The fear of rabies, a lethal disease characterized by madness (Sartin, 2019). This added dimension creates an irrational fear in Batman’s opponents. When he is seen his enemies can only see death. There have also been reports of disgust associated with bats, (Polak, 2020).
In addition to the supernatural elements of the fear of bats, there is also a practical fear here as well. In Bruce’s first outing, he failed because he relied on his skill. Not a bad plan, but he lacked experience and advantage. By creating the Batman mantle, Bruce Wayne was able to create an arsenal of weapons and gadgets that he did not have access to before. With his subsequent recruiting campaign, he even raises an army to fight by his side outside of the confines of the Gotham City Police Department. This has led to the speculation that Batman’s effectiveness is not in the bat as much as it is in the fact that he could be considered a terrorist, (Croci, 2015).
Bruce Wayne realizes that something is missing in his war on crime. An element of fear is missing. When he sees the bat crash through the window of his study, he realizes that he will become the bat. He rings the bell and Alfred nurses him back to health. From this point on, not only will Bruce Wayne hide his identity, but he will also strike fear as being a creature of the night. He creates his suit and weapons designed after the bat. His effectiveness improves. He does sustain injuries; however his resolve improves. He also relies on his equipment enabling him to avoid the police effectively and quickly.
The mythos of Batman is steeped in psychology. Batman’s rogue gallery is full of characters influenced by psychology, as evidenced in Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight by Dr. Travis Langley. You can find his book here, and you can listen to our TBU Interview with Dr. Langley here. Batman himself is the product of psychology, an orphaned boy, the result of violence and trauma is driven to avenge his parents, and he will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. Even going so far as creating the costume of a bat and fighting crime at night.
Miller, Frank, Mazzucchelli, David, Lewis, Richmond, Batman: Year One. (2017). Graphic Novel, DC Comics.
DeYoung, Colin G. (2010). Discussion on Automatic and and Controlled Processes in Behavioral Control: Implications for Personality Psychology. European Journal of Personality, 24, 404-422, 10.1002/per.780.
Hasan, Zakinthos, Zehra, Neelum, Ahmed, Saleem, Wamiq, Hafiz Muhammed. (2021). Factors Influencing Fear and its subsequent effects on Self Confidence: an analysis on the HR Perspective. KASBIT Business Journal, 14(3), 142-152.
Sartin, Jeffrey, MD. (2019). Contagious Horror: Infectious Themes in Fiction and Film. Clinical Medicine & Researtch, 17(1-2), 41-46.
Polak, Jakub, Radlova, Silvio, Janovcova, Marketa, Flegr, Jarslov, Landon’s, Eva, Frynta, Daniel. (2020), Scary and nasty beasts: Self-reported fear and disgust of common phobic animals. British Journal of Psychology, 111, 297-321, 10.1111/boop. 12409.
Croci, Daniel. (2005), Holy Terror, Batman! Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and the Superhero as Hardboiled Terrorist. Other Modernities, 15, 163-185.