Fans have been captivated by the Joker for more than 80 years. But why are we so crazy for the Clown Prince of Crime?

Since his debut in the first Batman comic in 1940, the Joker has terrorised the fictional city of Gotham across books, cartoons, live-action TV and blockbuster films. Originally destined to be killed off after one issue, the Joker, with his signature clown make-up, eerie cackle and taste for chaos, has cemented himself as one of the most iconic villains of all time.  

Dr Anna-Sophie Jürgens, an expert in the history of violent clowns, describes the Joker as everyone’s favourite cultural nightmare. “He embodies our desire to liberate ourselves from all constraints.”  

According to Jürgens, a Lecturer at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science based at ANU, the inspiration for the Joker can be traced back to the 19th century, a time when the circus was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. “Just imagine HBO, Netflix, Hollywood, whatever you define as pop culture — all this together was the circus.”  

It was around this time that a troupe of acrobats known as the Hanlon-Lees became famous for their macabre take on clowning. They were notorious for incorporating body horror scenarios, such as pretend decapitation, into their performances, and their garish make-up and enlarged red smiles captured audiences’ imaginations.

“It was a bit like a splatter film on stage,” Jürgens says. “Spectators thought they were very violent and very funny.”  

Illustration featuring circus performer and acrobat Thomas Hanlon circa 1860. Image: Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University/Wikimedia Commons

At the peak of the Hanlon-Lees’ popularity, French writer Victor Hugo published his novel L’Homme qui rit, or The Man Who Laughs, which featured a travelling performer named Gwynplaine who had a permanent smile carved into his face following an operation.

In 1928, Universal Studios turned the novel into a silent melodrama starring German actor Conrad Veidt. More than a decade later, it was a photograph of Veidt in character as Gwynplaine that influenced Joker creators Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson.  

The Joker’s visual appearance is unnerving and his psychopathic traits are more than terrifying but, like most of the characters that walk the streets of Gotham, he doesn’t have supernatural powers.

Instead, the Clown Prince of Crime often employs chemistry and microbiology to achieve his nefarious ends; some of his schemes involve transforming his victims into versions of himself by using toxic gas, airborne pathogens or infection.  

This grotesquely creative approach to science makes the Joker particularly monstrous, Jürgens says. “In some ways he’s comparable to Jack the Ripper, where you have a monster destroying bodies of humans but also inscribing himself into the bodies.” 

That’s not the only trait Batman’s arch-enemy shares with the famous serial killer. In ‘Dear Boss’, the first letter alleged to have been sent by the Ripper in 1888, the Joker-esque refrain “ha ha” is used twice.  

Across the DC Universe, the Joker’s quest to build hype around himself is one of his most consistent traits. Such desire for infamy is common in particular groups of criminal offenders, Dr Emily Corner, from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, says. “The idea behind the Joker is he wants to be notorious. It’s the same with school shooters, incels and terrorists. These people want someone to notice, they want to be taken seriously.”  

Heath Ledger as the Joker. Photo: RGR Collection/Alamy

There have been several high-profile cases where the perpetrator’s perceived affinity with Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker has received widespread media attention. In some instances, it was the nature of the crime that drew parallels. In 2016, a teen girl in England cut open her mouth to achieve the Joker smile before stabbing a friend in the chest. In others, the offender’s clown face make-up or dyed hair caused people to make the connection.  

In the lead up to the release of the 2019 film Joker, which starred Joaquin Phoenix, concerns were raised that creating empathy for such a violent character would encourage imitations. The FBI and the United States Department of Defense both issued warnings ahead of the movie’s opening weekend.

“There are always going to be cases of people trying to emulate a certain character,” Corner says. “It’s due to a really complex set of emotions, experiences and environments.”  

Although everyone will develop grievances as they go through life, there are some who will become so fixated on these stressors they can’t focus on anything else, Corner explains. Copying an idol can be part of grounding one’s idea of oneself. “There are so many people in the world that really want to be known because that helps them settle their own identity better.”  

Much of Corner’s research is based on the idea anyone can become a criminal given the right circumstances. This notion is echoed by the Joker himself in an iconic monologue from the graphic novel The Killing Joke, in which he tells Batman that “all it takes is one bad day” to become just like him.

It’s a point that resonates with Jürgens. “We could all be a bit of a Joker,” she says. “That’s what makes him scary and so fascinating.” 

Top image: Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in the 2019 film of the same name. Photo: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

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