The Many Faces of Evil (A Halloween Extravaganza)

Alright, so it’s officially October now right?  That means our thoughts turn towards things spooky and scary.  In the spirit of the season, I thought it would be interesting to use a character I’ve always found particularly terrifying to muse on the philosophical nature of evil.  In so doing, I can jump from fictional frights to the true terror that exists in the world around us.  Nothing says “holiday/seasonal fun” like wrestling with the darkness that can grow in the heart of the human soul right?  Haha, nope!  Sounds fun!  This, of course, naturally brings us to the Joker.

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Photo Credit – Batman (1966-68)

For me, the Joker has always been one of the most honest characters in all of fiction.  You see, I don’t like clowns.  I never have.  So the idea that one would actually be a super villain makes all the sense in the world to me.  Deep down I believe the Joker is what all clowns really are – he just has the decency to be honest about it.  This idea of a twisted, malevolent clown is the embodiment of a deep, unnerving personal fear that’s lived in my psyche since childhood.  I still have the vivid (although I’m sure completely embellished with age and imagination) memory of a Halloween, years ago when I was a child.  I answered the door to a trick or treater dressed as a clown.  Aaaagghh!!  He wasn’t a scary clown mind you.  He was just a clown.  But I took one look at his pale, powdered visage and I was gone.  I ran to the family room, as fast as my little legs would carry me, seeking safety behind an old faux-leather recliner we had at the time.  There I cowered for hours and hours and hours several minutes until my parents assured me the clown was gone and managed to convince me that I was safe.

Who dresses as a clown for fun anyway??  Gah!  Clowns freak me out.  (We’re not even going to get started on the whole creepy-clowns-stalking-the-country issue.  No thank you.)  Despite this seemingly primal, instinctive fear, as an adult I’ve still come to be captivated by the Joker.  Or rather, I am fascinated by what he represents as a fictional character.  To me, more than any other character, the Joker has come to personify evil incarnate.  He’s not just a “bad guy” or a regular ol’ “super villain.”  Nor is he emotionally damaged or mentally ill.  He is evil.  This makes him as important in a metaphorical sense as he is freakishly scary.

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Photo Credit – Batman (1966-68)

So, for October, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to explore the Joker across all of his live-action cinematic incarnations – Cesar Romero (1966), Jack Nicholson (1989), Heath Ledger (2008), and Jared Leto (2016) – to see what we can learn from these portrayals in regard to the slippery and multi-faceted nature of evil.  The plan is to put one post up a week, profiling a different incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime.  However, I reserve the right to abandon this little endeavor if thinking about the Joker this much (not to mention re-watching all these films, looking at all the images, maybe reading some comics etc.) freaks me out more than I can handle :/.  But I’ll try to be brave…

But where do we begin?  Well, in The Sound Of Music Julie Andrews tells us the beginning is a very good place to start.  Since I try to earnestly take to heart all the advice Julie Andrews offers me in musicals, I have to begin my little trip through these artistic depictions of evil with Cesar Romero’s portrayal of the Joker in both the TV series Batman (1966-1968) and the Dark Knight’s first feature-length film adaptation, Batman (1966).  His Joker was one I first met as a child when Dad introduced me to Batman in syndication.

It should come as no surprise that growing up, Past Michael was not a fan of the dark, sinister, and disturbing.  (Heck, Present Michael only developed an appreciation of it because Kalie keeps forcing me to watch this shit I’m dating a horror fanatic and it’s nice to share interests.)  So, wanting to steer clear of nightmare-inducing fare BUT also being a huge superhero fan, Batman (1966-68) seemed like a good place to go.  I loved it!  It was bright.  It was goofy.  The Batmobile looked cool.  The Batcave was accessed by fire poles hidden behind a bookcase that moved after turning a secret dial concealed in a bust.  The bad guys lairs were always filmed at an angle to prove they were crooked.  There were big word balloon sound effects that would spin onto the screen.  And the gadgets!  Holy mother-load Batman…the gadgets!

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Frankly, I’m not sure Batman ever needs to be any darker or scarier than this.  Adam West and Burt Ward nailed it. / Photo Credit – Batman (1966-68)

However, it took me a while to work up the courage to watch the show.  Why?  What could keep me from this wonderfully wacky foray into the world of Batman and Robin??  Well, I knew the show had a clown on it.  Yeah, I know the Joker is Batman’s archenemy and his appearance should be expected.  But I didn’t know if I could watch something with his freakish white face laughing at me from the TV screen…

For a long time I avoided the show.  Eventually though, I fought through my fear (although often covering my eyes whenever he’d come on screen) and watched it.  Now, I’ve obviously grown to love the show.  It’s a classic!  As Clueless is for the ’90s, so too is Batman a wonderful time capsule piece for the ’60s.  It’s a lot of fun and I see nothing nightmarish about the electric joy buzzer wearing, exploding shark employing, hysterically cackling Joker in Batman (1966).  For me, it’s this fact that allows Cesar Romero’s Joker to be an inroad into a deeper consideration of the reality of evil in the world around us.

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Photo Credit – Batman (1966-68)

Before I go any further I want to make clear I don’t believe any of the symbolism I’m going to place on Batman‘s mod-tastic Joker was intended either by Romero in his performance or the writers and directors of the show or film.  Rather it was meant to be (and is!) campy fun not dark and brooding philosophy.  But the fun of it all is where the symbolism lies.  You see we often (unnervingly) find something fun/entertaining about what’s bad/wrong/evil.

There’s just something about doing bad things that is appealing to human beings.  No one expresses and agonizes over this truth with more honesty or clarity than Augustine (the 3rd century bishop, writer, and (eventual) saint who’d become the most important Christian thinker outside of Jesus and Paul).  In Book II of the West’s first autobiography/tell-all memoir, The Confessions, he writes famously of stealing pears from a neighbor’s pear tree with his friends.  He declares, “I already had plenty of what I stole, and of much better quality too, and I had no desire to enjoy it when I resolved to steal it.  I simply wanted to enjoy the theft for its own sake, and the sin….we derived pleasure from the deed simply because it was forbidden….I feasted on the sin, nothing else, and that I relished and enjoyed.  Even if some morsel of the pears did enter my mouth, it was only the criminal act that lent it savor.”  What makes this a classic exploration of our experience of right and wrong is Augustine’s honesty.  For some reason we, as human beings, are drawn to do bad things.  Why?  What is it that makes us want to touch something as soon as someone tells us not to?  Why do we want to do what we’re not supposed to do?  Why does it seem fun, funny, exciting, or entertaining?  I wish I had a worthwhile answer…

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If only zappy joy-buzzers were as dark as humanity got… / Photo Credit – Batman (1966)

The 1960’s Joker can serve as a brilliant example of the entertaining aspect of doing wrong.  He is a giggling, goofy clown who literally fights people with jokes and is intent on causing madcap mayhem in Gotham City.  There’s certainly nothing sinister about him.  He’s funny and seems harmless, especially compared to the true atrocities that exist in the world around us.  Given that framework, there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by his antics.  It doesn’t seem that bad.  Often that’s analogous for how evil can creep into the world around us.  No one wakes up with the desire to be a monster.  But like Augustine, we are often drawn inexplicably to do what we know is wrong.  It starts small, but there’s always the potential to build.  The 1960’s Joker is sort of like a gateway-baddie.  He’s infinitely more silly than scary so spending time with him doesn’t seem so bad.  And who doesn’t want to spend time with a Joker who is a member of the United Underworld and puts his white face paint on over his mustache??

However, if I’m being honest, this weird allure of that which is wrong is one of the spookiest and scariest things about the human experience to me.  No matter how much I consider it (and I do so often, whether in class with my students or during my own meditation), I can’t figure out why we’re drawn to evil.  In the preface to Chuck Klosterman’s excellent 2013 book I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) he raises all of the questions that often plague me – Why are we fascinated by evil?  Why are we drawn to it – either to participate or simply to explore and examine it?  Why would anyone want to be evil?  These are questions we must, as human beings, wrestle with.  William Placher, in his brilliant introductory text A History of Christian Theology, asserts, “Any adequate philosophy or theology must face up to the sad fact that sometimes we choose the evil precisely because doing evil attracts us.”

To my mind, there is nothing scarier than that (except maybe someone doing evil precisely because doing evil attracts them dressed as a clown).  So while I certainly don’t think Cesar Romero’s Joker is evil per say (although in his clownish garb he certainly gave Past Michael a lot of anxiety), I do think he’s a good example of how fun or entertaining doing what we know is wrong can be.  I also think he illustrates how benign the gateway to more truly evil actions can appear – and it certainly gets darker and more dangerous from here.  After Cesar Romero we move on to Jack Nicholson…

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Ah yes, the hot dog phone – you’ll never find a more direct line to scum and villainy.  We must be cautious! / Photo Credit – Batman (1966-68)

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