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Datebook: The Psych Geeks Declare The Joker Wild

JD Hancock
Flickr/Creative Commons
The most vexing of Batman's arch villains just won't be pinned down.

With a new film that’s no joke at the box office, the Joker is the man of the hour. 

They call him The Clown Prince of Crime, the Harlequin of Hate, and the Jester of Genocide. He’s known by many nicknames, but he’s really not known at all—a fact that contributes to his peculiar and lethal—charm. 

Of all of Batman’s foes, the Joker is the most elusive. That’s according to Scott Jordan and Eric Wesselmann, professors of psychology at Illinois State University and WGLT’s Psych Geeks. Slippery though the Joker may be, that hasn’t stopped the Geeks from trying to pin him down as contributors to a new book:Joker Psychology: Evil Clowns and the Women Who Love Them.”

Mischief...chaos....evil...they’re all there, under the brightly painted surface that hides a monster. 

“He very much adapts to the times,” Wesselmann said. “And is very, very unpredictable.”

psych geeks
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
Scott Jordan (l) and Eric Wesselmann, aka The Psych Geeks, are frequent contributors to publications that peer at popular culture through the lens of psychology.

“He’s also a kind of psychological Rorschach,” Jordan offered. “In the sense that we look at him and try to figure out who he is and what he is. When you look at how he’s been depicted over the years, he defies definition, in some cases, even as a human being, often depicted as mad. Authors refuse to give him a backstory.”

The lack of a backstory helps sustain identity uncertainty, so audiences never get past whatever fright Joker may provoke within them.  

“Because you can never know him,” Jordan added. 

That creates a problem for us. As humans, we have certain needs. And that wily Joker just won’t meet them.

“We need to predict and understand other people’s behavior,” Wesselmann explained. “Also, to be able to find meaning. The Joker just flies in the face of all of that.” 

Part of what makes the Joker so complicated is the fact that he’s been shaped by a series of writers over the years. Different writers would bring certain aspects of his character forward. Society had a hand in fashioning the Joker, as well. 

“Society’s constraints, their fears, their morbid fascinations and, to some degree, moral watchdogs. All of these things create the stew that the Joker ultimately comes out of.” 

The Joker started as a basic, albeit colorful, supervillain in the first Batman comic. 

“Interestingly, they were going to kill him off,” Wesselmann revealed. “And the art was done, but when it went to the editors, they said this villain is gold, you can’t kill him off.” 

That reprieve gave Joker the last laugh and Gotham City its most terrifying supervillain. Early in his incarnation, Joker was sane, said Wesselmann. 

“He was a killer, but his crimes were crimes of profit. In the 40s, after the comic code came in and there was this moral panic about if comics were destroying children’s minds, they backed Joker off. They said he can’t kill.  He has to be more silly. And that lead to the depiction that you see in the 1960s TV show.” 

Then in the 70s, comics turned darker. Silly was out and gritty was in, and that’s when the Joker became a killer again. It’s also when the writers began to depict him as insane. 

With the release of “The Killing Joke” in the 80s, Joker got fleshed out a bit more and morphed into a more intricate killer, targeting those who were in Batman’s circle. 

“You can look at Joker in many different ways,” Jordan said. “You can look at him as an individual human agent who has gone mad and derives his satisfaction out of life by driving Batman mad.” 

“You can also look at him as a sort of Lovecraftian god.  Some people have compared him to Nyarlathotep, one of the old gods who can actually manifest in human form. He has the power to destroy the planet. But he’d rather keep us alive and drive us mad. They also call him The Crawling Chaos. You can see him as a sort of embodiment of Murphy’s Law with a real harsh edge.” 

“Look at the Joker mythically, look at the Joker psychologically – that inability to actually classify him is the point. We get over fear by understanding it. It just ends up being not a whole lot to understand.” 

“The Joker Psychology: Evil Clowns and the Women Who Love Them” is published by Sterling.


The Psych Geeks talk about why we can't get enough of The Joker in popular culture.


Hear the Psych Geeks talk about the influence of H.P. Lovecraft on the character development of The Joker.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.