The Hero Fixes a Toilet

By Scott T. Allison

Our toilet started running water intermittently between flushes, so I took the initiative to fix it. How hard could it be, I thought. That was my first mistake — I have a long, checkered history of trying to fix toilets. But denial and selective memory are powerful defense mechanisms, and money is money. If I just try harder, I should be able to conquer the toilet.

It didn’t happen.

My second mistake was setting out to the Big-Box hardware store to get a new flapper. Who needs customer assistance, I reasoned. Hubris is a terrible thing.

At Big-Box, I matched up the old one with the new one, brought the new one home, installed it, and discovered that it wasn’t quite the right size.

Like any good hero, I decided I needed help. This time I’d go to the smaller local hardware store where I’d get assistance from the friendly clerk.

Sure enough, at the small store an eager employee, a man in his late 60s, helped me pick out a different flapper. Even at this small store, there were over a dozen options – red flappers, black flappers, white flappers. Some plastic, some rubber, all of them enticing, all of them full of potential. The world of toilet flappers opened up to me in ways I never imagined.

I went home, installed the recommended flapper, and discovered that it too wasn’t quite the right size. Damn.

Like any good hero, I decided I needed more help. This time I recruited my wife to assist me. She’s handier around the house than I am, and surely we’d find the right flapper together. We went back to the small store to inspect more options.

Arriving at the store, I recognized the eager employee who helped me the day before. He asked the guy behind the counter to help us, and the four of us resumed The Great Flapper Hunt. We looked at them all, again, and found one that looked promising. Returning to the counter to ring it up, we found yet another employee waiting for us, making it five on our team, and this fifth Beatle had his own ideas.

The fifth guy walked us back to The Aisle of Great Flappers, and he found other more exotic flappers farther down the aisle that we hadn’t even seen before. The specter of added possibilities gave us all a shot of hope.

We settled on a flapper that showed incredible promise. We looked at it from all angles, comparing the old one with the new one, back-to-back and side-to-side, confirming without a doubt that we had finally identified The Flapper. The Chosen One.

We took it home and it didn’t work. Strike three.

But like any good hero, I persisted. Before leaving the store, the original small-store helper – the silver-haired man looking very much like Obi Wan Kenobe – raised his finger in the air and recommended what amounted to our last resort. “If this flapper doesn’t work,” he said, “there’s a big specialty plumbing store here in Richmond on Westwood Avenue. It has what you need.”

My wife and I made the long trek to this specialty store, our Land of Oz. The Wicked Witch of Westwood was waiting for us, ready to squeeze a whole new set of mistakes from us.

The Westwood store was a new, unfamiliar and dangerous world of PVC piping, hoses, and new-fangled brass fittings and connectors. There was not one mere aisle of flappers, but an entire building wing devoted to flappers. These flappers were magnificent. They came in unimagined shapes, colors, and sizes, some looking like Star Wars vessels, some like drones, and others like bongs. It was a confusing array of choices that dazzled and blinded and confused us.

Our jaws dropped. We were scared, overwhelmed, and desperate. No help was available. We stood alone and exposed as frauds in the midst of this cacophony of plumbing paraphernalia. We were numb, paralyzed and defeated.

At that moment I remembered what all heroes do when they find themselves in the proverbial belly of the whale. They find a way out. Noting the “Exit” sign, we made haste toward the door, but not before snatching up a cheap tube of plumbing sealant and quickly paying for it.

Our toilet works again. I am now calmed by the sound of intermittent running of water between flushes. The sealant did its job, sort of, on the old misshapen flapper. What was once a problem is now a success story, all thanks to my willingness to believe that I followed the blueprint of the hero’s journey.

The Great Flapper Hunt is over. During an occasional lucid moment, I am reminded that I failed. I then comfort myself with the words of my hero, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who once said: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness, that is life.”

= = = = = = = = = = = =

The 12 Functions of Heroes

This article is excerpted from the book:

Allison, S. T. (Ed.) (2022). The 12 functions of heroes and heroism. Richmond: Palsgrove.

By Scott T. Allison

I’ve been studying and writing about heroes since 2008, when my dear friend and collaborator, George Goethals, and I began writing our first book on heroism, which appeared in print in the Fall of 2010. The book was called, Heroes: Who They Are & Why We Need Them, and one of the strangest things about it is that while we did discuss who our heroes are, we never really addressed the issue of why we need them. That subtitle was our publisher’s idea, and in our book we conveniently avoided tackling the functions of heroes and heroism in our daily lives. The main reason for our avoidance centered on the fact that at that time we just didn’t know! Heroism science didn’t even exist yet, and a lot of interesting and illuminating research had yet to be conducted on this important topic.

A lot has happened since 2008 and 2009, when we composed that little book. Before briefly delving into the evolution of heroism studies, let’s put all our cards on the table and reveal what the 12 functions of heroism. Let’s also keep in mind that there are no doubt more functions than these 12. If I had to guess, there are probably several dozen more functions. But these 12 represent a start, so here goes:

  1. Heroes give us hope
  2. Heroes energize us
  3. Heroes develop us
  4. Heroes heal us
  5. Heroes impart wisdom
  6. Heroes are role models for morality
  7. Heroes offer safety and protection
  8. Heroes give us positive emotions
  9. Heroes give us meaning and purpose
  10. Heroes provide social connection and reduce loneliness
  11. Heroes help individuals achieve personal goals
  12. Heroes help society achieve societal goals

Take a good look at this list of 12 functions. Some things instantly jump out at us. First, it’s pretty clear that heroism offers benefits that span many dimensions of human well-being. There are basic survival benefits (e.g., safety and healing). There are cognitive benefits (e.g., wisdom). There are motivational benefits (e.g., energy). There are emotional benefits (e.g., hope and positivity). There are social benefits (e.g., less loneliness). There are growth benefits (e.g., development). There are spiritual benefits (e.g., morality). There are existential benefits (e.g., meaning and purpose). And there are creativity benefits (e.g., personal and societal goals).

No wonder we have heroes! We need them badly to get us through this challenging experience called life. Heroes help us survive, and they help us thrive. They help us through our worst times, and they prepare us for our best times. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about heroes is that they don’t have to be physically present to help us survive and thrive. Just remembering our heroes can do the job for us. Nostalgia for past heroes, both living and dead, can produce these 12 benefits of heroism (Allison & Green, 2020). Research on the impact of losing a parent at a young age has shown that people carry the departed parent with them forever, holding them in their minds, imagining their emotional support and mentoring (Chater, Howlett, Shorter, Zakrewski-Fruer, & Williams, 2022). We all benefit from the memory our heroes, often in ways we’re unaware of.

In 2014, Goethals and I published a chapter on a set of phenomena that we called the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which describes how our choices of heroes are always in flux. Over the course of the human lifespan, people change in many ways – we pass through various developmental stages, our life circumstances change, and the people and the world around us all change, too. Therefore, our needs and psychological states are always changing. The heroic leadership dynamic proposes that our heroes come and go in ways that match our ever-shifting needs, motivations, and life circumstances. For example, a breast cancer patient may choose a breast cancer survivor as a hero to inspire them. After recovering from cancer, that same person may take up golf and choose a professional golfer as a hero. And so on. Our heroes serve the function of meeting our needs at a particular time and place in our lives, and thus as our lives change, so do our heroes (Allison & Goethals, 2014).

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic proposes two main functions of heroism. First, heroes provide epistemic benefits, also known as wisdom benefits. Heroes and tales of heroism educate us about how to navigate through life, how to meet difficult challenges, how to regulate our emotions, how to resolve the paradoxes of life, how to get help from allies, how to handle our enemies, and how to pass on our hard-earned wisdom to others. Second, heroes provide energizing benefits, which refers to the ability of heroes to inspire us, motivate us, grow us into our best selves, and heal our psychic wounds. Later, our good friend and colleague Olivia Efthimiou added a third benefit, namely, ecological benefits, referring to the ability of heroism to help us interact with larger environmental structures in which we’re all embedded (Efthimiou & Allison, 2017).

In 2015, the highly creative and productive research team in Ireland, headed by Elaine Kinsella and Eric Igou, published a very important article that empirically demonstrated, for the first time, the existence of three functions of heroism (Kinsella, Ritchie, & Igou, 2015). In their Hero Functions Framework, Kinsella et al. found that their participants were able to identify the functions of (1) enhancement, i.e., heroes motivate, inspire, instill hope, and improve morale; (2) moral modeling, i.e., heroes model the values and virtues of society; and (3) protection, i.e., heroes help us, save us, guide us, and defend us against evil and danger. Kinsella and her colleagues also compared the functions of heroism with the functions of leadership, and they present important data showing that heroes offer us unique gifts compared to leaders and role models.

Most recently, my friend and colleague Jeff Green and I have explored some additional functions of heroism based on research on the psychology of nostalgic reminiscences (Hepper et al., 2014). This research shows that people tend to feel nostalgia about heroes from their past — friends and family members, especially. Studies have shown that people also feel nostalgia about their own past heroic accomplishments – for example, the time in the past when they themselves overcame adversity to accomplish something important in their own lives. Heroism, therefore, may be embedded in the content of nostalgic memories. Just as Chater et al. (2022) found that deceased parents continue to move and inspire people, it appears that our fond memories of any past hero can wield positive influence on us long after the hero is gone.

This nostalgic reverie appears to have psychological and behavioral benefits (Sedikides et al., 2015). People higher in nostalgia proneness are more like to be empathic and to behave more prosocially. Nostalgia also increases one’s sense of social connectedness, the depth and range of one’s positive emotions, and one’s ability to achieve personal goals (Allison & Green, 2020). This research suggests that just thinking about our past heroes, or our own past heroic behavior, may serve many important psychological and behavioral functions (Kneuer, Green, & Allison, 2022).

Much more work on the functions of heroism has yet to be done. For more information about the 12 functions of heroism, please check out this book:

Allison, S. T. (Ed.) (2022). The 12 functions of heroes and heroism. Richmond: Palsgrove.


Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Allison, S. T. & Green, J. D. (2020) Nostalgia and heroism: Theoretical convergence of memory, motivation, and function, Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1-13.

Chater, A. M., Howlett, N., Shorter, G. W., Zakrewski-Fruer, J. K., Williams, J. (2022). Reflections experiencing parental bereavement as a young person: A retrospective qualitative study. International Journal of Environments Research and Public Health, 19, 2083.

Efthimiou, O., & Allison, S. T. (2017). Heroism science: Frameworks for an emerging field. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 58, 556-570.

Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Hepper, E. G., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Ritchie, T. D., Yung, Y. F., Hansen, N., Abakoumkin, G., Arikan, G., Cisek, S. Z., Demassosso, D. B., Gebauer, J. E., Gerber, J. P., González, R., Kusumi, T., Misra, G., Rusu, M., Ryan, O., Stephan, E., Vingerhoets, A. J., & Zhou, X. (2014). Pancultural nostalgia: prototypical conceptions across cultures. Emotion (Washington, D.C.)14(4), 733–747.

Kinsella, E.L., Ritchie, T.D., & Igou, E.R. (2015). Lay perspectives on the social and psychological functions of heroes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 130.

Kneuer, M. A., Green, J. D., & Allison, S. T. (2022). In pursuit of important goals: Nostalgia fosters heroic perceptions via social connectedness. Heroism Science, 7(1), 1-29.

Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Hepper, E. G., & Zhou, X. (2015). To nostalgize: Mixing memory with affect and desire. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 189–273.

Heroism Phenomena Identified by Scott Allison’s Research Lab 2005-Present

Below is a partial listing of heroism-related phenomena discovered by Dr. Scott T. Allison’s research lab from 2005 to the present day.

1. The Death Positivity Bias – 2005

The tendency of people to evaluate the dead more favorably than the living. This is one way we “heroize” people.

Allison, S. T., & Eylon, D. (2005). The demise of leadership: Death positivity biases in posthumous impressions of leaders. In D. Messick & R. Kramer (Eds.), The Psychology of Leadership: New Perspectives and Research (pp 295-317). New York: Erlbaum.

2. The Frozen in Time Effect – 2005

People’s tendency to resist changing their impressions of dead heroes compared to living heroes.

Eylon, D., & Allison, S. T. (2005). The frozen in time effect in evaluations of the dead. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1708-1717.

3. The Underdog Abandonment Effect – 2008

The tendency of people to no longer root for underdog heroes when both their success has low self-relevance and low consequences.

Kim, J., Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Goethals, G., Markus, M., McGuire, H., & Hindle, S. (2008). Rooting for (and then Abandoning) the Underdog. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 2550-2573.

4. The Great Eight Traits of Heroes – 2011

The discovery that people believe that heroes possess the traits of wise, strong, charismatic, caring, resilient, reliable, selfless, and inspiring.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.

5. Social Influence Based Taxonomy of Heroism – 2012

The scientific identification of heroes as Transforming, Transfigured, Traditional, Transparent, Transposed, Tragic, Transitional, Transitory, Trending, and Transcendent.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals. New York: Routledge.

6. The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – 2014

A system of psychological forces that can explain how humans are drawn to heroes, how they benefit from these heroes and their stories, and how heroic tales help people become heroes themselves.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

7. Epistemic and Energizing Functions of Heroism – 2014

The conceptualization of the functions of heroism that includes epistemological needs involving the imparting of wisdom and emerging needs involving healing, growing, and inspiration.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

8. The Johnny Carson Effect – 2014

The tendency of people’s current need states to determine their choice of heroes, with these need-states changing as a function of people’s developmental stages and their changing life circumstances. (named after Johnny Carson’s quip that after all his divorces, his hero changed from Babe Ruth to King Henry VIII)

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2016). Hero worship: The elevation of the human spirit. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 46, 187-210.

9. Six Benefits of Suffering – 2016

The identification of benefits of heroic suffering as offering (1) redemption, (2) developmental progress, (3) humility, (4) compassion, (5) social union, and (6) meaning and purpose.

Allison, S. T., & Setterberg, G. C. (2016). Suffering and sacrifice: Individual and collective benefits, and implications for leadership. In S. T. Allison, C. T. Kocher, & G. R. Goethals (Eds), Frontiers in spiritual leadership: Discovering the better angels of our nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

10. Six Types of Heroic Transformation – 2017

Six commons patterns of transformation in heroes that involve changes in their mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and motivational state.

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., & Kramer, R. M. (2017). Setting the scene: The rise and coalescence of heroism science. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.

11. Three Heroic Transformative Arcs – 2017

The tendency of heroes to transform from a state of egocentricity to sociocentricity; from dependence to autonomy; and from stagnation to growth.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2017). The hero’s transformation. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.

12. The Personal Heroic Imperative – 2018

Each human being’s built-in mandate to fulfill their heroic imperative by imagining and creating their own heroic growth.

Efthimiou, O., Allison, S. T., & Franco, Z. E. (2018). Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st century: Recognizing our personal heroic imperative. In O. Efthimiou, S. T. Allison, & Z. E. Franco (Eds.), Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st Century: Applied and emerging perspectives. New York: Routledge.

13. Transcendent and Trapped Immortality – 2018

The tendency of people to perceive dead heroes and villains differently. Specifically, we believe deceased good-doers achieve transcendent immortality, with their souls persisting beyond space and time; and evil-doers to have trapped immortality, with their souls persisting on Earth, bound to a physical location.

Gray, K., Anderson, S., Doyle, C. M., Hester, N., Schmitt, P., Vonasch, A., Allison, S. T., and Jackson, J. C. (2018). To be immortal, do good or evil. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 868-880.

14. Heroic Lag – 2019

The delay between the point in time when a hero first expresses their heroic message and when mainstream society adopts that message.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2019). The romance of heroism and heroic leadership: Ambiguity, attribution, and apotheosis. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

15. Heroic Consciousness – 2019

The tendency of heroes to demonstrate a mental and experiential approach to the world that is nondualistic, transrational, unitive, and empowered.

Allison, S. T. (2019). Heroic consciousness. Heroism Science, 4, 1-43.

16. Seven Barriers to Heroic Transformation – 2019

The tendency of people to avoid heroic transformation because of self-ignorance, impoverished environments, personal trauma, victim identification, absence of mentors, mental/physical illness, and lack of psychological flexibility.

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., Marrinan, A. R., Parker, O. M., Spyrou, S. P., Stein, M. (2019). The metamorphosis of the hero: Principles, processes, and purpose. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 606.

17. Heroic Leadership Imperative – 2020

The mandate of transforming heroic leaders to meet the individual, collective, and transcendent needs of their followers.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

18. Heroic Wholeness Imperative – 2020

The mandate of leaders to promote psychological wholeness and well-being by meeting the higher-level transcendent needs of followers.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

19. The Hero Androgyny Phenomenon  — 2020

The tendency of heroes to possess both masculine and feminine traits, i.e., agency plus communality.

Hoyt, C. L., Allison, S. T., Barnowski, A., & Sultan, A. (2020). Lay theories of heroism and leadership: The role of gender, communion, and agency. Social Psychology, 51, 381-395.

20. Puer Aeternus as an Obstacle to Heroism

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., & Spyrou, S. P. (2020). Donald Trump as the archetypal puer aeternus: The psychology of mature and immature leadership. In K. Bezio & G. R. Goethals (Eds.), Leadership, populism, and resistance. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

21. Heroic Autonomy  — 2021

The imperative of the hero to perform the last and most crucial heroic act alone and independent from their friends and mentors.

Allison, S. T. (2021). Beth Harmon’s hero’s journey: The psychology of heroism in The Queen’s Gambit. Richmond: Palsgrove.

22. Heroic Balance  — 2021

The ability of the hero to achieve a healthy life balance needed to achieve their heroic mission. Heroes needs to balance intuition with reason; emotion with logic; self-confidence with humility; autonomy with dependency; personal life with professional life; and more.

Allison, S. T. (2021). Beth Harmon’s hero’s journey: The psychology of heroism in The Queen’s Gambit. Richmond: Palsgrove.

23. Dynamic Negotiated Exchange Theory of Heroism –2022

Allison, S. T., & Beggan, J. K. (2022). The dynamic negotiated exchange model of heroism and heroic leadership: Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. Interdisciplinary Journal of Leadership Studies, 1, 15-31.

24. Motional Intelligence — 2023

A form of kinesthetic intelligence that enables leaders to move the emotions of their followers. It is the ability of heroic (and villainous) leaders to use their body movements and voices effectively in a way that inspires and mobilizes followers.

Allison, S. T. (2023). Motional intelligence and leadership. In G. R. Goethals, S. T. Allison, & G. J. Sorenson (Eds.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

25. Hero Illiteracy — 2023

The lack of knowledge about heroism, or a misunderstanding about what comprises heroism. The condition can afflict an individual or an entire society. It can include an inability to distinguish heroes from villains and an erroneous belief that money, fame, and celebrity status are the determinants of heroism.
Allison, S. T., & Beggan, J. K.  (2023). Hero Illiteracy. In S. T. Allison, J. K. Beggan, and G. R. Goethals (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Heroism Studies. New York: Springer.
26. Heroism Attribution Error – 2023

The tendency of people to confuse fame for heroism, such that they attribute heroism to celebrities who are famous for non-heroic reasons.

Allison, S. T. (2023). Heroism attribution error. In S. T. Allison, J. K. Beggan, and G. R. Goethals (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Heroism Studies. New York: Springer.

27. Intuitive Heroism — 2024

Intuitive heroism refers to how individuals naturally and intuitively make sense of heroism. People have their own ideas about what heroes do, what heroes are like, and what motivates heroism. These intuitive notions of heroism are accurate in some ways but also contain factual errors and misunderstandings about heroism.

Allison, S. T. (2024). Intuitive heroism. In S. T. Allison, J. K. Beggan, and G. R. Goethals (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Heroism Studies. New York: Springer.

28. Perfect Confluence and Heroism — 2024

The “perfect storm” is a term often used metaphorically to describe situations where a convergence of multiple factors leads to a particularly significant or catastrophic outcome. The perfect confluence refers to any convergence of circumstances that results in a particularly positive or heroic outcome.

Allison, S. T. (2024). Perfect storm, perfect confluence, and heroism. In S. T. Allison, J. K. Beggan, and G. R. Goethals (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Heroism Studies. New York: Springer.

29. Heroism-by-Proxy — 2024

Heroism-by-proxy describes a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual develops a strong psychological association with a hero or a heroic figure, leading to a sense of personal heroism. Heroism-by-proxy can be constructive when it inspires heroism but can be destructive when it engenders either complacency or a psychological identification with violent, divisive leaders.

Allison, S. T., Beggan, J. K., & Goethals, G. R. (2024). Heroism-by-Proxy. In S. T. Allison, J. K. Beggan, and G. R. Goethals (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Heroism Studies. New York: Springer.

30. Amalgamated Heroes — 2024

An amalgamated hero is a legendary, cultural hero who is derived from a complex blending of similar historical figures and our own cognitive embellishments of those figures.

Allison, S. T. & Hutchins, R. (2024). Amalgamated heroes. In S. T. Allison, J. K. Beggan, and G. R. Goethals (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Heroism Studies. New York: Springer.

General George Custer and Why Movies are Important

Custer_PortraitBy J. A. Schultz

Movies aren’t history.

That goes almost without saying. Very different skills are needed between recording something for posterity and bringing a rousing tale to the screen. And as such what is shown to an audience should always be taken with a grain of salt. Facts can be altered for the cause of entertainment. Events can change, sometimes beyond recognition, for the sake of the plot.

However, movies should not be dismissed completely out of hand. For while they are not an accurate recording of history they are in fact preserved moments in time. What film and television record are how people (the writers and the audience they were made for) perceived the world around them. What made the hero? What made the villain?

A good example of the intersection of fact and fiction is the life of General George Armstrong Custer.

The Custer of history, the man of flesh and blood, is best known for the worst day of his life: the Battle of Little Big Horn when the 7th Cavalry met the united tribes of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne. Custer and his regiment would not survive but odd, at times nearly unrecognizable, doppelgangers would be born from that moment of time. Doppelgangers that continue to exist to this day.

The first of those fictional creations actually occurred within a few short years after the battle, though not yet on film. “Buffalo” Bill Cody incorporated thecusterslaststand event in his wild west show, that for a while even starred Custer’s lifetime nemesis, Chief Sitting Bull. The show portrayed what would become the familiar tale of Custer: the noble warrior valiantly fighting a hopeless battle against impossible odds.

It wasn’t long before the story told before a live audience found its way to the burgeoning medium of film. Custer the hero would make his way into films like The Santa Fe Trail (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), 7th Cavalry (1956), and much later in TV series like Cheyenne (Season 4 episodes “Gold, Glory, and Custer”). The man standing on the hill, surrounded by enemies and betrayed by allies, making his last stand. It would become the version of Custer that most people would become familiar with, whether they agreed with it or not.

Yet oddly this wouldn’t be the only doppelganger to come to life in the realm of the screen.

The first embryonic version of a less noble Custer came in the form of Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday in the 1948 film Fort Apache. While not actually playing Custer, actor Henry Fonda portrays a character whose overconfidence and arrogance eventually leads his command into a massacre very much like that of Little Big Horn. But the full iteration of this new Custer would come in later films like Little Big Man (1970), The French/Italian farce Don’t Touch the White Woman! (1974), the alternately-historical The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1977), and A Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian (2009). Custer was now a bumbling fool at best or a murderously insane madman at worst. The nadir of this version of Custer came in the 1990s TV series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman where Custer was a brutal sadist who was a threat to friend and enemy alike. Custer the Hero still exists but now he has to share space with Custer the Villain and Custer the Buffoon.

Yet these doppelgangers — the noble hero and the bumbling killer — actually say more about us, the writers and the audience, than the real man. In the time since Little Big Horn society has changed. Attitudes towards Native Americans, tastes in entertainment, and the Custer2tendency to deconstruct heroes rather than build them all conspire to change how we view historical figures. It’s no longer popular to portray a General of an aggressive, expanding power — as the United States was in the 1800s — as a heroic figure (and even that sentence alone could likely cause heated debate).

And this is why movies and television are important when it comes to understanding heroes. They are our collective unconscious where our dreams and fears are given form. Our concepts of morality and nobility are played out. Frozen moments, like insects trapped in amber, that tell us what the world was like when they were made. They tell us what was important to those making them whether we agree with them or not. Modern sensibilities cannot alter them. Films and television may be suppressed, “re-imagined”, or edited but something of the tales will remain. We may not always like what we see in these shadows on screen but it is important that we see them for what they are and learn from them.

And maybe be aware of what we’re leaving behind, for today’s on-screen heroes can become tomorrow’s villains.

   – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The author, Jesse Schultz, is looking forward to seeing the fictionalized versions of his life.

The Grinch: A Villain Makes a Hero’s Journey

tumblr_lwoa32M1pW1qcyr71By Suzanne Lucero

Around this time of year a person might find his or her thoughts turning to a well-known literary character whose ultimate redemption holds hope for even the most hard-hearted of individuals.

I am speaking, of course, of the Grinch.

In the first sentence of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (by Dr. Seuss), we are introduced to the villain of the piece.

Every Who

Down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot …

But the Grinch,

Who lived just north of Who-ville,

Did NOT.

That’s terrible, we think. Who doesn’t like Christmas? A few sentences later, though, we are given the probable reason for the Grinch’s dislike. His heart, you see, is two sizes too small. Suddenly, the Grinch is a tiny bit sympathetic, and we sort-of understand when he declares,

“Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!

“I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!

… But, HOW?”’

This is the inciting incident. The Grinch thinks Christmas means noisy toys and feasting and singing, so how does he stop all this from happening? The Grinch comes up with a plan, a “great, grinchy trick,” and puts it into action. In other words, his journey begins.

He begins by making a Santa Clause hat and coat. (He foregoes the snowy-white beard, though. Maybe it itches.) Then he decides grinch+with+doghe needs a reindeer to complete his St. Nick impersonation. For this he enlists his tiny dog, Max. The Grinch ties a horn on top of Max’s head, thereby changing the dog from a mere pet to a minion: Max will be aiding the Grinch by pulling his sled.

The plan starts well. The Grinch has Max pull the sled into Who-ville and proceeds to steal everything from the first house he sees. The only obstacle that presents itself to the Grinch comes in the shape of a child who has woken up to get a glass of water. When she asks why he is taking the Christmas tree, he placates her with a lie and sends her back to bed. The Grinch continues to ransack the village until all the presents, all the decorations, and all the food for the feast is packed into bags, loaded precariously on the sled, and pulled:

Three thousand feet up! Up the side of Mt. Crumpet,

He rode with his load to the tiptop to dump it.

(You’ve really got to be feeling sorry for Max at this point.)

The Grinch gloats. He’s won! Christmas can’t come, now. Everything is gone and the Whos will all be crying. He pauses to savor his victory and puts his hand to his ear to listen.

And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.

It started in low. Then it started to grow…

But the sound wasn’t sad!

Why, this sound sounded merry!

It couldn’t be so!

But it WAS merry! VERY!

In the hero’s journey, there comes a point where he or she must “enter the cave.” This is the ultimate low point in the story. The hero is alone, either physically or emotionally. Everything he or she has been working for is crumbling and the antagonist has triumphed; the hero is, actually or metaphorically, dead.

This is the Grinch’s cave. This is where he realizes he’s failed.

 He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming.


Somehow or other, it came just the same.

But How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a hero’s journey, not a morality tale. For all villains, unless they are true psychopaths (which is a medical condition), the cave offers a final chance to redeem themselves. When their defenses have been beaten and they are no longer fighting but only trying to understand why they failed, their hearts can be touched with a little thing called grace.

Then the Grinch though of something he hadn’t before!

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

“Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”

That was the elixir the Grinch found in his cave, the piece of him that was missing. He realized that material things don’t bring happiness. Simply being together with those we love is reason enough to sing.

the_grinch_cut_the_first_roast_beast_by_rhetoric_of_sushi-d4jyzdfAnd what happened then …?

Well … in Who-ville they say

That the Grinch’s small heart

Grew three sizes that day.

With this new understanding and (we hope) love in his heart, the Grinch completes his hero’s journey by returning everything he has taken from the Whos and sharing in their celebratory feast.

Merry Christmas everyone.

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Suzanne Lucero is a wife, mother, and pre-published author who knows a little about a lot of things and is constantly learning more. She is passionate about writing and is determined to publish her novel-in-progress within 5 years.



Clarice Starling as a Prototypical Hero

By Paige Delsa

Amongst the countless heroes who’ve graced the silver screen, few have had both the charisma and ability to captivate an audience like FBI trainee Clarice Starling. Aided by the imprisoned, cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Jon Demme’s psychological thriller Silence of the Lambs explores in gripping detail Starling’s attempts to capture serial killer Buffalo Bill.

Starling exceptionally displays her prowess as a hero, guided by Lecter, and establishes herself as a prototype for not only FBI agents to aspire to, but also other film protagonists. Starling is immediately presented as an underdog of sorts, operating as both a student and a woman in the male-dominated FBI. This status as an underdog does little to limit her desire to succeed and overcome her past trauma. If anything, this status amplifies her exceptional actions.

As a trainee, Starling perpetually exists in a vulnerable state due to her inexperience and lack of agency. Starling, after being approached by FBI Agent Jack Crawford, attempts to receive Lecter’s help in profiling Buffalo Bill, another prolific serial killer. Though just a trainee, she manages to impress the psychopathic, highly intelligent Lecter with her honesty and strength despite her discomfort around the now disgraced psychiatrist.

We see the first glimpse of Starling’s heroic capabilities in her interaction with Lecter; the courage and selflessness it took to honestly engage with the amoral man would again appear in her confrontation with Buffalo Bill. Starling’s actions apprehending Buffalo Bill display exceptionality in both the courage and the general selflessness involved in resolving the precarious situation. Completing an action that is not only morally good but also exceptional is one of the core tenets of heroism.

After accidentally identifying Jame Gumb as Buffalo Bill, even before her amply resourced colleagues at the FBI, she engages in a heated confrontation with both her life and the life of the girl hidden at the bottom of Gumb’s basement on the line. In only a few short minutes, Starling displays immediately recognizable attributes of heroism, namely intelligence, strength, shrewdness, resilience, courage, and selflessness.

It would be in gross neglect to delve into Starling’s heroic performance without mentioning her foil, the distinguished Hannibal Lecter. The characters’ existences are inextricably linked to one another. Lecter, more so than Buffalo Bill, acted as a cultivator and amplifier of Starling’s heroic capabilities by provoking one of the most recognizable and crucial elements of heroism: transformation.

When she first appears before Lecter, Starling was no more than a scared little girl wearing the guise of a full-grown woman. Her traumas haunted her waking hours and nightmares, motivating her to succeed in law enforcement, but leaving her with a perpetual uncertainty in herself. With his pointed questions into her macabre childhood, Lecter strips away Starling’s protective exterior and forces her to confront the traumas of her youth.

In finding and killing Gumb, Starling resolves the primary conflict of the film and fully actualizes her status as a hero. Without Lecter, Starling wouldn’t have transformed into a fully fleshed hero, capable of successfully hunting Buffalo Bill and addressing her traumas. It’s tempting to think the best or most heroic characters are perfect in their strength, intelligence, beauty, ability to lead, and any other traits commonly associated with heroes.

Clarice Starling is not perfect. She is scared. She is traumatized. She is weaker physically than Jame Gumb and lacks Hannibal Lecter’s sharp wit. But these traits, these imperfections do not take away Starling’s status as a hero. Rather, they elevate her to the upper echelon of cinematic heroes. Her imperfections make her accomplishments all the more extraordinary and let the audience engage deeply with her. She is like us. She is imperfect and pained but capable of great strength.

Bringing down Gumb and enticing Lecter to assist her manhunt displayed the elements of courage and morality fundamentally necessary to distinguish oneself as a hero. Starling has transcended the mere classification of protagonist, proving she deserves to be called “hero.”

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Paige Delsa is an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond.  She is enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes & Villains course and composed this essay as part of her course requirement