Grief, Storytelling, and WandaVision: The Psychology of the Scarlet Witch

Drea Letamendi
TV Movies
TV Movies Comics Streaming Marvel

Note: FULL SPOILERS for WandaVision follow. 

With WandaVision having completed its nine-episode run, Fandom reached out to clinical psychologist Dr. Drea Letamendi to provide an in-depth psychological profile for one of the MCU’s most powerful — and often most tragic — characters. Read on to learn much more about what motivates the Scarlet Witch herself, Wanda Maximoff.

Meet Wanda

Wanda Maximoff, also known as the Scarlet Witch, is an extremely powerful Avenger with an extraordinary history of battle wounds. Due to the range and strength of her superpowers, Wanda is remarkably formidable, even compared to other enhanced superheroes and villains. Her powers include neuroelectric interfacing (reading thoughts and inserting frightful alter-perceptions into the minds her foes), telekinesis (lifting and throwing objects with her mind), levitation (moving her body through space with controlled steadiness), and psionic projection (casting scorching, deadly energy blasts). It is believed that Wanda has not yet fully harnessed all of her abilities and that her most potent mystical powers—derived from Chaos Magic—may yet be realized.

Wanda is emotionally complex, which is likely the result of how she developed her powers. She was born with innate magical abilities that are triggered and heightened during times of stress—and she has sustained a great deal of stress-inducing adversity in her life. As such, Wanda often experiences numerous feeling states at once (such as fear, anger, confusion, and sadness), but works hard to appear stoic and steadfast. In control. When provoked, however, Wanda can reveal an intense, unresolved anguish that exists deep within her psyche, casting a cataclysmic, unstable explosion of deadly psionic waves around her. Of course, this reaction is often interpreted as aggressive by others, and ultimately results in her feeling detached and isolated. Wanda’s powers and emotions are interrelated, woven together as if one fuels the other.

Notably, Wanda endured a range of painful losses starting very early in life, which has included facing exposure to warfare and civil unrest in her community, witnessing the death of her parents in a bombing attack, and suffering objectifying and invasive experimentations at the hands of the menacing organization known as HYDRA. As she explores her growing powers, Wanda finds solace and support from Vision, a synthetic android made sentient by the power of the Mind Stone. Both terribly powerful and misunderstood, amidst the chaos and conflicts of crises around them, Wanda and Vision fall in love with one another. For the first time in her life, Wanda experiences a sense of belongingness and acceptance.

During the Battle of Wakanda, Wanda sustains a traumatic injury like no other. She had endured trauma before; but this event is so heartbreaking, it seems to interact with the literal makeup in her DNA. Wanda is forced to kill the love of her life, to protect those Thanos would see unmade; then, must watch in horror, as Thanos reverses time only to brutally rip the Mind Stone from Vision’s head; killing him—again.

Upon her return to the world from “the snap,” still devastated, Wanda seeks mental refuge. Her overwhelming grief leads her to cast a massive mind-control hex over an entire suburb called Westview. There, she creates the illusion of everlasting happiness: To the viewer, Wanda and Vision are married and live their lives like episodes from nostalgic sitcoms from the 1950s, 60s, and beyond. Safe, content, and together.

Vision’s murder may have triggered a massive neuroelectric response in Wanda, resulting in a large-scale release of emotionally-fueled energy.  This overpowering energy had nowhere to settle or stabilize, and becomes the blueprint for an island of protection. The horrors of this island, however, are more frightening and brutal than what created it. As we will discover, perfectionism—in this case, the pursuit of a perfect life—can be the result of traumatic grief. In a world with no conflicts, no setbacks, no losses, Wanda can remain safe and avoid the terrible pain living in her heart. As it turns out, building a world that shelters us from any pain is hard, exhausting work.

Trapped by Fear

When she first arrives in Westview, New Jersey, Wanda discovers that Vision had purchased a lot for them to build a house and live together. Arriving at the site to discover this dream unrealized, Wanda is overcome by grief, dropping to her knees from the weight of the terrorizing reality, and processing the true meaning of Vision’s death. He is gone forever. They will never have the life they dreamed about. Her anguish unleashes a massive energy field miles-wide, and materializes an alternate reality around her, transforming the entire town of Westview and possessing each townsperson to play a part in the daily performances of impermeable happiness. Wanda also conjures a house to live in, a life-like version of Vision, and, eventually, two little boys, Billy and Tommy, to raise together.

It is said that trauma has cumulative effects. “Complex Trauma” refers to early childhood exposure to multiple traumatic events—often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure. In most instances, these adverse experiences “add up” and lead to weakened attachments, the inability to form safe relationships, and the need for control.

At a young age, Wanda and her twin brother, Pietro, lost their parents to a bombing attack in their home country of Sokovia. One bomb instantly killed their parents—another missile landed in their home, but did not explode. The sight of the untriggered bomb terrorized Wanda and Pietro for days as they remained stuck in the rubble. Their adversity, and their ability to survive it, contributed to their resilience—these early life lessons in survival help shape Wanda and Pietro’s psychology.

Years later, to seek meaning in their lives, the twins joined the paramilitary organization known as HYDRA and agreed to undergo experiments involving the Mind Stone. HYDRA knew the twins possessed genetic oddities, making them ideal candidates for experiments to see if the stone interacted with their pre-existing enhancements. Indeed, Pietro and Wanda gained extraordinary powers following these invasive procedures: He developed super-speed and she attained psionic abilities. Though she volunteered for these invasive tests, the abuse she incurred nonetheless contributed to the pattern within her psyche about pain and power. Wanda inevitably associates her personal and extraordinary skill with trauma; she subconsciously transforms the anguish of abuse into astonishing strength. It is as if she carries the blueprints for indestructible power and just needs the right experiences to unleash it. Moreover, Pietro had always been a trusting and loving connection for Wanda, until he was shot to death by Ultron during the Battle of Sokovia.

“Pietro was dead and I was in a new country. I was all alone.”

-Wanda Maximoff

Early life trauma – also known as Adverse Childhood Events or ACEs by experts like the CDC—have been linked to substantial negative outcomes in adulthood. ACEs include experiencing violence, abuse or neglect; witnessing violence in the home or community; or suffering the instability caused by parental loss or extreme separation. Wanda, of course, was exposed to most of these categories of ACES—war, terrorism, parental loss, and abuse at a young and formative age. The “tipping point” of ACES hovers around the number 4. After that threshold, the chances of dysfunctional outcomes (including chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance abuse) increases significantly in adulthood.

“I’m never going to feel a feeling of lacking control, of being helpless or trapped by fear.”

-Wanda

Over time, ACES also perpetuate styles and patterns of thinking that are generally unhelpful and may even give way to more trauma. Following adversity, we sometimes generate beliefs about the world and others based on the nature of what is experienced. For instance, we may come to believe that most people are unsafe/will hurt us; that the world is largely vicious and victimizing; and that we are better off alone or separated from society in order to stay sheltered from harm. We also develop the belief that one more “hit” of trauma may destroy or kill us; and carry worries that we are too fragile to interact normally with other people and risk loss again. Wanda’s hex over Westview is the manifestation of the fearful beliefs she formed over the years following trauma exposure, defeat, loss, and helplessness. Westview, therefore, is nothing but a delusion of safety.

Our Avoidance of Sadness

Sadness—which can range from mild disappointment to extreme despair—is a perfectly normal negative emotion triggered by loss and other painful circumstances. And, yes, sadness is often considered a “negative” emotion, but it does serve an important role in signaling a need to receive help or comfort. Our sadness slows us down, draws our attention to what’s missing, and reminds us to process the experiences of loss or change. Indeed, there are some benefits to feeling sad. Studies show that temporary states of sadness give us moments of clarity. Sadness can improve our attention to details, the accuracy of our memory, and our ability to detect deception. Sadness also strengthens our interpersonal skills—our ability to connect and communicate well with others. Sadness can also help us with social judgement and altruism—knowing when others may be suffering and knowing when to intervene. We can see, then, how Wanda’s refusal to sit in sadness may prevent her from noticing dangers around her. Wanda’s avoidance of sadness may have kept her from noticing Agatha Harkness’s witchy presence in Westview. Wanda’s avoidance of sadness also kept her from realizing the suffering of the townspeople of Westview, and how her hex was ultimately subjugating them to cruel and horrifying treatment; being tortured every day as they’re forced to perform in Wanda’s elaborate illusion.

“I only remember feeling empty… endless nothingness.”

-Wanda

All things being said about the benefits of occasional sadness, we know the truth: the pain of sadness is undeniable. It can be too much to bear. Our natural inclination to push it away makes perfect sense. When “fake” Pietro asks Wanda how she created the simulated world overlaying Westview, she says to him, somewhat stunned, “I don’t remember how I did it. I only remember feeling completely alone. Empty.” It seems as though the moment her grief would surface to her attention, the resulting feeling of vast nothingness was intolerable.

It should also be said that we are likely influenced by various social and cultural roles to avoid feeling sad. Western society puts a huge demand on self-betterment and inborn hardiness. We are made to believe that we should recover quickly from setbacks but receive few messages about how to face and even allow sadness to be a part of our growing experience. In fact, when feelings of anguish or sorrow begin to surface, we are taught to engage in activities that pull our attention away from them (distraction); we explore and express other more acceptable emotions such as cynicism (replacement); or we completely deny the gravity of our pain to appear strong (projection).  These more acceptable reactions may explain why Wanda’s underlying psyche breaks under the pressure. With no available, healthy release, her trauma is projected across an entire town and engulfs a whole community with it.

Grieving the Things
We Never Had

Over the course of a grueling year, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken so much from us—social connections, everyday routine, the comfort of hugs, and the safety and lives of our loved ones. Another type of loss was realized during this crisis—the plans that were never actualized. But is it possible to be grieve the things we never had, just anticipated having? Is it still considered grief?

Some say, yes. Many of us counted on the joy and fulfillment that came with experiencing the milestones of life; such as attending in-person graduation ceremonies, starting a new job or internship, experiencing college life, traveling, or welcoming a baby into the family. These life experiences mark very important existential markers ranging from human connection to discovery/novelty to achievement. We aren’t just grieving the loss of everyday simple pleasures, but the milestones that have remarkable meaning for us as people. In fact, the psychological term “disconfirmed expectancy” refers to the feelings surrounding failed prophecies. According to experts, disconfirmed expectancies create a state of discomfort within us because the outcome contradicts expectancy. The bigger this gap, the more distressed we feel. Vision’s death was not only shocking and cruel for Wanda to witness; it created a cascade of future losses too unbearable for her to face.

Perfectionism
– The Self-Made Prison

Perfectionism is a personality trait; not a mental illness. Perfectionism refers to the high standards we set for ourselves; the barely reachable expectations that may have actually helped us get to where we are and become who we are, as high-achievers, artists, leaders, educators, and in other demanding roles. Perfectionism, some argue, may keep us alive; helping us stay vigilant in order to detect and survive threats. But perfectionism is harmful when it locks into trauma. As a way to thwart further damage, it can be taken to the extreme.

Perfectionism is driven primarily by internal pressures, such as the desire to avoid failure or harsh judgment. For instance, due to her initial affiliation with Ultron and her role in the destruction of Sokovia, Wanda may carry a deep fear of making mistakes. Joining the Avengers may not have resolved her feelings of guilt and remorse for the pain she caused. Wanda’s involvement in the catastrophe at Lagos, where she accidentally partially destroyed a building during combat, killing many in the process, further reinforced feelings of incompetency. Her unresolved self-doubt and guilt over the mistakes she has made has led to an unrealistic and harsh perception of herself. Perfection, then, becomes a survival strategy—it compensates for the discomforting sense of inadequacy, failure, not being “good enough.” Perfectionism is also one way to feel in control. In reconstructing Westview, for instance, Wanda is building the perfect family, perfect community, and perfect love, leaving nothing vulnerable. Westview represents Wanda’s post-traumatic perfectionism—an impossible reality created from the fears of failure, unworthiness, and low self-esteem.  Her self-criticism is the fuel that builds the details of the illusion; and is also the fabric of suffering. Though lighthearted and wholesome on the outside, Westview is rotten with rigidity and intolerance.

“I have what I want, and no one will ever take it from me again.”

-Wanda

The dark side of perfectionism is worth exploring. Someone who is fixated on perfectionism is essentially error-avoidant. And the perfectionist also imposes their maladaptive expectations on others. This God-like stance results in some anti-social qualities that we see in Wanda as she fights to protect her bubble. The violence that she turns to reveals her rigid, narcissistic conditions: No one can meet my standards. I’m disappointed easily. I will not surrender the role of the creator. She controls every outcome.

 “Your grief is poisoning us.”

-Sharon Davis/Mrs. Hart

Finally, maladaptive perfectionism has some incredibly harmful side effects. When we do not allow ourselves room to be human, to have reasonable faults, we aren’t able to offer ourselves forgiveness, grace, and self-compassion. Over time, it becomes impossible to meet the demands of the self, and the mechanism of perfectionism breaks down. As a result, we develop a compromised immune system and become vulnerable to physical and mental health illnesses. Like we see in the random ruptures of Wanda’s illusionary world of Westview, its tendency to skip erratically from era to era, the façade begins to tear and atrophy.

Fantasizing Better Outcomes
– A Common Trauma Response

Interestingly, recent research has shown that some trauma survivors are not only preoccupied with what actually happened, but also become fixated on thoughts about what could have happened. Studies show that one particular type of post-traumatic response, called “counterfactual thinking,” (CFT) is particularly erosive to our mental health if it goes unchecked. Think about a time, for example, when you wished an outcome were different. Perhaps we wish we hadn’t been so harsh toward someone we cared about, or we wish we intervened when we witnessed an injustice taking place. At times, we wish we had acted differently to avoid a tragedy. We “replay” the situation in our mind, repeatedly, imagining more positive outcomes. By doing this, we are mentally wiping out mistakes.

Thinking about alternative outcomes to an event is actually quite common. An event can be mutated “upward” to simulate a better alternative (e.g., “If I had worn a seatbelt, I would have suffered fewer injuries during that accident.”). On the other hand, an event can be mutated “downward” in our imagination (e.g., “That was a close call and could have gone way worse; I’m so glad I survived.”). Psychologists study the vividness of counterfactuals by asking survivors of trauma to describe what comes up for them when they think about what could have happened during the impactful event, their imaginary projections (“Can you hear or see the fantasy vividly?”; “Do you feel intense emotion when you imagine this fantasy?” “Do you feel like they’re traveling in time?”).

Westview is a form of counterfactual thinking; Wanda turned all of her “what if” questions into a very real simulation. The fact that Vision was killed was too much for Wanda to bear. As a way to make sense of the agonizing loss, her mind began to generate counterfactual ideas: Vision is alive. We are married. We live in a comfortable house in a quiet town called Westview. Wanda’s power manifested the Westview Anomaly as a grief response.

“You feel safe here. You feel at peace.” –

-Wanda to the townspeople of Westview

Counterfactual thinking can be particularly toxic, because it can lead to decreased sleep, increased depression, and unending guilt and regret. Holding the constant belief that things should have been different also leads to intense stress and to thoughts of ending one’s life in order to interrupt a laborious mental exercise. This is often because the “what if” reality is so starkly different than the one that actually happened.

And yes; all this emotional work—constant mental processing, projecting an alternate reality, avoiding errors and pursuing perfectionism—is tiresome.

The Wicked Spells of
Our Inner Critic

Agatha Harkness, a witch from the Salem Coven, becomes particularly interested in Wanda’s powers after she detected the Westview hex. Agatha enters the community, under the guise of a clueless housewife named Agnes, determined to learn more about the massive mind-control that she recognizes as a product of Chaos Magic.

After kidnapping Wanda and Vision’s sons and entrapping Wanda in her basement-lair, Agatha proceeds to bring Wanda through “reruns” of her own traumatic life experiences. Here, Agatha guides Wanda through her past; reviewing and reliving many critical moments and formative events in Wanda’s life together.  At first, Agatha realizes that Wanda grew up watching American sitcoms with her brother and parents; a practice that embodied the sentiments of safety, trust, and healthy love. Agatha also discovers that Vision was a source of comfort and support for Wanda; helping her heal after the tragedy of Pietro’s death. Despite these happier moments, Agatha also notices the amount of terror and tragedy that befell Wanda. She also notices the changing patterns in Wanda as a result of self-protection and seeking safety.

“I used to think of myself one way. But, after this, I am something else.”

-Wanda

The process, at times terrifying, at times heartbreaking, is perhaps therapeutic. The parallels of therapy are worth mentioning. Agatha is persistent, patient, and matter-of-fact in her exploration; seeking threads and connections in Wanda’s stories. Agatha invites Wanda to explore her past with the safety and strength of a steward who can withstand the pain with her. Wanda entrusts Agatha, albeit reluctantly, to hold her stories of trauma without criticizing or blaming her, but with curiosity, openness, and a search for understanding. Yes, Agatha has ulterior motives and seeks the source of Wanda’s power; but by identifying the catalyst or root of Wanda’s chaos magic, she helps Wanda recognize the basis of her own distortions—as well as help Wanda notice how much of her past is not her fault. Agatha happens to be the first person in Wanda’s life to invite her to process the collective experience of her trauma; to help her make meaning of a thread of suffering that doesn’t have to result in massive mind control.

When Agatha believes she has harnessed all of Wanda’s powers, she turns on her. “This world you made will always be broken. Just like you,” she accuses. Agatha’s harsh words, though, are not completely unrecognizable. They’re a perfect mirror of Wanda’s negative thinking style. Agatha’s words represent a powerful, external manifestation of the beliefs Wanda carries with her. Wanda’s healing requires these beliefs to be named.  People who are prone to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder tend to interpret their experiences, themselves, and their future in negative ways that serve only to perpetuate a state of hopelessness. Agatha’s biting accusation is perfect for a villain; and, yet, may reflect an opinion Wanda has about herself: It is my fault that Vision is dead and so I will always be broken to the outside world  (internal, stable, and global attributes). Agatha, embodying Wanda’s own drive for power and perfection, ultimately amplifies  the negative force in her psyche so that Wanda could see the enemy within herself.

The Stories that Save Us

It isn’t coincidence that Wanda’s version of a perfect world is the one she saw time and time again from the safety of her home growing up. As young children, Wanda and her twin brother, Pietro, spent many evenings watching American sitcoms with their parents. The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, and Bewitched were some of the shows that framed Wanda’s understanding of family: There might be mishaps, gags, and gossip; but every day starts and ends with the same comforts and mundaneness of a shared home. The stories that she built Westview around were ones that carried the themes so vital to her sense of comfort: family unity, civility, and everyday small joys.

Then, there’s our world. As we near the one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are assessing our losses. Entertainment has provided us with a way to process, cope, connect or be transported from the threatening world around us. It may not be surprising that the majority of us have turned to entertainment media to comfort our anxieties, manage our fears, and affirm our hopes. According to a Fandom report from October 2020, 74% of fans say they’re spending more time with entertainment media compared to the months before the pandemic. Nearly half of viewers agree that they’ve permanently changed the way they engage with entertainment given their pandemic viewing habits. And many of us relate to Wanda’s connection between her childhood shows and her current coping; during the pandemic, nostalgic entertainment has provided fans a chance to connect with families and a way to share what we love with others in an otherwise solitary time.

Those of us experience grief and loss are struggling to find normal routines, stability, and peace during this tumultuous time. The predictability of fictional stories—the fact that they have a beginning, middle, and end—help us find clarity and concreteness during times of uncertainty. Stories might be particularly healing, because they provide a safe and healthy outlet that allows us to begin approaching our own emotions surrounding grief and loss. For some of us, we turn to stories to see others just like us overcome adversity and hardship; observing important traits such as empathy, compassion, and fallibility and seeking these traits within ourselves. And for many of us, witnessing characters experience a fictional crisis can help us to process difficult or painful feelings like anguish and sorrow; and to uplift our spirits and encourage us to stay resilient, strong, and hopeful about our future (WandaVision, for instance).

Love Persevering

WandaVision is a much-needed lesson for those of us persistently avoiding grief associated with the pandemic. We are asked to confront who we might be hurting, victimizing or manipulating in order to avoid processing our real pain. We are asked to assess the depth and intensity of our distracting and perfectionistic behavior; holding ourselves to impossible standards in order to secure the illusion of certainty and calm. We are asked to notice how we’ve become overly fixated on creating bubbles of safety, without addressing the harm we cause others with our complacency. Though change is hard, we bear the responsibility of dismantling the spells we create that shield ourselves from discomfort.

Grief is complicated. We often believe we are “broken” or “unwell” if we are experiencing distress or sadness related to the loss of a loved one. We feel the pressures to move on; but do not always know how. In this purgatory, we miss out on writing our own narrative of healing. As Wanda realizes, “The worst thing that can happen has already happened. I didn’t make it go away, can’t control it, and I don’t want to. Because it’s the truth.”

Ultimately, Wanda knows she must dissolve the spell and release Westview and its inhabitants from her power. The dissolution of the Westview Anomaly means that all of Wanda’s imaginary constructs—Vision, their sons, and their home—will no longer continue to exist. When she is ready, Wanda begins to say goodbye. She and Vision tuck their children into bed, both knowing the dream will end; but embracing the fleeting connection they have together nonetheless. Wanda knows she will face yet another loss; but this time, the separation is on her terms.

“If Wanda is the problem, she has to be our solution.”

– Monica Rambeau

As Vision and Wanda watch the final neuroelectric wall approach their home, marking the inevitable erasure of Wanda’s constructed world, they spend a moment of quietude and solace together. Though Wanda knows that this Vision is only a simulation of her partner, she allows herself to open up to the tremendous pain of losing him; as well as the unparalleled love she feels for him. She is no longer beholden to some impossibly perfect ideal; and she does not have to deny trauma to hold the memories of Vision. Letting go of her self-criticisms and doubts, Wanda releases the prison of perfectionism; life can be worthwhile even if it isn’t perfect.

“It can’t all be sorrow, can it? I’ve never experienced loss because I’ve never had a loved one to lose. But what is grief, if not love persevering?”

– Vision

Wanda Maximoff is one of the post powerful beings in the Marvel Universe; and, yet, is the most relatable, because her vulnerability is utterly human. WandaVision asks us to question why living in the fragile illusion of happiness seems like such a relatable story. In processing WandaVision, we recognize the elaborate emotional gymnastics we do to keep pain outside of our lived reality. As we watch Wanda construct an entire community of people performing contentment, we see ourselves. Here, we should confront why the effects of trauma are so unacceptable to show. We should question a society that demands we resolve our grief quietly, quickly and mechanically. We should pause our impulse to move forward toward betterment, without acknowledging the meaning of our setbacks and failures. As long as we continue to stigmatize and devalue sadness, we will not realize the full, remarkable vision of our human experience.

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.