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The Mysterious Demise of Mr. Mojo Risin'

What led to the premature death of Doors' member Jim Morrison?

Jim Morrison, the poetic lyrical voice of The Doors, died at the age of 27 in Paris, France. On the group's next-to-final album (Morrison Hotel, 1970) before his untimely demise, sounding a lot like he just "woke up this morning and got myself a beer," Morrison (Mr. Mojo Risin') famously wails, "The future's uncertain, and the end is always near." Very existential stuff. Life is inherently insecure, and death an everpresent inevitability. Clearly, Jim Morrison recognized these existential facts of life. But one wonders what Mr. Morrisons's state of mind was at the time he wrote that lyric, recorded the raunchy but rockin' "Road House Blues" track, and some time soon after died of an apparent drug and alcohol overdose. Had he succumbed to nihilism? Or "clinical despair"? Was his slow death a sort of passive suicide? An escape from his existential Angst?

Accounts of Jim Morrison's mental state during his four-month retreat to Paris after leaving Los Angeles are varied and conflicting. There are some indications, such as certain letters he wrote to friends and business associates, that he was happy and optimistically planning a future life in Paris. On the other hand, there are reports of very heavy alchohol abuse ("Oh show me the way to the next whiskey bar."), excessive cigarette and cannabis smoking, erratic behavior, mood swings, and possibly a final fatal heroin overdose. According to Sam Bernett (2007), a former New York Times reporter and French friend of Jim's, Morrison died (probably from respiratory arrest) of an unintentional nasal heroin (and alcohol) overdose in a notorious Parisian nightclub, and his lifeless body was then moved to his apartment to avoid a scandal. This version of events clearly contradicts (but in some ways, seems more credible) than the description of what happened by Jim's long-time girlfriend Pamela Courson, an alleged heroin addict, who told police that they had spent the night together drinking, and that Morrison became quite ill during the night, vomiting blood, and was discovered by her in the bathtub (fully clothed?) deceased the next morning. In either case, the French police suspected no foul play or evil deeds such as homicide. Courson herself reportedly died of a heroin overdose several years later in California.

Whatever demons Morrison was trying to escape from in Los Angeles (including an appeal of his conviction on obscenity charges and pending jail sentence) evidently accompanied him across the Atlantic, and much like the glaring gargoyles atop Notre Dame, were a constant presence in Paris. Toward the end ("This is the end, my only friend, the end."), he was having serious health problems such as asthma, stomach ulcers, coughing up blood, and had gained a great deal of weight, becoming bloated and easily winded. Morrison had always, according to friends, been obsessed with death. A very existential theme ("No one here gets out alive."). Did he harbor an unconscious death wish? Mortality is certainly one of life's "ultimate concerns" (Tillich, 1952). Death anxiety rumbles constantly beneath the surface of consciousness but is deliberately denied or avoided by most. But, paradoxically, chronic denial or evasion of death anxiety can lead to a morbid obsession regarding mortality.

Jim Morrison had attained fame, money, women, artistic recognition and admiration beyond even his wildest imagination. But he rejected that celebrity existence in Los Angeles because he felt he had lost himself, hoping to rediscover who he really was while living as an expatriot in Paris. It seems he really had become lost; ultimately, hopelessly so. Morrison may have been in the throes of a full-blown existential crisis, a crisis not only of identity, but possibly of a lost sense of meaning and purpose in life. Viktor Frankl (1946/1985) referred to such a painful and disorienting state of felt meaninglessness and purposelessness as an "existential vacuum." Morrison may have been running from this existential crisis by moving to Paris, where living in a foreign land led to a loss of familiar moorings, making his existential vacuum even more pronounced, disorienting and disturbing. Moreover, he had at that time relinquished his musical outlet for his creativity (and his working relationship) with The Doors, wanting to write more poetry solo, though it is not clear he was doing so. It may also be that Morrison fell victim not only to nihilism, influenced perhaps by his favorite existential philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, but to a condition we could describe as "clinical despair."

Despair, as Soren Kierkegaard (1849) suggested, is a universal human experience, and a core concern in contemporary existential therapy. At times we all experience despair about relationships, work, or world events, but typically it dissipates pretty quickly and life goes on (at least until the next existential crisis). Pathological or "clinical despair" (Havens & Ghaemi, 2005) occurs when despair deepens and becomes chronic, causing diminished quality of life and impaired daily functioning. Major depressive disorder exemplifies clinical despair, but despair may masquerade as a multitude of mental disorders. (See my prior post.)

Clinical despair consists of a deep discouragement, hopelessness, and loss of faith in one's ability to find meaning and fulfillment and to create a satisfactory future. Frankl (2000), drawing on his horrific Holocaust concentration camp experience, defined despair in the simplistic but powerful formula: D = S – M, or despair is suffering minus meaning. The basic clinical implication for contemporary existential therapy is that the meaningless suffering of despair can be addressed by helping patients courageously confront and discover some personal or transpersonal significance in their suffering. Or to provide despair some meaningful creative expression. Chronically avoiding or denying existential despair, and the daimonic (Diamond, 1996; May, 1969) in general, sets the stage for clinical despair. Indeed, as both Kierkegaard and contemporary research on "depressive realism" (Alloy & Abramson, 1988) suggest, existentially despairing or depressive individuals may be responding to a more accurate perception of existential reality. The key is how they cope with such a stark vision of existential reality, in both its dreadful and beautiful aspects.

Nihilism results when clinical despair is permeated by a sense of life’s absurdity (Camus, 1942/1955) and unfairness, loss of faith and courage, and a bitter rejection of meaning, moral values or any sense of existential purpose. Nihilism commonly underlies the chronic depressive symptoms, malaise and ennui of individuals seeking psychotherapy, though it may not be recognized as such by most clinicians. Nihilism is the refusal to courageously and creatively affirm life despite despair, and this negative, gloomy outlook customarily marks the starting point in existential psychotherapy rather than its journey's end. This is why psychotherapy can often be helpful to individuals suffering from nihilism and clinical despair. Avoidance or denial of existential reality via substance abuse or other self-destructive compulsive behaviors is doomed to failure. (See my prior post.) It is only by confronting and coming to terms with the tragic and sometimes brutal existential facts of life that nihilism and clinical despair can be overcome. This is the purpose of existential therapy.

Finally, there is the serious problem of suicidality, a very real danger in the treatment of clinical despair. Suicide serves as an escape from the patient's past and present problems, suffering, reality, responsibility, and from his or herself. But typically, it is not that the depressed person no longer desires to live; rather, they are rejecting how they have been living and who they have become. In this regard, Nietzsche's notorious remark that the thought of suicide has saved many lives remains relevant: We must constantly choose between life and death, between being and non-being. And we possess the power, responsibility, and freedom to do so. Paradoxically, a conscious recognition of this freedom to destroy one's existence can catalyze the commitment to constructively change one's life, but only when this dialectical tension and anxiety is courageously confronted, tolerated and accepted rather than destructively acted out. In the latter case, especially in the absence of therapeutic support, such suicidal tendencies can be manifested suddenly and deliberately or drawn out passively and indirectly over the course of many years. But tragically, the final outcome always remains the same.

Based on varying accounts of his activities in Paris in the several months prior to his death, officially from "heart failure" (there was no autopsy performed), there seems little doubt that Jim Morrison was self-destructive if not passively suicidal. The depression and malaise that set in at the very height of his international success as a musician and poet in Los Angeles continued to stalk him in Europe. We may never know the true source of his depression, nihilism and clinical despair. But, given his great creativity, it is likely that he had lived with these demons most of his life. In this sense, Jim Morrison was a "daimonic genius" (Diamond, 1996). But he suffered a similar fate to other daimonic geniuses like Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Richard Wright, Robin Williams and fellow musicians Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In his mesmerizing poetry and music, Morrison sought to give voice to his inner demons--despair, rage, alienation, death anxiety, dread--and provide them some creative expression. At the same time, these inner demons drove him relentlessly into a downward spiral of self-destructive behaviors leading finally to his tragic death in 1971. By then, Morrison had become what I call a "dysdaimonic genius," i.e., someone who has become destructively possessed by his or her demons. The daimonic is both destructive and creative, but trying to dampen it down with drugs and alcohol makes it doubly dangerous. In the end, drugs, alcohol, his art, and the seductive charms of Paris were sadly not enough to help Morrison "break on through to the other side" of his existential crisis. Extremely aptly, Morrison's tombstone at Pere Lachaise cemetary in Paris, the place he wished to be buried, bears the following Greek inscription: ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ, roughly meaning in keeping or concert with or obedience to his own daimon, his guiding inner spirit or soul, the divine spiritual power that impelled his actions, both creative and destructive, and determined his destiny.

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