I’ve been thinking a lot about this trope since I first saw the idea raised on Twitter as the male equivalent to the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Firstly because ohmygod, this trope seems to describe a stupid amount of all the fictional characters I’ve ever loved, IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH ME? And secondly, because it is genuinely interesting to consider.
Having thought on it, I would define the Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy as a male character who is destructive, morally flawed and deeply emotionally damaged; men who lash out and seek to destroy, murder and/or conquer because they do not feel loved or acknowledged – usually as a result of childhood trauma/neglect.
There’s usually a vulnerability to the character, even if they commit heinous acts. They are rarely just evil for the sake of evil – they’ve been through some shit and have come out of it in a very bad way. Without a proper emotional outlet or support, they unleash their pain and frustration through violent acts and often behind a persona that (mostly) masks their true vulnerability. Like all ‘bad guys’, they also feel in some way justified in their actions.
It’s the tragic back stories that create the kind of empathy in audiences that is critical to defining the trope. The Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy is a troubled, often ‘villainous’ character that you may find yourself rooting for, because despite their obvious flaws and lack of moral judgement, there is the feeling that they could be “fixed” – if only they were to change their attitude or find a different path. Redemption isn’t always on the cards and often, because they are so regularly pitched as the main antagonist of a story, they end up meeting grisly ends deserving of their crimes. But in some cases, the Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy can redeem himself – either by noble sacrifice in death (therefore eliminating his own toxic output from the world) or by actively choosing a better path and seeking forgiveness.
Often (but not always), these men will also seek out or find themselves attracted to a ‘pure’ partner with better, more desirable morals to join them in their destructive plots and/or save them from themselves. Generally, any romantic overtures they attempt to make come across as toxic or manipulative – often because they are blinded by their goals and are unable to communicate any of their true feelings in a healthy manner.
They also have a tendency to brood. A lot. Depressive Demon Nightmare Boys are damaged, but hot – which is probably why they tend to attract certain viewers (like me).
Here are a few examples of Depressive Demon Nightmare Boys in film that I have both enjoyed and thought about in the context of the trope. Television is also rife with DDNBs (Spike and Angel, Kilgrave, etc) but I decided to limit myself to film and these three for now.
I should also mention that the definition I’m working with seems to pertain to a particularly dramatic set of DDNBs – especially since two of them exist in fantasy franchises. I’m sure there is a place for more moderate DDNBs, but it’s not here! Not yet! Welcome aboard the male angst train, folks. I’ve tried not to sound like too much of a villain apologist, but I think understanding where the DDNB is coming from (even if all their subsequent choices are crappy) is integral to the trope itself. I’ve also tried to condense as best I can, but honestly I could write entire essays on these guys.
EDITED NOTE: Yes, the DDNB isn’t far off from a Byronic hero. All these examples have Byronic elements, for sure. But I find the term DDNB just a little more telling of certain aspects of that type. I’m under no illusions that this is brand new territory I’m stepping on, I promise you.
- Kylo Ren/Ben Solo in Star Wars: Episodes VII – IX (2015 – Present)
Kylo Ren is the archetypal Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy, steeped in conflict, denial and deep personal anguish. Thanks to a meticulously complex performance by Adam Driver, Kylo Ren has become an antagonist of genuine intrigue. His origins as the boy formerly known as Ben Solo inform (and often hinder) his current role as Supreme Leader of the First Order.
By all accounts, as the son of rebellion heroes Leia Organa and Han Solo, Ben Solo should have had it made. However, as we have already discovered midway through this latest trilogy, his early years were marked with trauma and difficulty. Not only were his parents neglectful (with Leia pre-occupied by the rebuilding of the Senate and Han Solo being, well, Han Solo), he was also groomed by his eventual master Snoke – who began to whisper doubts and promises to him through the Force from a very early age.
What really did it though, was when he awoke to what he (understandably) assumed to be the ultimate betrayal from his master/uncle Luke. Geared by Snoke’s promises and the feeling that his family had abandoned him for fear he would turn out like his Grandfather (a connection he only learnt of later in life, via public announcement from one of Leia’s political rivals), he destroyed Luke’s temple, killed fellow padawans and established a new identity – complete with a mask to hide all his pain behind.
While his harrowed upbringing doesn’t excuse his later crimes (he murders his father, callously kills innocents, tortures people and stands idly by when Starkiller Base destroys an entire system), it does lend a certain understanding to why he feels justified in his mission to “let the past die”. Unable to reconcile or forgive his family for their various indiscretions, he seeks to obliterate all ties to them, not only by discarding his birth name, but also by seeking to destroy the Resistance and the Jedi because of their meaningful affiliations to Leia and Luke. Through Snoke’s influence, this has also been warped into a ploy for power and ultimate galactic domination. Only by “finishing what [Vader] started” does Ben Solo believe he will find peace from the past that haunts him.
Despite his resentment and anguish however, there is still light in Kylo Ren – a fact acknowledged not only by himself but also by Snoke (“you have too much of your Father’s heart in you, young Solo”) and later Rey, who goes so far as to ship herself off to his mercy in a naive attempt to turn him. When he kills Snoke and fights against the Praetorian guard, Rey assumes that he has become her ally for good – however, in a tantalisingly murky move for the next instalment, Kylo instead petitions her to join him in creating a new order. Were he a more straight-forward villain, you could argue that this was his plan all along – to manipulate Rey through the Force bond and create an opportunity to usurp Snoke in the process. But being a Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy, it’s not so simple. Instead, his petition to Rey comes across as more of a desperate, ill-prepared plea, complete with problematic reasoning (“you come from nothing, you’re nothing… but not to me”), yearning hand offering and that painfully vulnerable little “please“.
It’s hard to tell whether or not Ben Solo will be redeemed in the final episode, either in death (like his Grandfather before him) or through his emotionally weighted connection to Rey, but the fact that it is possible within the story so far is telling of his status as a Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy. That little spark of light is enough to convince us that maybe, just maybe, he might not succumb to the dark side entirely.
2. Jason “J.D. Dean in Heathers (1989)
Unlike my dear emotionally stunted Kylo (who, bless his heart, hasn’t quite inherited his scoundrel Dad’s ability to charm), there are Depressive Demon Nightmare Boys who appear incredibly charismatic on the surface. Such is the case with Christian Slater’s character in Heathers.
J.D. enters Westerburg High with a cool, unaffected swagger that intrigues Veronica Sawyer immediately. Even though he shows a few warning signs early on, such as a propensity for violence (by pulling an unloaded gun on two assholes in school), casual stalking (turning up at Veronica’s window uninvited) and a desire to kill (“Heather Chandler is one bitch who deserves to die”), Veronica is initially blinded by his flirty “greetings and salutations” and promises of cherry slushies and strip croquet.
Even as he ropes her in to his increasingly daring “suicide” plots (by manipulating her with casual lies – “ich luge bullets” – and seemingly rational solutions), it takes Veronica some time to see past his effortlessly cool façade and realise the weight and implications of their actions. When she finally breaks free from his hold, he begins to lash out in increasingly manic ways, desperate to get her back and resume his plot to send his “fuck you all” message to society. He even goes so far as to threaten to kill her himself.
But as he pitifully reveals in the film’s climax (and as is also hinted to in the fucked-up interactions with his Dad), his need to kill stems from a deep sense of loneliness, depressed apathy for his situation of moving from school to school and the feeling that “nobody loves me.” The loss of his Mother, who seemingly killed herself on one of his Father’s deranged demolition sites, has traumatised him in such a way that his only way of dealing with it is to externalise and take his anger out on his peers. As with Kylo Ren, there is a backlog of family dysfunction and trauma that has abetted J.D’s evolution as a Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy.
His Depressive Demon Nightmare reign is eventually curbed when Veronica prevents him from blowing up the school. Resigned to the fact that his plot has failed, but still acutely focused on putting an end to his own misery, he blows himself up. Despite the explosive nature of his demise, he doesn’t go out with the bang that he had hoped for – alongside peers he never really belonged to – but with the whimper of a boy in turmoil.
3. Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2011- 2018)
There’s a reason Loki is the most popular villain in the MCU – and it’s because of all the Avengers’ nemeses, he is perhaps the most three-dimensional. Raised as the lesser, younger son of Odin, Loki had a bee in his spectacularly horned bonnet early on. His lust for power – and more specifically the Asgardian throne – may seem megalomaniacal on the surface, but it seems to stem from feelings of not truly belonging – in either the family or the realm that he so desires to call his own.
The revelation that he is in fact the son of Laufey, the frost giant king of Jotunheim and sworn enemy of Odin, was a tough blow that clearly sent Loki into something of an identity crisis. Being “the monster that parents tell their children about at night” is no easy thing to come to grips with, but the revelation also managed to add more fuel to Loki’s burning resentment towards Thor as the mighty “favoured” son.
More than anything, Loki wants to belong and sit in a place of power that he believes he has earned through loyalty – but being a Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy, he seeks to take it using violent, treacherous means. True to the Demon Nightmare aspects of the trope, Loki kills, manipulates and conspires in his various plots to reign over Asgard and beat Thor. “Mischief” seems too jovial a connotation to associate with a man so emotionally fraught, but he sometimes uses his trickery as a smoke screen (as in the scene following Frigga’s death in The Dark World) to guard the ugliness of his true anguish.
Despite his many sins and betrayals, Loki is one of the few members of this trope who manages to redeem himself. By the time of his death at the hands of Thanos, Loki had finally come to terms with his heritage, both as Odin’s son and Laufey’s heir – accepting his true identity as a frost giant as well as his place among Odin’s family.
As I see it, all three of these characters fit the trope of Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy. They have all experienced trauma, held resentment for some aspect of their upbringing, lashed out violently and hidden their more vulnerable feelings behind a persona. The fact that they are each popular (and more crucially, sympathised with) among their respective fan bases is also a testament to the complex construction of their characters.
While the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is often regarded as something of a joke, detrimental to the crafting of real, respectable female characters, the Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy offers up an interesting perspective on toxic masculinity and how it can translate real pain, anguish and trauma into acts of violence, destruction and chaos.
Discussions and suggestions on other DDNBs in film and TV are welcome in the comments!