Yeah, That’s Kind of a Horror Movie: The Dark Knight

Two classic villains are used to explore the essential substance of horror

In 1992, horror novelists John Skipp and Craig Spector wrote an article called “Death’s Rich Pageantry, or Skipp and Spector’s Handy-Dandy Splatterpunk Guide to the Horrors of Non-horror Film,” published in the book, Cut! Horror Writers on Horror Film. In it, they put forth the hypothesis that “Horror is the engine that powers every movie you ever loved.” Essentially, their point is about the oddity of horror even being classified as a genre in and of itself (horror being an emotion, and not a set of particular trappings or narrative devices); they argue that, while only those narratives which put their worst-case-scenarios front-and-center are widely classified as “horror,” all drama is about conflict, and relies on the possibility of some dark, horrifying outcome. Their primary example is Amadeus, but they list hundreds of other movies from a variety of genres that are, at heart, driven by horrific suggestions and inclinations.

In this series of articles, I’m going to rely on Skipp and Spector’s premise, and look at the ways that a number of films from other genres can be viewed in terms of horror.

Previous in this series:

Fight Club

Blood Simple

The Dark Knight (2008)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Written by:  Christopher Nolan (screenplay), Jonathan Nolan (story and screenplay), David S. Goyer (story), Bob Kane (characters)

Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

That's right, the movie where these weirdos work for the deformed penguin man is also kind of a horror movie.

That’s right, the movie where these weirdos work for the deformed penguin man is also kind of a horror movie.

Frankly, I could have used pretty much any Batman movie as an example of horror disguised as another genre; the two Tim Burton films (Batman [1989] and Batman Returns [1992]) are particularly tempting, with their expressionistically gothic style and dark humor.  In particular, Burton seems to have appreciated better than other filmmakers the truly monstrous side of Batman himself, drawing parallels between the troubled hero and his strange and misshapen opponents.  But, in the end, The Dark Knight is the one that delves the deepest into the realms of genuine dread and repulsion.

Like the other Nolan Batman movies, The Dark Knight doesn’t provide much exploration of the darker impulses or imagery of its protagonist (Christian Bale).  It is in the presentation of the film’s two villains, The Joker (Heath Ledger) and Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), that the Nolans and Goyer really tapped into the raw stuff of horror.

In critical theory, one of the base elements of horror is abjection.  Essentially, the abject is that which disturbs or is rejected by normative social and cultural forces.  To the human mind, the abject would

Angels to some, a textbook definition of the abject to others.

Angels to some, a textbook definition of the abject to others.

include things like corpses, bodily waste, and disease – those physical things which we find too repellent to confront, those things which disgust us to our very core – as well as unconscionably behaviors, like infanticide and torture.  What is abject to a society as a whole is more variable; in Western culture, anything that conflicts with traditional Judeo-Christian values stands a good chance of being treated as abject.

The other fundamental ingredient of horror is the uncanny, which refers to those things which disturb us by feeling simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.  In the world of computer generated images, this is spoken of as “the uncanny valley effect,” the way that a CG image can appear simultaneously real and unreal, and thus jars the psyche.  Supernatural forces are regarded as uncanny; we witness things that feel real, yet conflict with our understanding of the natural order.  Freud (unsurprisingly) linked this response with things that remind us of our own repressed desires.

Both of the villains in The Dark Knight are clear examples of the abject and the uncanny as driving forces.

"You know, I just... do things."

“You know, I just… do things.”

The Joker is, in Freudian terms, the very embodiment of the human id: that space in the mind where impulse lives without reason or moderation, wherein contradictory desires can live side by side without negating one another.  The id is the place where chaos and insanity are in command.  And The Joker frightens audiences because, as a walking, talking id, he is at once familiar and unfamiliar.  Familiar because the healthy mind has, buried deep within, the same inclination towards chaos, and the same resentment of order and reason as prisons of the will.  Unfamiliar because the healthy mind contains these things, hides them away, refuses to interact with them directly – refuses because they are abject, because they disrupt the order of sanity and of society.

The Joker is not given an origin; he relates his history only in a series of contradictory narratives, each tailored to the person to whom he is speaking.  His own history is meaningless; his more developed, civilized personhood – the man life made of him – has been stripped away, leaving only the core of monstrosity that each of us carries.  And so he is the id of whichever character he is speaking to at any given moment, and, by extension, the id of the movie-going spectator.

The Joker’s appearance furthers the uncanny aspects of the character.  Clowns are frightening and repellent to many people precisely because their make-up makes them look simultaneously real and unreal, human and inhuman.  And this presentation of The Joker is made particularly physically repellant through his sloppy, cracked makeup and the scars which create a parody of a grin on his face at all times.  This Joker is a version we find repellent both psychologically and physically.

And the greatest victory in The Joker’s siege of chaos, his most monstrous act, is the creation of Two-Face – the simultaneous physical and psychological scarring of Harvey Dent, to create a very different but equally resonant figure of the abject and the uncanny.

The familiar/unfamiliar contrast of Two-Face is pretty clearly visually represented –externally, he remains half handsome, healthy Harvey Dent, and half corpse-like walking wound.  The normative and the abject walk side by side in the person of Two-Face.

And Two-Face’s external division is directly linked to his internal conflict, his attempts to manage the contradictory drives of justice and malice.  His trauma has not stripped him bare like The Joker, but rather left him with portions of a rational self, insufficiently equipped to contain the monstrosity, but present enough to feel pain, shame, and rage – things of which The Joker is not even capable.  The true horror of Two-Face is that his lingering rationality – the traces of his identity as Harvey Dent – informs and focuses the base and vicious desires.  The Joker’s impulse to destroy targets abstractions: the social order, the rule of law.  Two-Face’s impulse to destroy targets individual human beings, some of them innocents.

"The only morality in a cruel world is chance."

“The only morality in a cruel world is chance.”

At first, Two-Face’s violence is that of a vigilante – he has, in a sense, become a less restrained variant on Batman.  When he is targeting criminals and corrupt cops, we can still somewhat sympathize with him; he is still trying, however misguidedly, to play the learned role of Harvey Dent, District Attorney.  But, as the movie builds to its conclusion, it becomes clear that his vengeance is without any moral guidelines; he is prepared, at the flip of a coin, to kill an innocent child as way of inflicting the pain he has suffered on someone else.  The killing of a child is one of society’s most fundamental taboos, one of those things most absolutely abject; and what is really disturbing in Two-Face’s willingness to violate this sacred rule is that we can understand the means by which Harvey Dent has fallen to this point.  Abject though he may be, both physically and psychologically, because we walked down this path with him, we can relate to him.  That dual sensation of disgust and sympathy is as uncanny – as much a joining together of the familiar and the unfamiliar – as his half-human visage.

In monsters are the uncanny external representations of the psychologically abject, then The Joker and Two-Face as presented in The Dark Knight are definitively monsters.  The Joker’s campaign of terror against Gotham City is the raw stuff of horror laid bare.

As usual in this series, thanks to my wife, Jennifer Cooper, for her work on the featured image!


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2 Comments on this post.

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  • Josh Millican
    28 November 2014 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    Awesome! Great article!

  • Yeah, That’s Kind of a Horror Movie: Kid’s Edition
    5 December 2014 at 6:17 pm - Reply

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