The Joker and His Psychosis in “Batman: The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Returns”

Eternal source of fascination for the fans of the Batman multiverse, his diabolical counterpart, The Joker, presents himself with almost zero background, making it extremely difficult for people to find answers, and a possible motivation, for his actions and beliefs. Although, he is too complex to fit under a certain well-defined category and applying one label would do injustice to the character and its creators, The Joker is most certainly an insane anarchist suffering from serious psychosis. From a literary point of view, it can be argued, based on the fact that he never kills everyone’s favourite vigilante and vice-versa, that the evil character exists solely to offer a purpose to Batman and that the two of them are the two different sides of the same coin. They both hide their faces and have grown up without parental guidance. The nature of their interaction and rapports is, however, open to debate.

Since it is impossible to draw a coherent portrait of the character from the DC Multiverse of comic books and graphic novels, due to their excessive amount of contradictory stories, as a basis for the present analysis, the 2008 motion picture “The Dark Knight”, starring Christian Bale as Batman, accompanied by the outstanding performance of Heath Ledger as the scarred madman, has been chosen as comprehensive support for following Joker’s character constructions, actions, philosophy, behaviour and psychotic episodes. In order to give the character’s manifestation a sense of completeness, as well as confirm our diagnosis, a comment has been made towards the end of our endeavor on The Joker’s appearance in Miller’s graphic novel, “The Dark Knight Returns”.

With regard to psychosis, it may schematically be described as a “severe mental illness which globally affects the personality of the patient”. Three key elements to our character’s psychosis are thought disorder, perception disorder and lack of insight.

Thought disorder usually manifests with disorder of the consciousness, in the sense of a general disturbance of conscious thoughts. At the end of the motion picture, Batman declares that The Joker is alone in his lack of consciousness and ugly soul. Also a member of this subcategory is lack of discernment, which psychologist Angela Cîmpean considers to be “the aptitude of a person, their power to understand the meaning of their actions as well as the consequences” in her short work, “Discernment, The Criterion for Normality”. Our villain has lost what psychology literature calls the third level of discernment: the one responsible for the distinction of good from evil. The madman’s disorder is so stressed that it lead to the total abolition of discernment. He replaces it with his makeup, the element that marks the passing from normality to abnormality.

What is meant here by perception disorder is the villain’s inability to assess reality the way other characters do and by lack of insight we mean the lack of understanding the cause-result relationship of certain circumstances the character is found in.

Joker appears in the very opening of the movie, while he and his band of outlaws rob a bank. Among his first lines of dialogue, “What doesn’t kill you simply makes you … stranger” stands out as a very important element of his world view. We may infer, even from the very beginning that there is a strong, underlying trauma to his condition as well as assess strangeness as a symptom of psychosis. He kills the man to him he addresses these words, however, one must note that almost all characters that he murders, before their physical death, are forced to realise when and how they will die. They have to have time to go through the fear of death first. To make matters even worse, the villain is smiling.

In his second appearance, he meets with Gotham’s mob leaders in an attempt to explain the benefits of permanently removing Batman from sight. At first, he is greatly underestimated by one of these crime lords due to his wearing of makeup, lipstick and a “cheap suit”. The Joker does a fixed colour scheme in his appearance, almost all throughout the DC multiverse: lavender suit, green hair, white makeup and red lipstick; an interesting addition in this particular motion picture is the black dye around his eyes. He accuses the mobsters of ill humour and tries to make a joke himself, in the form of a “magic trick” that makes a pencil disappear – into one of the guards’ eyes. Physical pain was inflicted and the character enjoys the scene. A careful viewer shall notice in this episode another interesting character device: Joker has the tendency to slightly dip his tongue out while talking. Such a gesture is borrowed from certain predatory animals, such as the komodo dragon, whose saliva is poisonous and represents the characters sadism and disconnection from normality. Also important to analyse as a separate issue here is his statement: “I know the squeelers when I see them”, indicating his extensive practice of torture and murder. And, lastly in this appearance, but not least, he denies being insane: any psychotic person denies being insane.

The third fraction of Joker’s screen time is shorter than the first two, but it exposes a crucial element for the understand of the character and his disorder: the first version on the origin of his scars. He starts with the question “Wanna know how I got these scars”, which is not only a motif for him (he will always ask this question before committing some horrible act of terror), but also the trigger factor for his psychosis. The genesis of his psychopathology, as is the case for most patients, comes from the family. One can’t help but notice that in both versions of the origin of the scars, Joker is a victim of some sort of abuse coming from a family member. In the account presented here, which he gives with a knife shoved in the victim’s mouth (it will be explained a bit later why he prefers knives), his drunken father gave him the scars, using a knife, after seeing that he assisted at a scene of domestic abuse directed towards his mother. His victim is, of course, killed after the little story, because The Joker absorbs his will to live out of the tension he creates and the fear he induces upon his potential victims.

The scene with the killing of the false Batman is also relevant due to the fact that the victim’s body is found wearing Joker’s makeup underneath the bat mask. This reveals that he feels his victims must go through the same process that he underwent. In the video released to the news, he focuses on presenting himself as a man of his word and announces that there will be further victims if the real Batman does not turn himself in.

At the party Bruce Wayne organises to congratulate Harvey Dent on his appointment as the new DA, The Joker first tackles an old man, telling him “You remind me of my father. I hated my father”. This has lead many fans to believe that the first account about how he obtained the scars is the real version and not what follows. He goes up to Rachel, who stepped up for the old man, and asks his key question and motif “You wanna know how I got this scars?” then pulls out his knife. This is the moment the audience can postulate that he also suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. As mentioned before, the story about the scars changes: in this second account, The Joker is the victim of emotional abuse coming from a wife who leaves him after he mutilates himself out of sympathy for the woman’s own injuries.

In the sixth episode of his appearance, the madman is interrogated at the police headquarters. He slowly pushes his tongue out whenever he wants to reach a conclusion. He tells Batman that he should never start with the head in hurting someone, meaning that he is very well acquainted with the phases of (effective) torture; he insists on the maintaining of the victim’s conscious state so that the latter may suffer as much as possible. The villain realises that he cannot continue his diabolical crusade without the Batman (“What would I do without you? […] You complete me”), which is an element of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. He considers that, for the rest of the world, Batman is also strange, out of his need to believe that there are others like him.

The Joker lives without rules, according to his own words, element which confirms psychosis. He is not afraid of death, element which points to a disorder of the consciousness. He does everything he can to make Batman suffer, including intentionally mixing up the addresses where his two prisoners, Harvey Dent and Rachel are being kept, knowing that Rachel, a person Batman loves, will die in the process. He amplifies the suffering of the two hostages by allowing them to hear one another’s voice via telephone. The character’s sadism is out of control.

The antagonist admits to his guard, while taunting him, that firearms are too quick for his taste, leaving him unable to savour the victims’ agony: “You can’t savour all the little…emotions”. He needs to see someone else in pain, as this pain is transposed to him into emotion.

While discussing with Dent at the hospital, The Joker admits to two important ideas. First, he implies that he has no control of his own self, when trying to underline how pathetic the others (Batman, the police, and the mafia) are in their attempts to control anything in life. Secondly, he admits to his love of anarchy in declaring to Harvey “I am an agent of chaos”. He uses ideas from this registre to try and manipulate Harvey and turn him into a psychopath.

The last episode in the motion picture directly related to The Joker is the one involving his “social experiment” with the two boats: one small ship contains prison inmates, the other innocent citizens. Both groups are given a remote to make the other boat explode. The ones using it are the ones to escape alive, while, if no group makes such a decision, both ships will be reduced to rubble. In this particular aspect, the movie depicts normality triumphant (since no boat triggers the explosion of the other) and, as Batman remarks, the fact that The Joker is alone in his views. The character’s anti-social tendencies only help in giving further proof of his mental illness. The madman once again appeals to his question motif “You wanna know how I got this scars?” right before he is about to remotely destroy both ships. In this particular circumstances, he does not manage to provide an account for his scars, since Batman throws him off a building and then saves him from hitting the ground with one of his gadgets. The difference between normal and abnormal is made by the consciousness, which is exactly the element that does not allow Batman to let Joker fall and die. The villain does not want to depart from the protagonist (“Maybe we can share one [a prison cell]) because he sees in Batman a compulsion complemented by his obsession to inflict pain. It is highly likely that he became a psychopath and/or had his first psychotic episode at some point when he was completely demoralised. Such an aspect may be inferred from his statement to Batman regarding the fact that even people like Harvey Dent can become psychopaths. After all, “Madness is like gravity. All it needs is a little … push”.

In the graphic novel “The Dark Knight Return”, we see The Joker escaping Arkham Asylum after ten years of imprisonment and fighting an aged Batman. He commits suicide to make the  police, dominated by a very strong anti-Batman sentiment, believe the Dark Knight was responsible for his death. Besides noting that suicide may have been viewed as something fascinating by the villain, since the instinct for self-preservation was overruled, one must also take note of that fact that every psychotic person reaches this point if left without medication.

In conclusion, considering the symptoms presented above, as well as their manifestations, The Joker is now clearly diagnosable with psychosis, possibly schizophrenia. However, insufficient data is provided from a clinical point of view to pinpoint “schizophrenia”.  

Anything that deviates from normality is, and probably will ever be, a source of fascination. Such is the case with this character as well. Personally, I believe that The Joker provides an illusion of freedom (from social norms, contracts, conduit, etc) and staying true to one’s own nature.


Further Reading

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, Fourth Edition, American Psychiatric Association, 2000

Manual de buzunar de psihiatrie clinica. Editia a III-a”, Kaplan, Editura Medicala, 2007

“Psihoterapie pozitiva. Teorie si practica”, Nossrat Peseschkian, Editura Trei, 2007


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