The Deeply Philosophical Concerns of the Joker

Bad clowns are aplenty in popular culture. And they raise some important questions about society.

Thirty years ago, in 1989 to be exact, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean created one of the most incongruous and ironic institutional histories one can imagine. A psychiatrist is admitted into his own hospital as an inmate when he commits murder and descends into madness.

We later discover his bizarre actions: the doctor may have euthanised his mother who had gone insane, his own wife and daughter had been brutally violated and murdered by an insane man whom the doctor then treats and eventually electrocutes, the doctor may have cannibalised the remains of his murdered family, and lapsed into madness seeing a creature everywhere in the house.

Amadeus Arkham, this unfortunate doctor, is the founder and inmate of Arkham Hospital, eventually Arkham Asylum, and this is the story Morrison and McKean tell in the 1989 work, Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (the subtitle is from Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’).

With some of the most astonishing drawings in the Batman universe, surreal, horrific, repulsive, Arkham Asylum is a classic in the DC oeuvre. In Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One in the police commissioner’s office, there is an incongruous portrait on the wall: that of a clown. In Jim Starlin’s Batman: A Death in the Family, the Joker who would later beat Robin to death, declares, “I happen to be crazy, not stupid.”

Also read | Movie Review: ‘Joker’ Doesn’t Erase the Villain’s Backstory

But why are these texts important?

The answer is simple: Arkham Asylum’s most famous inmate is a super-villain who has been etched into the minds of the comic-book fans and in pop culture, on par with Dracula and Frankenstein’s (unfortunate) monster: the Joker.

Immortalised by diverse stars and performances like Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and now Joaquin Phoenix, the Joker continues to mesmerise us. The Joker is part of a cultural iconography that includes jesters (right from early modern plays through Shakespeare’s jesters), prankster-trickster figures and clowns. They are part of the circus and they are a part of the horror genre, exemplified most famously by Pennywise in Stephen King’s novel (and subsequent TV series and films), It. They are also significant figures that enable certain questions to arise about the (fictional) society they live in, and ours. But what is it about Arkham’s Joker or the clown that is so maniacally frightening, although it is a ‘joke-figure’, ostensibly?

Bad clowns are aplenty in popular culture. Besides the Joker and Pennywise, there is the Punch of the famous Punch and Judy puppet show, a key feature of the 19th-century English pop culture scene. Then there are movies such as Dead Silence, Poltergeist and others, plus the real-life horror of John Wayne Gacy of Chicago, the man who entertained children as Pogo the Clown and was the very pillar of society, and turned out to be a serial killer behind the cheerfulness (several films were made on him).

First and foremost, their weird physical characteristics, and costume, contribute to the sense of uneasiness – people do not usually dress like that, do they? – in us. But that is not all, since the grotesque is something one gets used to over time. Frank McAndrew argues that it is the “inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that makes them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really? And they’re mischievous, which puts people constantly on guard”.

Then, the Joker and the clown combine within their appearance and action, the ambiguity of horror and humour, an ambiguity we discover over time. When, for example, the Heath Ledger version queries, “Why so serious?” and offers to put a smile on everyone’s face – as is well known, the Joker’s brand of poison kills people, and leaves them with their faces frozen in a rictus-smile – he is not being funny although he appears to be. When Jack Nicholson asks, “Do I look like I am joking?” in the earlier avatar of the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, he shades the comic into the menacing. This is the ambiguity.

Also read | The Joker’s Origin Story Comes at a Perfect Moment: Clowns Define Our Times

The fear of the clown, argues Ben Bradford in his wonderful Bad Clowns (2016), “stems from a latent, potential harm, a suspicion that the seemingly silly and harmless pratfalling fool before us may in fact not be so silly, so foolish, or so harmless”. The Joker’s actions, or Pennywise’s, are not in the least funny, and this is what alerts us to the potential harm behind the funny face and costume. (This anxiety is not the same as the irrational fear of clowns, or coulrophobia.) Radford cites Tony Timpone, editor of the horror film-themed Fangoria magazine:

“I think what makes a clown scary to some people is that this happy-go-lucky face could be hiding something. You don’t really know what’s underneath the phony face—it could be a psychopath, so it’s really disturbing. A lot of clown faces, it’s almost like a forced or exaggerated sense of happiness, or innocence perhaps, that can be very threatening in the wrong circumstances.”

The mask, itself a sign of play-acting and therefore of illusion/fakery, even in the clown, leaves us uncertain at the worryingly expansive and a shade distended smile: how much do we trust a person in a mask? Is it really comic? In Arkham Asylum, for instance, the Joker pretends to pierce a girl’s eye with a pencil. When the Batman rushes in and sees the girl intact, the Joker bursts into laughter and screams, ‘April Fool’ at the Batman. A decidedly unfunny joke.

Another reason to examine the Joker-Clown phenomenon is for the theme of monstrosity. Jokers and clowns are perceived as monsters. The art philosopher, Nöel Carroll, argues in his delightful essay ‘Horror and Humor’, that “monsters, then, are creatures – fictionally confected out of either supernatural lore or science fiction fancy – whose existence contemporary science challenges”. They are creatures who are examples of a “category error or categorical contradiction”, full of incongruities within them. Carroll’s definition of the clown as a monster is worth citing:

It is a fantastic being, one possessed of an alternate biology, a biology that can withstand blows to the head by hammers and bricks that would be deadly for any mere human, and the clown can sustain falls that would result in serious injury for the rest of us. Not only are clowns exaggeratedly misshapen and, at times, outright travesties of the human form – contortions played on our paradigms of the human shape – they also possess a physical resiliency conjoined with muscular and cognitive disfunctionalities that mark them off as an imaginary species.

Through the Batman story arcs, the Joker is pummelled mercilessly and he simply laughs at every blow, almost as though the physical torment does not register on his mind. Is he in his corporeality immune to pain as a medical condition? If so, that would be an incongruity. Ruth, the doctor in Arkham Asylum offers for the first time a theory of the Joker’s disposition which ties in with Carroll’s view of the challenge to and from science that monsters represent. She says:

“…we’re not even sure if he can be properly defined as insane…we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here…he can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input [sensory information] by going with the flow…some days he is a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality…he creates himself everyday…”

The ‘super-sanity’ argument, although scientifically untenable, offers us a different view of things: how do we classify people whose moral, intellectual and emotional compasses are radically different from the normative ‘human’ ones we are accustomed to? A comparable example comes from The Silence of the Lambs where, when asked if Dr Hannibal-the-Cannibal Lecter is a ‘vampire’, Clarice Starling responds: “They don’t have a name for what he is.” Things that defeat the human taxonomic system, like cyborgs, superheroes, gods and devils, generate fear, and the clown is precisely that ‘thing’.

Clowns and the Joker question the idea of the normal. Categories such as normal/insane, good/bad are devices through which some people – those who dissent, who speak uncomfortable truths, whose emotional responses are unexpected – can be consigned to the asylum and the prison. This constructed nature of all identity, all norms, is something the clown figure and the Joker point to.

The Joker in the Batman universe comes up with insights that range from the outlandish to the brilliant. This is perhaps best exemplified in one of the most horrific texts in this universe: Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke. The Joker shoots Gordon’s daughter in the spine, and when she lies paralyzed, strips her and photographs her. Later, chaining the naked James Gordon in the circus he (the Joker) has bought, like a performing animal, he forces Gordon to watch those pictures, so that Gordon would go mad. As the Joker explains to Batman:

“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy…That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day…I can tell you had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?”

The Joker testifies here to the power of experience to determine levels of sanity. Elsewhere in the same text he would say:

“Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this…any other response would be crazy!”

This closely echoes the arguments of Eric Fromm in The Sane Society (1955) where he begins thus in the opening chapter titled ‘Are We Sane?’:

“Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself. Many a severe neurotic believes that his compulsive rituals or his hysterical outbursts are normal reactions to somewhat abnormal circumstances. What about ourselves?

In the last one hundred years we, in the Western world, have created a greater material wealth than any other society in the history of the human race. Yet we have managed to kill off millions of our population in an arrangement which we call “war.””

Then, pointing to the mass media and the economy, he ponders:

“If an individual acted in this fashion, serious doubts would be raised as to his sanity; should he, however, claim that there is nothing wrong, and that he is acting perfectly reasonably, then the diagnosis would not even be doubtful any more.”

Also read | The Psychology Behind Why Clowns Creep Us out

Is the jester or the clown’s ‘madness’ itself a ‘normal’ response to the crazy world? If so, are the ones who take the crazy world of lynchings, child-rape, greater tax rebates for the super-rich, genocide and state-sponsored torture in their stride, proceeding with business as usual, sane at all?

The Joker is referring to the construction, for its own purposes, of the idea of sanity. The possibility that any of us could be the clown or the Joker depends on necessity and the contingent situation in which we find ourselves. When the Joker implies that in a different world he may be considered sane, he is stating such a possibility, that world could have turned out in a certain way (an argument made by Sam Cowling and Chris Ragg in a provocative essay titled ‘Could the Batman have been the Joker?’ in the collection, Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul).

At what point does Batman’s OCD-type, violent behaviour (not to mention costume) become ‘good’ and the Joker’s bad? In what kind of universe does one person’s violence acquire shades of morality? The Joker is pointing to these questions. The Joker’s beatings at the hands of young thugs in the new film, his back story in the Killing Joke, of an ordinary wannabe stand-up comedian who becomes the victim of tragic circumstance all set out to prove his case: one bad day defines your future, and the social order’s notions of good/bad no longer hold good then.

The Joker’s constant attempt to tell Batman that they are alike, implies a common thread of (in)sanity between them. He calls Batman ‘darling’ in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, paws his butt in Arkham Asylum (and when the Batman recoils in horror, asks: ‘did I touch a nerve?), and in The Killing Joke’s final scene, Batman and the Joker laugh hysterically, together.

Admittedly, and to play devil’s advocate, this appears to be a justification of evil, explaining away the clown or Joker’s behaviour by recourse to a ‘bad day’, and thereby blurring the lines between good and evil. What would justify torture, rape or murder? If a person is able to understand the consequences of sliding a knife into another, or beating another with a crowbar (A Death in the Family), then surely the person is fit to be punished for it rather than excused in the name of being ‘super-sane’?

Moral relativism of the kind preached to explain away individual and collective wrong-doing – think of the multitude of violent acts explained away as proceeding from ‘hurt sentiments’ – ends up in positioning evil/wickedness and good as purely situational and constructed, and ignores the moral reluctance most of us have to injure a fellow being.

Dehumanisation rhetoric such as hate speech which treats some persons as less-than-human is therefore dangerous because it takes away this moral reluctance and allows and encourages us to turn into killers and torturers. When we forgive such acts, we become complicit in/with them. As Barbara Ehrenreich said when she saw America unhorrified at the Abu Ghraib tortures by American soldiers: “We are all torturers now.”

That said, the construction and situatedness of notions and normative ideals of normal, morality, good/bad and of course sane/insane are brought home through these iconic texts. The 30th anniversary of the best-selling Arkham Asylum has been celebrated with Todd Phillips’s Joker, and continues the exploration of the Clown Prince of Crime and, by extension, the entire cultural text of clowning, the comic and the joke.

These are interrogative texts in their own right. Calling moral and psychological categories into question is achieved first, through the clown’s  corporeal ambiguity. Second, it is achieved through showing the clown’s actions that are at odds with their (excessively) cheery appearance. These are in fact deeply philosophical concerns disguised as entertainment.

And is not a joke.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.