The Joker’s constant grin is captivating and terrifying, glittering with remorselessness. It’s a signal of madness, the cold laughter of sociopathy. Smiles are often friendly, alluring, and a sign of fun, happiness and comfort. The Joker is king of the forced smile, the cruel grin of glee degenerating into icy malignancy. It turns out that this image of the clown’s face frozen in a permanent, painful grin spawned from a 19th century Victor Hugo novel (here’s a pretty cool graphic novelization of the Hugo novel) and its 1928 German impressionist silent film adaptation.
The Man Who Laughs is actually about a good man who’s in a grotesque situation. Paul Leni’s adaptation stars Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, the son of a nobleman who becomes orphaned and kidnapped by outlaws who maim his face to have a permanent grin. He rescues a blind baby girl and finds an adopted father for them both in a vaudeville producer. They join the show as adults and fall in love.
In the Joker’s iteration of a “man who laughs” some sort of trauma did cause he maddening expression, but the origins of this incident is hidden in a swirling nightmare of confusion. There is no real truth to the details except for the fact that something happened to him that altered him into a surreal monster that exists almost on some strange layer of reality the rest of us can’t touch. It’s like he stepped into Alice’s Looking Glass and is looking back at us in distorted waves – an almost familiar monster.
In The Killing Joke, the deadly clown muses about his backstory. “Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha! But my point is… My point is, I went crazy. When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! Why can’t you? I mean, you’re not unintelligent!
“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. You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed.”
This explanation for his evil – blaming “lunacy” on a “bad day” is terrifying because it is almost relatable to many, and completely relatable to a few people. Jared Leto’s take on The Joker for 2016’s Suicide Squad movie delves back to The Joker’s The Man Who Laughs roots. He also spent time talking to and hanging out with psychiatrists, psychologists and criminals who committed for heinous acts to get inside the brain of this type of sociopathy, psychopathy and/or anti-social behavioral disorder.
“I think the Joker lives in between reality and another plane,” he told Entertainment Weekly about the fiendish clown. “Kind of a shaman in a way. It’s a very intoxicating role to take on. You have permission to break rules and to challenge yourself and anyone around you in a really unique way.”
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