“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
—The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene 2)
The characters and stories of Hellboy are deeply steeped in the occult, and both comics and movies draw heavily from occult lore for their internal mythology. Even just the physical appearance of our eponymous hero has all the stereotypical features of a demon or devil, complete with red skin, horns and a tail.
The occult, moreover, is filled with ideas and beliefs about destiny. Astrology, numerology, tarot, psychic readings and all manners and forms of divination abound. For the moment, I won’t comment about how true I think these things are or whether I think they have any value or not as that goes beyond the scope of this post. I will assert one thing, however, which is that believing in destiny is one of the most disempowering beliefs you can have.
Of course, it largely depends on exactly how you use and interpret this word, “destiny.” Here, I’m using the word in two related ways: (1) A kind of supernatural belief in a predestined fate for either good or bad. (2) A more mundane belief that simply due to your past, background or circumstances, your future is already laid out.
To believe in either of these is to undermine your own power. If you truly want to live an empowered life, as empowered as Hellboy himself even, then as difficult as it may be, you have to claim the power and responsibility of choice.
Using Hellboy, the first movie, as my main source, I’m going to argue why the Hellboy mythology, even as it appropriates and uses occult imagery and language, is ultimately about the powerlessness of any kind of destiny or predetermination in the face of bold, human decision and choice.
There are never any good excuses for living badly, and I mean “badly” in a broad sense. It could mean living with a lack of wisdom, maturity, responsibility or considerateness towards others – failing to live under the golden rule “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”
There are certain factors that might make negative actions understandable, but they are still never good excuses. “Understandable” and “acceptable” are two different things.
Let’s look at the three most commonly used excuses for failing to live in the highest, most positive way possible, whether it has to do with fulfilling your talents and potential or living with a strong sense of ethics and morality:
1. Bad environment or experience
2. Bad genes
3. Bad astrological chart / tarot cards / psychic reading / prophecy or anything like that
1 and 2 are real, objective phenomena and the things in 3, in my view, aren’t (though that doesn’t mean I don’t think they have any value). Nevertheless, what I do think is interesting about the things in 3 is that they essentially just symbolize both 1 and 2. Here’s why I think so.
Although astrology gets lambasted by skeptics as a load of hogwash, I believe that in ancient times many of the people who practiced certain occult arts had sincere intentions and were often very intelligent people with deep-seated intuition. They were simply trying to systemize and codify certain social and psychological patterns that they intuitively sensed but could not explain in any scientific terms. Therefore, their brains, being very creative, imaginative and clever, invented symbolic systems that did not rationally explain but rather symbolically expressed these social and psychological patterns.
Methods of divination were therefore forms of expressive art and, at their best – not always but sometimes – were primitive yet systematic and even occasionally accurate forms of psychoanalysis.
The Bad Seed
Now let’s go back to Hellboy. What could possibly be a worse kind of (1) bad environment, (2) bad genetic predisposition and (3) bad astrological chart, literally, than being born in hell as a demon? Talk about being a bad seed.
Granted, as a child he was found and adopted by the kind, wise Dr. Trevor Bruttenholm who, to the best of his ability, raised him to be a man/demon of conscience, so he did have quite a bit of positive nurturing going for him. Still, by no means was it an easy childhood. Can you imagine growing up in constant hiding for fear of being tormented, condemned, and even hunted down by humans (like the mutants of the X-Men)?
And how could you have worse genes than the combined genes of a witch and a demon prince? Remember, all these fantasy elements are symbols of our banal reality, so to be born in hell with a witch and a demon as your parents could translate, as an extreme example, to something like being born in a crack house with a pimp and a prostitute as your parents or whatever other awful scenario you can imagine.
Ah, yes, then there’s his astrological chart – his “destiny.” Within the occult mythology of these stories, Hellboy’s true name is Anung un Rama, the one who is literally preordained to bring about the destruction of the world by freeing ancient, Lovecraftian gods known as the Ogdru Jahad from their eons-old cosmic prison and ushering them into this world. This isn’t just a prediction; it’s a literally predetermined destiny.
Yet it does not happen. Why?
One word: choice.
Choice is the most powerful force in the universe, not prophecy, not destiny, not bad genes or traumatic experiences, not anything. Hellboy chooses to be good, to resist the darker impulses that are wired within him. Even in the face of outer condemnation and ridicule by the very people he risks his life to serve and protect (again, like the X-Men), and even when tempted to lash out, he holds on to his center of goodness.
It’s not just him. All throughout the Hellboy films and comics we see flawed, tortured “freaks” who don’t fit in or play well with others. If they wanted to, they could flaunt all the typical excuses that people who become monsters often use. One of them, a pyrokinetic named Liz with a traumatized past, nearly does become a monster (like the women in my post about Carrie and Firestarter).
But of them all, Hellboy has the heaviest cross to carry, and his own resolute, steadfast choice to be good binds and anchors his friends together and keeps them from crossing over into the dark side.
When I see actions of negative consequences – ranging from the merely annoying to the reprehensible – both in my immediate environment and in the media, and then hear all the different kinds of excuses being thrown about, either by the people who did those actions or by their observers, I can never accept those excuses. I might understand and empathize with them but I can never accept them.
So your genes and your past put you at a disadvantage. So what? So do mine. Screw it. You have to be the better person, to rise above the sordid gutter of your past, to transcend adversity, to replace fatalistic beliefs in destiny or fate with the belief that life does not throw anything at you that you cannot handle with dignity and grace.
In the movie, Dr. Bruttenholm says, “In the absence of light, darkness prevails.” What he’s really talking about is none other than knowledge and wisdom versus ignorance. If you don’t know or understand that the power of conscious choice trumps any other influencing factor in your life, then you are living in darkness, and when you stumble and fall you blame it on the darkness.
But turning on the light is as simple as making a choice, and the truth is the only one who determines every outcome in your life is you. This has been shown time and again throughout history by remarkable individuals who rose above their past and origins and did kind and wonderful things. Or likewise by individuals who had everything going for them and seemed destined for greatness and yet fell into darkness, squalor and despair.
Take it from Hellboy. Your origins, however humble or dark, don’t matter. The past doesn’t matter. Even your genes, when it comes down to it, don’t matter. Only your decisions and choices matter.
In Absentia Lucis, Tenebrae Vincunt.