He’s Not Joking
In the world of super-villains there are a few that stand out as particularly interesting cases among the rest. In the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight, “The Joker” is featured as Batman’s primary adversary. This film depicts him with a gritty and dark edge that heightens his reputation as a psychological enigma. In attempting to understand and diagnose him, it is critical to take all of the empirical evidence with a grain of salt due to his unpredictable and tricky modes of operation. I will attempt to untangle the chaos of his psyche by outlining his limited narrative history and by using evidence presented in the film in an attempt to understand the “why” behind his words and actions. The most intriguing aspect of this character is his reoccurring testament that he is not crazy, despite his purposeful inclination to appear as such and impose chaos. In this paper I will illustrate and elaborate on the notion that The Joker might suffer from psychopathy and/or antisocial personality organization, attempting to make this special case more relateable and psychologically accessible.
One of the most perplexing issues in attempting to understand The Joker is how little is known about his past. It is critical to consider that most deductions about his psychological history come from hints in dialogue primarily by The Joker himself, who is an unreliable source due to his deceptive nature. What we can induce from the plot of the story, and Joker’s role within it, is that he has a long-standing history of crime that extends miles further than the film alone. He first appears in the story as having it in for former gang members he may have worked with, suggesting he has become quite at home on the other side of the law. He is easily distinguishable because he always appears wearing face-paint that resembles a clown, has sandy, dyed greenish hair, and usually has a goofy suit on (a “clown suit” if you will). He (reportedly) was recently captured by the Gotham City Police Department as the result of an undisclosed crime. There are hints that he was put in jail as well as indications of being put in a psychiatric facility, making his status in the eyes of the law a mystery. There are no dental records, DNA matches, or fingerprints in the Gotham City Police Department’s (GCPD) records.
Most descriptions of his past come at moments of the film of high emotional tension, again diluting the authenticity of the Joker’s claims. At one point he fakes his own death in order to breech the home of a rich gang member who put $500,000 on the Joker’s head, surprise attacking him and breaking into a monologue about his father while holding a knife in the man’s mouth. Joker describes his drunken father attacking his mother with a knife and trying to attract attention to save her. His dad, apparently, put a smile on Joker’s “serious” face by slicing his cheeks accordingly after doing the same to his mother. At the very least we can deduce that The Joker hated his father, who had a particularly brutish and violent nature. In his crashing of Bruce Wayne’s (who is secretly Batman, and the multi-billion dollar man of Wayne Enterprises) fundraiser for Harvey Dent, he makes another account of his wife having her face cut by a group of crooks that she was in debt to. He claimed to respond to the incident by slicing his own cheeks into a smile as to assure his wife that he did not care about her appearance. He explains how his plan backfired, the scars disgusting his wife too much to stay with him. This has likely left him in a psychologically distraught state to be ever-reminded of every time he looks in the mirror. These conflicting stories hold some consistencies that may be helpful, such as being accustomed to being a victim at the hand of those he was most closely attached to. Also, both of these occurrences reflect extremely noble and courageous actions that resulted in heart-wrenching consequences, holding the theme of doing what he thinks is right being followed by a tragedy. The GCPD have two working theories about the Joker’s criminal past that potentially hold merit: The first is that he was connected to the mob through the Haley Brother’s Circus where he may have been a former employee. He may have suffered some injustice from them, which can potentially be linked to his original capture, and spurred him to seek vengeance. The second theory is that he is suffering from acute PTSD from being a former soldier, which would explain his high effectiveness, calm and controlled manner, and skill with a variety of weapons. The first scene of the film showed Joker robbing a bank used for the mob’s money laundering, at the conclusion of which he looks at the bank manager and states, “I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger” (Nolan, 2008). This suggests that he has a history of experiences that haven’t killed him, but may as well have in that it pushed him to become lost in the chaotic elements of the world.
A much larger and more reliable set of empirical data can be accessed through the Joker’s ways of thinking, in his system of chaos, and trademark signatures. The villain marks his territory through the joker playing card, a fitting and somewhat obvious signature for his external persona. What makes Joker special, though, is that nothing is as simple as it seems; this card resembles him not only in appearance, but in that it is the 53rd card in the deck that neither fits in nor makes in sense in regards to the rest. Neither the card nor the man hold any special function when mixed in with the others. At his core The Joker resembles the rebellious part in everyone that is heavily reprimanded when expressed or indulged in. The most foundational element of his psychology is the willingness to completely disregard society’s governmental laws, common laws, and ways of thinking. What makes this character powerful is his extreme nature and unconditional desire to destroy the fabric of society as a means to showing people who they really are- in this case, he is interested in the darkest parts of the self. The controlling thesis of all his actions is an unwavering belief that the most concrete and authentic truth of life is the continuum of chaos. This irony is present in his “joker” persona, relying on deception as his primary tool to bring into awareness the idea that things are not always as they seem (Nolan, 2008).
Within the laws and ethics of the common world Joker is the full embracement of the purest form of evil. As a result he is often mislabeled as psychotic, but his ability to understand and manipulate the deepest of human emotions implies that he either sees these emotions as irrelevant or experiences them in a distorted way. If Joker did not have emotional capacities he probably couldn’t manipulate the emotions of others with such ease. He understands the power of emotions such as fear, which is shown when he sets up two boats that are given the choice to either detonate the other or be blown up themselves. This is can be related to Joker’s complete lack of fear, revealed in moments where he laughs in the face of death. He seems to be playing a game that suggests he once had the capacity to fear but lost it somewhere along his developmental life-span. It is almost as if he is capable of emotionality but can somehow choose not to take it into consideration. Whether at the hand of his father or his wife he was somehow traumatized by seeing the deep evils in those that he loved most, leaving him unable to cope with reality and thus creating a new identity and way of experiencing the world. This can explain why he can show subtle emotions such as frustration when being called crazy yet disregard other emotions and not hold any attachment to his bodily self. His contradicting testaments hint that he could be recreating his story on a daily basis, allowing him to constantly repress his true past. This experience or experiences can create a steep mental decline that is defined by madness and melancholy, driving him to the other side of the law and eventually to being an autonomous agent of chaos. He displays brilliant organization and control that seems to be incredibly clear-minded and quickly calculated. The Joker reflects a psychopathic personality in his lack of empathy, but shows no sign that the state of his psyche is impairing his functioning- in fact, it helps him function. This is related to his lack of fear because he doesn’t have “empathy” for himself either, having no attachment to the self and thus doesn’t fear the consequences of life threatening situations. This is clearest when he hands a gun to Harvey Dent and has him hold it to his (Joker’s) head. This is particularly bold because Joker indirectly burned half of Dent’s face off and murdered his beloved girlfriend. The catalyst for him mission to impose chaos is to prove that even the “best of man” (Nolan, 2011) can be easily corrupted, which Dent is the perfect candidate due to being a highly skilled agent of the law. This is again translated by the aforementioned metaphor of the two ships that hold the trigger to destroy the other. One boat possesses crooks and criminals while the other a group of common-folk. The Joker sets this up to try and prove that the dark elements of mankind is equally present in all types of man. While Batman seeks to establish order where Gotham’s governmental system is failing, Joker is seeking to reinvigorate the chaos. This is show in his meeting with a group of gangbangers about killing Batman in order to regain control of the streets. Joker highlights how Batman has forced them to meet and act during the day, essentially calling them powerless cowards. There is something about the “bad” side of the law being ruled by fear that is too societally pleasant for Joker’s tastes, thus wanting to reestablish the prowess of the gangsters. The mob members do not see the ultimate chaos that the Joker is actually seeking- a goal that is resembled in his words “everything burns” (Nolan, 2008). In his way of thinking the common men of today’s world are the true non-conformists because they set up systems and schemes to hide the fact that chaos cannot be conquered.
The Joker shows all the symptoms of an antisocial personality, having a pervasive pattern of violating the rights of others and not conforming to social and lawful behaviors. This is supported in his long-standing criminal history and by his actions in the film. The film begins with the ensuing of a robbery by Joker and his crew at the mob’s primary bank. All of the “checkbox” signs of antisocial personality is here, starting with clearly engaging in unlawful behavior (McWilliams, 2011). He shows his deceitful nature in killing his co-workers and even having them kill each other, convincing all the others that they will simply be cutting out an extra share of the money. This is also an extreme and obvious case of recklessly disregarding safety, aggressiveness, and indifference toward hurting others. His lack of remorse in his cruelty is almost playful; he shoves a grenade in the Bank Manager’s mouth that turns out to trigger as a harmless gas. This shows that he doesn’t necessarily “get off” on hurting others, but is indifferent to it in the framework of his game. He is operating from a sense of supreme morality that he believes to trump the fabric of established society.
Attempting to understand the Joker in the context of defense mechanisms is tricky because he never seems to be concerned with any worldly force acting upon him. Nancy McWilliams’ perspective on the nature of a defense mechanism helps this term become more applicable to The Joker in saying, “The term defense is in many ways unfortunate. What we refer to as a defense in adults begin as global, inevitable, adaptive ways of experiencing the world” (McWilliams, 2011). A defense, as coined by Freud, aids a person in deflecting deep rooted anxieties or situations that provoke anxieties. It is possible that Joker is in a constant state of projecting this alter ego as a type of defense mechanism, perpetually expressing repressed feelings and emotions in his Joker persona’s words and actions. Stresses suffered in childhood more than likely pushed him to a mental state that is continually operating outside of conscious awareness, detaching himself enough to disregard his negative emotions. His use of face-paint, dyed green hair, and odd clothing is a symbol that this man has adapted by withdrawing from reality and taking on a new state of being. Joker is a special case because he feverishly rejects the systems and manners of what we call “the real world” and seems to be attempting to substitute it for his “fantasy world” by blurring the line between the two. He is on a mission to destroy the structures that keep order and sustain society in order to force people to face the darkest side of themselves and create chaos; as Wilfred (Bruce Wayne’s noble butler) states, “some men just want to watch the world burn” (Nolan, 2008). The Joker not only withdraws from the present reality, he is using his skill set and brilliant criminal mind to try and recreate the foundations of everyone else’s reality.
Joker is self-defined as “an agent of chaos,” which for him has no bounds and bears no moral consequences. He is greatly excited when his pranks work, showing that he enjoys “getting over on” others. His unquestioned willingness to kill in an alarmingly casual fashion reflects a devaluing of other subjective realities, furthering the notion that he believes to be operating from a sense of supreme morality. An essential element of Joker’s understanding of the world is that humans will always try to enforce order on chaos; if Joker resembles the ensuing chaos of the world, he finds a perfect counterpart in Batman. He is devaluing others and idealizing Batman as having special value, often citing how the two are the same and are destined to play “this game” (Nolan, 2011) until one or both are dead. The key to understanding The Joker is to target why his motivations are this extreme and what he is trying to repress. Stresses suffered early in childhood most likely led Joker to use these primitive defenses, the ultimate sign being his guise as a “clown” suggesting that he is somewhat attached to the preverbal phase of development. My best guess is that he’s been “scarred” by the caregiver enough to lose worry for his bodily existence and has become lost in existential chaos. He may be motivated to get others to become lost in the chaos with him so he can once again connect with people. He emotionally detaches himself from people who live in the common reality, allowing him to use the guise of The Joker (implying humor) to make light (in an incredibly twisted way) of the cruelties involved in his mission. Humor as a primary defense mechanism fits here because it “clearly maximizes our capacity to tolerate psychological pain,” (Fitzpatrick, 2015) contributing to the understanding of Joker existing as a “joke” that is counteracting his equally twisted and dark psychological pain.
The tragedy in exploring the Joker’s psychology is the sympathy felt for him for being subject to unimaginable psychological torment. He is not only scarred from his own experiences of pain, but the pain of those he loved and the twisted way he needed to adapt to a terrifying world. There is something about his underlying anger that exceeds physical pain and suggests that he was forced to stay silent while watching his mother be beaten, or he could be “cut up” again or even potentially lose his life. He was forced to embody a twisted and backward chaos that culminates to reflect a psychopathic and antisocial personality disorder. My suggestion for treatment is to admit him into a maximum security psychiatric ward (because that worked brilliantly the first time) with special precautions to keep him contained. The problem with attempting to treat The Joker is that his brain developed to think and feel in a backward way, leaving his psychological torment and long-standing adaptive measures to fully engulf his heart. He learned to think and respond to the world in a specific way that cannot be touched or reversed because it is the most foundational aspect of how he experiences the world. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any technique to account for this psychological state; for him as an individual, not considering that this is clearly not a preferable option for the sake of not destroying the world, the best form of therapy is to keep playing his game with Batman. Whatever supreme “moral aim” that he seeks will not be deterred, but he seems quite amused and functional as an agent of chaos.
The Joker is one of the most brilliant fictional creations in recent history. His modes of operation “qualify” him as being a psychopath and having an Antisocial Personality Disorder, but there is something more about his character that makes people believe he possesses some type of supreme clarity and control over what is in and around him. He embodies the darkness and chaos of existence and is seen as being engulfed by a fantastical netherworld. Yet his aura of purpose and confidence in his truth truly does blur the line between what is known and what is believed. The best evidence that reflects just how real and powerful the abstract quality of chaos “embodied” by The Joker truly is, is resembled by the tombstone of Heath Ledger.
McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process (2nd ed.). New York, New York: Guilford Press.
Nolan, C. (Producer). (2008). The Dark Knight (Recreation/reinterpretation of “Batman”) [Motion picture on DVD]. (2008). Warner Home Video.
Fitzpatrick, T. (2015). Psychological Disorders [PowerPoint Slides & Lecture]. Duquesne University, Pittsburgh.