As a character, the Ghost Rider fascinates me. But, with the exception of the ‘90s Spirits of Vengeance title that teamed the Dan Ketch-possessed-Ghost Rider with his (then) demon-free first host Johnny Blaze, I’ve read very few of his comics. Looking back, outside of movies like Ghostbusters 2 (which scared the $#!T out of me), Spirits of Vengeance was really my first foray into horror. Well, horror-lite. Well, horror-lite for a comic book. Well, after I’ve come to enjoy things like Penny Dreadful, It Follows, and The Shining and have had to endure horrors like Hereditary (WORST THING EVER), I wouldn’t really call Spirits of Vengeance “horror” anymore. It’s more a supernatural thriller. But for young me, it was the first time I willingly and intentionally entered the (Ghostbusters-free) world of demons, possessions, and fiery hellscapes. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking of the Ghost Rider. A lot. I can’t stop imagining what shape this Spirit of Vengeance would take if it flamed into being in 2020.
The Ghost Rider was first introduced in 1972. Johnny Blaze was a motorcycle stuntman who struck a deal with the Devil to save the life of his father. Voluntarily bonded to the demon Zarathos, when the sun went down or evil arose, Blaze found himself consumed by fire. As his flesh melted away, the skeletal Rider took control. The comic ran from 1972 until 1983. Then in 1990 another young man, Danny Ketch, would become the Spirit of Vengeance to save his sister Barbara from…uh, well…from ninja gangsters (it was the ‘90s! that was normal!). His title would run until 1998. Blaze became the Ghost Rider off and on again through the 2000’s and, in 2011, a young Nicaraguan woman named Alejandra Jones would be possessed by the demon for the “Fear Itself” storyline. Starting in 2013, Robbie Reyes has been the new Ghost Rider, possessed by the spirit of his deceased serial killer Satanist uncle (…yeah, I know) Eli Morrow. Currently a member of the Avengers, Reyes drives a flaming muscle car as opposed to the Rider’s traditional motorcycle and fights to clean-up the streets of East Los Angeles while Johnny Blaze reigns as the current King of Hell.
While each incarnation of the fiery Ghost Rider has unique abilities, the demon makes whomever it possesses essentially unstoppable. Being a skeleton wreathed in flame, the Rider has a hauntingly ethereal visage but the demon is all but indestructible. Weapons pass through the body without impact. Its flaming transport – be it mammoth, horse, motorcycle, or muscle car – moves at incredible speeds up walls, across water, and vaulting great chasms. The Ghost Riders: Heavens on Fire miniseries claimed God created the Riders so only God can destroy one (yeah, the whole God-created, Devil-bonded thing is a little contradictory but we’ll save that for another post). Despite its skeletal appearance, the Rider possesses superhuman strength putting it in league with some of the strongest manifestations of the Hulk. When the Rider comes for you, nothing can stand in its way for long.
But the ability I find most interesting, the magical power that keeps bringing me back around to thinking about the Ghost Rider of late, is its Penance Stare.
By looking into the eyes of someone with its Penance Stare, the Ghost Rider can make that person feel all the hurt and all the pain they’ve ever inflicted on anyone else. The full weight of all their sins comes to bear on the heart, mind, and soul of whoever stares into the Ghost Rider’s burning eyes. All the justifications, all the rationales, all the excuses we make to allow ourselves to act while putting selfish and sinful interests above the needs of the innocent melt away under the Penance Stare and we feel everything.
Can you imagine a more horrifying power to wield? Or a more horrifying one to experience?
When I was a kid, the Penance Stare was kind of confusing. I could never really wrap my mind around the reactions of those the Ghost Rider held in its stare with my understanding of how it works. Why would they break like that? I wondered. But my questions, naturally, came as a result of the innocence of youth. I was fortunate to have a childhood where, at ten-years-old, my knowledge of the real evil potentially lurking in human hearts was practically nonexistent. Now, as an adult, I look at the world and understand the Penance Stare for what it is. With the evil around us, both apathetically and willingly participated in, the Penance Stare is devastating in its potential.
Even thinking of myself, you know? I certainly don’t see myself as evil by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve done my best to live my life listening to my heart and being guided by my conscious. I’ve learned in therapy I’m an empath with an overdeveloped helper nature. So I am sort of wired to put the needs of others first, even when it comes at the expense of my own needs. Still, I am far from perfect. And I know I’ve hurt others – often unintentionally but maybe sometimes willingly/selfishly. And I know how haunted I am by my inability to help loved ones too. So the idea of truly feeling every time I’ve failed, every time I’ve sinned, every wrong I’ve ever done anyone in all its brutal honesty wash across my heart, mind, and soul sounds terrifying.
On that note, something else that confused me by the Penance Stare as a kid was the idea that this was a power employed by a demon. Growing up Catholic, my young mind associated the idea of “penance” with the sacrament of Reconciliation. I knew “penance” was a part of the process of forgiveness. Contrition, confession, penance, absolution – my little second grade mind had learned it all before going into the confessional for the first time. So why was this idea of “penance” a part of this demon’s arsenal? (Note, this was decades before the whole “God made the Riders” thing mentioned above.)
Again, in approaching the Ghost Rider as an adult this makes much more sense. The Penance Stare is not a tool in the process of contrition, confession, and healing. Rather it is one of forcing someone – unprepared and unwilling – to experience all the pain and suffering they have caused everyone over the course of their entire life. It is a move to punish, to inflict pain, to send a message. And it sounds like hell. As such, it makes all the sense in the world that it’s brought on by the demonic visage of the Ghost Rider.
By its nature, the Ghost Rider will only protect the innocent. I’d wager there are few ways more effective in assuring someone would never wrong another again than making them feel the unfiltered weight of all the pain they’ve ever caused in their own heart and soul.
So, why have I been thinking of the Ghost Rider and its fiery Penance Stare lately?
I mean…look at the world. If there’s a force from the comic pages worth unleashing in real life, can you imagine one better suited to our times than the Spirit of Vengeance?
There is SO MUCH willful denial of and active participation in evil all around us. The vision of this flaming, merciless, vengeance-seeking Ghost Rider loosed on the world to protect the innocent and make those who corrupt and destroy our world repent and burn under the weight of their own sins is kind of an appealing fantasy to me. It’s dark, I know. But it’s appealing nonetheless.
Imagine the Ghost Rider walking, unflinching and unstoppable, through the halls of Congress to make all the lawmakers who have failed us again and again feel the weight of all their sins. Or imagine it doing the same through the White House, bringing this nightmare of an administration and all those who work within it to their knees. From Republicans who’ve sold their integrity to hitch their wagon to the Trump cart to Democrats who’ve talked a good game for ages but proven unable to unify as a party or forge real, lasting social change – they would all tremble in the wake of the Rider. No spin holds up under the fire of the Penance Stare. And the presence and threat of the Rider would hover over future policy decisions.
But it doesn’t stop at politicians. Evil in the form of corruption, self-interest, violence, and apathy is everywhere. While all the statistics aren’t in for 2019 yet, the number of hate groups operating across America rose to a record high in 2018, having continued to grow steadily for four years. In the United States, more than one in three women and more than one in four men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. We’ve seen a 25% rise in human trafficking cases in the United States since 2017 and, while the numbers aren’t all in for 2019 yet, there were 10,949 cases reported in 2018 alone. In addition to human trafficking, we regularly use prison population as slave labor in the United States (and have since the Civil War ended) to produce clothes, military uniforms, food, electronics, and office furniture and to perform tasks such as call-center staffing, warehousing, electrical wiring, masonry, carpentry, and plumbing as well as maintaining the prisons themselves. Whether from this country or another, we are surrounded by and use slave-produced goods every day. Daily more than 100 people are killed by guns in America and another 200 are shot and wounded too. Let’s not forget climate change either. Everyone with any shred of credibility – from NASA to the Pope – have been warning us about climate change for decades. Human activity from the mid-20th century on has caused the planet’s temperature to rise at an unprecedented rate with increasingly devastating consequences. Yet there are a disturbingly large number of people who deny this is even happening…in large part because they profit from it and/or acknowledging the truth would cause some discomfort.
And these are just the trials and tribulations that first came to my mind. Sadly, it is far from an exhaustive list. I didn’t even mention systemic racism or sexism and those examples are only drawn from within America.
If loosed on the world, the Ghost Rider would certainly have a lot to keep its fiery hands busy. And, as I said above, it’s certainly appealing to think of a flaming Spirit of Vengeance coming to do all the dirty work and punish all those shielded by wealth and corruption who perpetrate these evils – those who deny climate change, those who profit from slave labor, those who stall common sense gun reform, those who rape, those who kill. those who enslave, and on and on and on.
But where would the Rider draw the line? We are all complicit, in some way, in the evils that shape our world – whether by active participation or in the comfort of our ignorance and apathy. We all use goods produced by slaves, even if we aren’t the ones actively enslaving people. We all know the dangers of climate change yet we seldom take more than cursory actions to curb our consumption. We all know the dangers of gun violence but how much do we do to actively get the legislatures who do nothing out of office and vote in those who will bring about change?
Maybe it’s a good thing the Ghost Rider is a work of fiction. Because if it wasn’t, in one way or another, almost all of us would be condemned. As I said above, I’ve no desire to dig my own eyes out as I convulse under the full weight of all my sins…no matter how cathartic it can be to imagine others doing so when I see all the acts performed under the banality of evil on the news each day.
But maybe the power of the Rider doesn’t lie in his being a real entity and actually forcing us to see our sins. Rather, the power of a character like the Ghost Rider lies in the self-reflection it has the potential to bring on. Imagining what we’d see if we gazed into the Penance Stare is a provocative and unnerving sort of examination of conscience. If we heed the warning, hopefully it will lead us to make more sustainable, empathetic, and justice-oriented choices. Because if we can’t start figuring out how to do this on our own soon, there will undoubtedly be hell to pay.
 “Hate Groups Reach Record High,” Southern Poverty Law Center. Published February 19, 2019. Accessed February 23, 2020. https://www.splcenter.org/news/2019/02/19/hate-groups-reach-record-high
 Sytonia Reid, “On Sale Now: Prison Labor,” Green America. Accessed February 23, 2020. https://www.greenamerica.org/hidden-workers-fighting-change/sale-now-prison-labor
 “Gun Violence in America,” Everytown for Gun Safety. Published April 4, 2019. Accessed February 23, 2020. https://www.greenamerica.org/hidden-workers-fighting-change/sale-now-prison-labor