"Tonight you’re all going to be a part of a social experiment… At midnight I blow you all up" — Heath Ledger as the Joker in the film "The Dark Knight"
That ominous line, used in the climactic scene in the second film of the Batman trilogy, “The Dark Knight,” is now particularly painful to hear after the tragic mass killings in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of the sequel, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Just as the film began, a young man who apparently fancied himself as The Joker, replete with red hair and body armor, opened fire from the front of a crowded theater. James Holmes also used gas to create a diversion, just as the Joker does in “The Dark Knight.”
It is symbolic that the worst mass shooting in American history took place in a cinema, for rarely before have the boundaries of fact and fiction, reality and virtual reality, become as blurred and perilous as in our time. Likely thinking it was a promotional stunt – Holmes allegedly shouted “I am the Joker” -- the doomed patrons probably had even less time to react before the carnage commenced.
| Dr. G. Heath King
Yet it is precisely in this nebulous melding of reality and virtual reality that what has been referred to as an incomprehensible tragedy becomes intelligible as the Joker's mask is lifted. Holmes' consciously cultivated identification with the Joker clearly indicates he is not "psychotic" or "insane" as many commentators have deemed him.
Why? Psychosis is a clinically specific condition exhibiting impaired thought processes and a loss of contact with external reality. Holmes, by contrast, is much like the Joker of the films and comic books. By all accounts he has an astute intellect and is keenly in touch with reality – his exceptional academic performance in neuroscience and shrewd long-term planning of the massacre is proof of that. Even his surrender to police was clearly planned and scripted – the wording in his profile on a sex website asks, "Will you visit me in prison?"
Moreover, Holmes is fully conscious of the nature of his acts and their implications, which by legal definition eliminates the insanity defense. Following the traditional gold standard M’Naughten Rule from 19th Century England, the accused must not have been able to know “the difference between right and wrong.” Yet Holmes clearly knew this distinction and operated by rational, free choice.
One of his main characteristics is that he is highly manipulative. We may expect Holmes to continually reinvent himself in attempting to mastermind the system as he did at his first court appearance by feigning a dazed disassociation from reality. This is already evident in his disingenuous facial expressions and the contrived stare of 20 to 30 seconds. That is not in accord with proven durations of eye movements and emotions that measure between 5 and 10 seconds maximum, as body language expert Renate Mousseux has noted.
It is in this continual attempt to manipulate and feign that we see another characteristic of the Joker from the films and the graphic novels. Of particular relevance for the coming period is the incarceration of the Joker in Arkham Asylum, the fictional mental hospital that holds many of the villains in the lore of Batman. The Joker simulates insanity so as to evade the death penalty. In the same vein, we may also expect that some mental health practitioners will advocate leniency based on deleterious circumstances in Holmes' childhood. After all, the Joker gained sympathy in this manner from the psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, who treated him at the asylum and succumbed to his manipulation. (Quinzel eventually becomes the villainess Harley Quinn after she herself goes “insane.”)
Were those diagnosing Holmes to fail to penetrate his camouflaged modus operandi, as has happened so often in comparable court proceedings, they too will have succumbed to a ruse articulated in the ancient Chinese text entitled Thirty-Six Stratagems: “Hide behind the mask of a fool, a drunk, or a madman to create confusion about your intentions and motivations. Lure your opponent into understanding your ability until, overconfident, he drops his guard. Then you may attack.” (Stratagem 27)
Mastery at manipulation is more commonly found among psychopaths than psychotics, as is a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, absence of guilt or remorse, deflection of responsibility, and a complete lack of empathy.
It is the total absence of empathy, of any emotional affinity to another human being, that enables psychopaths like Holmes to massacre innocent men, women, and children. The criminal psychopath experiments with humans as if they were insects or the hummingbirds whose flight muscles Holmes studied as an intern at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.
In such settings the psychopath can exercise total control and create malaise and bedlam at will. The estranged outlier Holmes shares this motive, too, with the Joker, who reveals his ultimate mission in "The Dark Knight": "Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos."
In the fragile psyche of the criminal psychopath, order and chaos are not polar opposites, but two sides of the same coin. Holmes’ meticulous focus on laboratory experiments in a sense contained and controlled the chaos whirling within. Once abandoned, as in the last months before the massacre, chaos could not only erupt but be malevolently embraced. Hence his announcement as he unleashed the carnage, “I am the Joker."
G. Heath King, Ph.D, is a psychoanalyst and former professor of interdisciplinary studies at Yale University. He is author of "Existence, Thought, Style: Perspectives of a Primary Relation, Portrayed Through the Work of Søren Kierkegaard." He explored the philosophical foundations of psychology at the University of Freiburg, Germany, where he completed his doctorate.
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