Vacillating between ruthless comic book killer and television prankster clown, the Joker has been the perfect villain for more than 70 years. Bringing the hidden sinister nature of humanity into the forefront of a world full of cloaked "good guys," the Joker is part vigilante and part criminal. He does not hide his true nature, but rather flaunts it. But is he clinically, criminally insane?
With so many iconic interpretations of the Joker to choose from, particularly the plethora of material from the comic books, we had to pick just one to focus our research on. We ultimately chose to use The Dark Knight's Heath Ledger Joker for the sake of simplicity, saving the other unique interpretations for another day.
While everything you've seen of this Joker may scream insanity, the Joker is not clinically insane. Not even criminally insane. Let's explore how the hell that is possible.
"Where'd you learn to count?" Bibliapobre
'NO, NO, NO. I KILL THE BUS DRIVER'
Alright, in order to properly assess the Joker's psychological landscape, we have to start with a diagnosis. Mental health expert, H. Eric Bender, M.D., often writes about comic book characters and their state of mental health. Of the Clown Prince of Crime, Bender said "In the vast majority of depictions... the Joker has shown symptoms of psychopathy."
According to Psychology Today, psychopaths have a tendency towards violent behavior, a lack of empathy or remorse and a certain disregard for the rules, social mores, laws and the rights of others. Sound familiar? But psychopathy is not a mental disorder, according to Bender, but rather a construct of personality type, caused by the nature or genetic makeup of a person.
This psychopathic lack of empathy makes the Joker a formidable foe; he does not feel sympathy for his victims, does not have loyalty to his fellow criminals and does not exhibit remorse. Psychopaths often manipulate others through highly calculated plans and organization, as they possess an "accurate "” sometimes superior "” understanding of others' thinking with little awareness or regard for their feelings," according to WebMD.
Early on in The Dark Knight, the Joker establishes this fluid loyalty and advanced understanding of the criminal thought process. Hidden behind the mask of Bozo, the Joker participates in a bank heist with a crew who has been instructed to kill each other off, one by one, to take a larger cut of the stolen money. The Joker's ultimate goal is achieved through very sane decisions and extensive planning, exhibiting his superior understanding and knowledge of how the mind works, and what people will do for greed.
Further, psychopaths are notorious for being charming and disarming in personality, despite their lack of empathy, according to Psychology Today. Masters of imitation, psychopaths appear to be functioning emotional beings, generally highly educated and able to hold steady jobs. If a psychopath commits a crime, it is typically very organized, detailed and planned. Think Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. While the Joker may not be climbing the corporate ladder, he certainly climbs the criminal ladder, turning mob families against each other, infiltrating the men who work for Commissioner Gordon and turning the District Attorney Harvey Dent into a figure of terror.
"You complete me." MoviePilot
'INTRODUCE A LITTLE ANARCHY. UPSET THE ESTABLISHED ORDER, AND EVERYTHING BECOMES CHAOS'
Alright, case closed, the Joker is a psychopath then, right? Wrong. The Joker is so much more than a pure Patrick Bateman. He's also a bit of a sociopath.
In contrast to psychopaths, sociopaths are not able to fit in and play the part in regards to social norms and societal expectations. While both conditions fall under the umbrella of antisocial personality disorders, sociopaths are seen as hot-headed and do not typically give much thought to how others will react or how they feel. Think Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange. Random, antisocial and without rules, sociopaths are not planners nor are they very particular.
Just as a sociopath does not fit in with society, the Joker constantly tries to make Batman admit he is also an outcast from society. He wants to share in their exile. During the interrogation scene, the Joker wants his nemesis to give into his own sociopathic tendencies, to indulge his desire for violence, uncompromising justice and order:
"Don't talk like one of them. You're not! Even if you'd like to be. To them, you're just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don't, they'll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble…When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they'll eat each other."
If a sociopath commits a crime, he or she often does so in a haphazard, messy, passionate way as the result of an emotional outburst. Think Jack the Ripper or Darth Vader, both of whom react purely based on emotion with little regard for the lives or feelings of others. While the Joker does plan most of his murders, he very specifically carries them out with a small knife, after telling a fluid story of his potential past trauma in a burst of emotion.
This makes sense, as sociopathy is thought to be in direct correlation to the nurture aspect of someone's environment, particularly as a small child. As a result of possible trauma or abuse during the formative years, sociopaths are capable of limited empathy, according to Psychology Today. For an example, think literally ANY Cormac McCarthy character.
"What doesn't kill you simply makes you...stranger." HD Wallpapers
We see hints of the Joker's potentially harrowing background in The Dark Knight when he constantly rewrites his origin story, changing the plot every time, particularly in regards to the scars on his face. In one instance during The Dark Knight, the Joker asks a victim:
"You wanna know how I got these scars? My father, was a drinker, and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn't like that. Not. One. Bit. So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. He turns to me and says, 'Why so serious?' Comes at me with the knife. 'WHY SO SERIOUS?' He sticks the blade in my mouth... 'Let's put a smile on that face.'"
'I AM NOT CRAZY'
So… he's both? Yes, sort of. Here's the oversimplification of the difference between a violent sociopath and a violent psychopath: A psychopath might have you over for dinner, complete with candles, wine and serve questionable (but delicious) meat, and afterwards, chop your unconscious body (oh did I forget to mention your drink was poisoned) into small, delicate pieces before freezing the meat for future meals. A sociopath, on the other hand, might meet you at a Denny's to catch up, lose his or her cool when you dismissively mention the new Justin Bieber album, and carry your bloody eyeball in their pocket all the way to jail. Again, simplified, but you get the point.
Ledger's Joker exists in the fascinating in-between space, not quite harvesting your organs for an eventual medical malpractice scheme, but neither would he kill you over neglecting to do the dishes, again. Unless there happened to be a particularly nasty pan with burned cheese on it, then he might really wanted to show you his super cool disappearing pencil trick...
The Joker is the perfect (terrifying) blend of Alex DeLarge and Patrick Bateman; he does not attempt to fit into the world of rules and order, but rather uses those rules to turn society against itself. He does not play along in the corporate world or attempt to live in the societal space, but neither does he act in chaotic randomness.
So if the Joker isn't clinically, criminally insane, is he just an average Joe? Not exactly. He is psychopathic. The problem, then, lies in the psychiatric terms often associated with the Joker: insane, psychotic, crazy, etc. Beyond the world of Batman, these terms are thrown around casually in pop culture and media, but are not accurate descriptors for many real life and fictional people who do not fit into our societal definition of "sanity."
Arkham Asylum doesn't look so bad... Wikia
Mental health expert Praveen R. Kambam, M.D. explained, "Batman villains... are frequently referred to as 'insane' in the comics, but insanity is actually not a psychiatric or mental health term, but a legal concept...In the real world, only 1 percent of criminal cases plead not guilty by reason of insanity; only 20 percent of those 1 percent are successful." Interesting. As the joker would not qualify as legally insane in most depictions, Ponzios purported that the Joker would not be institutionalized at the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
And further, as he is very sane, there are few treatments for antisocial personality disorders. "Psychopaths are not prescribed medications to treat their psychopathic personality traits," Bender said. Therapy doesn't seem to be useful, either. According to forensic psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, Michael Welner, M.D. Welner, "people who are true psychopaths really are cold and callous and lack empathy and have a detached way of feeling emotion... if they exhibit emotion, it's an effort to create an impression...they will just learn what to tell a therapist to show that they have improved."
Just imagine the Joker in a therapy session, explaining how he played dead in a body bag in order to be brought in front of a mob family to ultimately kill Gambol and take over his thugs. Oh, and he then forced the remaining thugs to fight to the death for one remaining spot on his team with a splintered pool stick. Yeah, that would go over well.
"Some people just want to watch the world burn." Forum Zirve
Alright, so he's obviously a criminal mastermind, but Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker still seems, well, insane. Perhaps that's something that both fascinates and scares fans about the Joker. There is no treatment for a personality disorder because the Joker, and those who suffer from psychopathy and sociopathy, are not in actuality, insane at all. As Bender said, "Just because a behavior is aberrant or considered 'crazy,' it does not mean that the behavior is the result of mental illness."
Ultimately, it's much easier to classify someone's psychological landscape as insane or crazy, than to reckon with the inherent darkness found in the human psyche. When the Joker brutally murders someone with a knife, we like to think it's because he is mentally unstable, because he is different from us, because he is somehow broken. But the Joker is not insane.
"No I am not." Giphy
Heath Ledger's Joker forces us, and Bruce Wayne, to confront those ugly urges, thoughts and our own capacity for evil. His complete dominion over his mental facility is rather unsettling ("I am not…[crazy] I am not."). At times, the viewers (and Batman) may even find the Clown Prince of Crime making a bit of sense. The Joker is a sociopath in that he abhors order and society, but he manages his chaos through cold, calculated psychopathy.
As Welner said, "Psychopaths wear the mask of sanity." The Joker, on the other hand, wears the literal mask of insanity. An inwardly sane person who acts out in giant displays of disorder and fervor, the Joker has the calm and collected persona of a psychopath, hiding behind the chaotic and rule-abhorring mask of a sociopath. A sane, sane sociopath.