The Psychology of Maleficent: A Lesson on Reclaiming the Self

Drea Letamendi
Movies Fantasy
Movies Fantasy Disney

With Angelina Jolie returning in the sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, opening this week, clinical expert Dr. Andrea Letamendi is taking a look back at the character’s history, as seen in the first film, and how it depicts reclaiming the self to recover from assaultive trauma.


In the film, Maleficent (2014), we’re introduced to a young, vibrant fairy who carries herself with a sense of confidence, a strong curiosity, and a positive outlook. We learn that this young fairy is Maleficent, an orphan who lives in the magical realm known as the Moors. She is easily respected by other creatures of the Moors, and her temperament is quite adaptable. As a healthy adolescent, Maleficent demonstrates high approachability; she enthusiastically welcomes and approaches new situations and people with curiosity and trust. She is known by nearly every creature in the forest. She uses her power for healing, and has a genuine interest in creating and restoring harmony in the ecosystem. In fact, young Maleficent sees herself as an instrumental part of that balance.

As the story of Maleficent’s origin unfolds, we learn of a human peasant boy named Stefan, who stumbles into the forest. He explains to Maleficent that his parents are dead, and she can relate to his loss: Her parents died when she was young, too. They form a strong friendship, one that bridges the longstanding hatred between men and fairies. On Maleficent’s sixteenth birthday, their relationship strengthens into a meaningful romantic bond. They fall in love. Sadly, though Stefan’s love for Maleficent is pure, it is eventually overshadowed by his emerging ambition. Despite spending years together, the two grow apart, and Stefan abandons Maleficent for the temptations of the human realm. He grows interested in ruling the kingdom, and joins King Henry’s rule. Meanwhile, Maleficent becomes the trusted protector of the Moors. She proves to be a successful steward when King Henry tries to trespass and conquer the magical forests, and in her defense of her domain, Maleficent mortally wounds him and forces him to retreat. Maleficent is not unreasonably violent or malicious. She proudly advocates for the preservation of her lands, and honors the fundamental values of harmony, guardianship, and sovereignty. Later, as he lies dying, the King boldly declares that whoever kills Maleficent will be named his successor and marry his daughter, Leila.

How Betrayal Becomes Trauma

After many years, Maleficent and Stefan are reunited in the Moors. Despite rekindling their emotional bond, Stefan’s plan all along was to reconnect with Maleficent in order to fulfill King Henry’s proposition. When nightfall comes, he drugs her. It seems as if he has a moment of regret, and instead of killing Maleficent, he cuts off her wings, abandons the unconscious Maleficent, and takes the “evidence” of the fairy’s death to the King. She awakens, several hours later, to the shock and personal horror of being stripped of her wings. The physical rupture leaves her helpless on the forest floor, and she will never be the same after this point.

Cutting off Maleficent’s wings is both a physical and personal violation. Maleficent’s response to this trauma is understandable— a part of her body was ripped from her and stolen. She is initially in shock and disbelief. Stefan’s action is not only a betrayal by someone she thought loved her, an irreparable injury, but it is also a physical assault. Stefan’s actions also represents a forced disruption in Maleficent’s personhood. Her wings represent her identity as a fairy—as a steward who heals and protects—but her wings also gave her a sense of freedom. She used her wings to oversee, survey, and guard the Moors. Her wings were her function in the world as she understood it. This assaultive trauma, therefore, took away her sense of purpose. As such, Maleficent later develops long-term symptoms of a traumatic disorder: With her purpose dishonored and her body disfigured, she is withdrawn, numb, angry and irritable. But it is more than an emotional shift. Her worldview has changed significantly, as is often the case following interpersonal trauma. In order to make sense of the violation, she “rationalizes” the event as something she must have “allowed” or introduced. As a form of self-blame, she construes the betrayal as something she is responsible for. Toxic shame settles in. She feels defective. Broken. Her new, self-written narrative reads: “I let my guard down and allowed someone in; due to my own carelessness and stupidity, I’m now ruined.” Her transformation is one of self-protection andof self-fulfillment of this new narrative. She turns the Moors into a dark kingdom – she casts a gloomy shadow over all of its creatures and beings. Instead of seeing herself as a healer of the Moors, as a connecting light and energy among the creatures around her, she sees herself as a destructive ruler, a seeker of betrayal, enemy to man. She becomes the villain that she now sees in herself.

Retreat and Fear of Closeness

The experience of trauma does not necessarily lead to significant mental health conditions or impairment – in fact, nearly 90% of people who experience a traumatic or life-threatening event recover fully. But context matters. Specifically, the type of trauma as well as the number of traumatic events serve as varying predictors for more serious mental health outcomes. Certainly, losing her parents during childhood was a personal loss for Maleficent, but the support, harmony, and “family” of the forest protected her from descending into the depths of despair. We all carry a threshold, however. Maleficent’s childhood adversity may have created a vulnerability for future risk in terms of delaying “bounce back” after the next traumatic experience. Furthermore, intimate interpersonal trauma (the kind of trauma that occurs “at the hands of another” such as sexual assault, physical, or emotional abuse) is more impactful than non-assault based trauma; persons who have experienced these types of traumas are more likely to develop mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as compared to people who experience natural disasters or accidents. Finally, the relationship that a person had with their perpetrator prior to the assaultive trauma also significantly impacts the frequency and intensity of distress that is likely to follow. Generally speaking, the closer the survivor was with the person who committed the assault, the more likely they will experience long-term negative impacts.

The shifting of the survivor’s perspective around relationships following an assaultive trauma is also highly likely; concepts of trust, interdependence, and acceptance require a degree of vulnerability that the wounded self finds too hard to bear as they navigate new relationships. Because the abuse or violation was so painful, Maleficent had no choice but to dissociate. Her numbing may involve disconnection from the body, her emotions, and other people. Like her wings, she is severed from all others. She hides herself from her passion, her aliveness, and the ability to be vulnerable. This protectiveness is actually a part of a normal coping response. The result, however, is an unimaginable emptiness that keeps Maleficent from growing, learning, or adapting. She experiences her social environment as unsafe and unpredictable, due to the potential of human threat. In this case, Maleficent generalizes her resentment of one human to allhumans. The culmination of these feelings lead her to choose a path of destruction, one that she will regret.

The Curse

After some time passes, Maleficent learns through her crow-servant, Diaval, that Stefan –now serving as King of man’s realm—is hosting a christening for his newborn daughter, Aurora. Maleficent arrives to the event uninvited and places a curse on the infant princess. On her 16th birthday, Maleficent warns, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep from which she will never awaken. The only antidote, Maleficent adds, is true love. “The curse can only be broken by true love’s kiss.” Maleficent, of course, now believes that true love is nonexistent. The curse she places on Aurora is a mirror of her own wish-fulfillment. She had buried her betrayal trauma without processing it, and thus relates to the world through a lens of grudge and suspicions. She accesses the cold, cynical parts of herself to enact revenge on Stefan, while also wishing the same loneliness and loss upon his daughter.

Fearing for his daughter’s safety, Stefan sends baby Aurora to live with three pixies—Knotgrass, Thistlewit, and Flittle—until the day after her 16th birthday. Meanwhile, Maleficent surrounds the Moors with an impenetrable wall of thorns—a harsh representation of her state of emotions. However, Maleficent is particularly tuned in to the infant’s needs and development. Seeing the incompetence of the three pixies as proper caregivers, Maleficent shrewdly steps in to provide safety, growth, and even love for young Aurora. It is almost natural for her to form an interest in Aurora’s well-being, the first time in a long while that we see Maleficent’s sense of commitment to nature. In this, we see that Maleficent still has sense of humor, a propensity for magic, and a passion for the realm of fantasy. She delights in playing harmless tricks on the three pixies. In one dangerous moment, a young Aurora wanders toward the edge of a large cliff. “The little beastie is about to fall off,” Maleficent notes to herself. She watches intently as Aurora stumbles off the edge toward her death, but by reforming the branches along the cliff’s ridge, Maleficent inconspicuously saves her life. As she grows, Aurora also shows some traits very similar to Maleficent. She carries herself with innocence, curiosity, and a respect toward nature.

Reclaiming and Integrating the Self

As Aurora emerges into young teenhood, she and Maleficent spend quality time together with the enchanted beasts of the Moors. Aurora begins to call Maleficent her “fairy godmother,” and is somehow unable to see any evil in her. In turn, Maleficent mentors Aurora through the lens of a caregiver, not a villain. In many ways, Maleficent is experimenting with interpersonal closeness in a somewhat of a trial. With Aurora, she is beginning to explore vulnerable but rewarding feelings of a trusting bond, care, and mutual protection. Here, she is caught between the intense need for kinship and an extreme fear of contact. She is learning to experience connection with a human as enriching rather than threatening. These steps are essential to her healing—she is taking emotional risks despite the knowledge that she will eventually lose Aurora, too. Sadly, Maleficent tries to revoke the curse on Aurora, but learns she cannot undo it. Aurora insists they look after each other, and she wants to live with Maleficent in the Moors. Maleficent, thus, begins to rewrite her narrative again. Aurora asks her about her wings, and Maleficent proudly remarks, “they were so big that they dragged behind me.” She acknowledges that her internal power and caregiving qualities still live within her. Though it is incremental and gradual, Maleficent’s healing takes place in the context of her relationship with Aurora. It is put to the test when Aurora falls under the forecasted spell and pricks her finger on a spinning wheel at the King’s castle. She falls into a deep sleep, as the curse predicted, and is unable to be awoken, even after being kissed by an interested suitor, Prince Philip. At Aurora’s bedside, Maleficent apologizes for her wrongdoings, and places a kindhearted, gentle kiss on her forehead. Aurora awakens, due to Maleficent’s motherly feelings toward her.

Reuniting with her wings is another moment of healing for Maleficent. Certainly, having the capacity to fly and fight allows her to effectively defeat King Stefan’s soldiers and escape with Aurora. Symbolically, being “whole” again is psychologically restorative; the integration of her conceptual selves is key to her trauma recovery.  Maleficent re-establishes a sense of internal safety—forming new relationships with her whole self despite the risks that are involved. But she also develops a reconnection with her former qualities, values, and passions. The feelings she has for Aurora reignite her purpose as a caregiver and protector of the creatures of her realm.  She can only achieve this balance by accepting her wrongdoings and mistakes. Maleficent’s capacity for evil ran deep, and she must acknowledge that although she is not one and the same with her trauma, she yet must have ownership of her own wickedness. As such, she must live with the tension of knowing what lives inside of her, and that one day the curse can return to haunt her.

Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She co-hosts "The Arkham Sessions," a podcast dedicated to the psychology of Batman.