So I finally got around to seeking Joker. I can safely say that, despite many media warnings to the contrary, nothing catastrophic happened. Nothing blew up, the sun didn’t turn as black as sackcloth, a plague of locusts didn’t descend upon the theatre, and most importantly, there wasn’t the promised “wave” of incel violence that everyone was talking about. 

In case you don’t know, “incel” stands for “involuntary celibate.” Incels are groups of young men (usually white, but they can be other races as well) who have yet to get into a relationship. They often spend their time on internet forums, resentful of the fact that they can’t find a romantic companion, and blame it on the fact that they were cursed with bad looks, while other guys with ample height and chiseled chins can get whatever girl they want. Their fulminations often devolve into misogynistic jeremiads against the state of modern dating and women in general, and in the worst case, they can take out their rage in acts of violence.

So, when trailers for the new Joker movie depicted a relatively young white male living alone in his apartment and seemingly unable to get into a stable relationship, many in the media panicked that it would inspire mentally unstable white men to go out and engage in acts of brutality. Fortunately, no such thing took place.

In fact, the movie itself didn’t seem to get very political at all. It was mostly a character study of how an already mentally unbalanced man descends into the realms of unhinged criminality. But that descent really had little to do with unrequited love or anger at immigrants stealing his job. To be honest, I’m not really sure why this film attracted so much controversy in the first place. It was dark and violent, yes, but since when does the media ever complain about too much violence in movies? It’s not even like this was the first time we followed a mentally unbalanced criminal in a film (see American Psycho, Taxi Driver, or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). Nor did the film promote any sort of endorsement of right-wing violence. To paraphrase film critic Red Letter Media, everyone thought this movie was going to promote right wing extremism, but it ends with the Joker becoming the head of Antifa.

I do think Joker provides some valuable insight into the mind of a mass killer, but in order to understand this better, we have to first look in a somewhat unexpected place: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Yes, this pinnacle of the Romantic novel and classic of world literature has been hailed as the first of many things: the first modern horror novel, the first true work of science fiction, but it should also be acknowledged as the first incel manifesto. 

Don’t believe me? Look at the pivotal exchange between Victor Frankenstein and his creation, immediately after the monster finishes recounting his backstory and confesses to the murder of Victor’s younger brother.

“You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being,” the monster commands Victor, threatening that if his wish remains unfulfilled, he will “work at [Victor’s] destruction, nor finish until [he] desolate[s] [his] heart, so that [Victor] will curse the hour of [his] birth.”

In other words, “build me a girlfriend, or I’ll go on a killing spree.” 

Explaining his rationale for this harsh ultimatum, the monster rhetorically asks, “Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” His anger and murderous impulses are an expression of his loneliness and the ostracization he has endured. 

Isn’t this the exact mentality some of the infamous incel murderers have had before going on their rampage? “I’ve been shunned by the world, I can’t get a girlfriend, and therefore, I’m justified in going out in a burst of nihilistic violence, and I’m taking two or three unfortunate bystanders with me.”

It’s funny, because I had always heard that the “sophisticated” reading of Frankenstein was that the doctor is the real monster, while the creature is a tragically misunderstood character who is simply the product of bad circumstances. As such, Frankenstein’s monster has actually become an icon for historically oppressed and underprivileged peoples, such as blacks, women, or even homosexuals. 

After actually sitting down and reading the novel, I don’t understand this interpretation at all. Unlike many of his later portrayals, Victor Frankenstein is not the morally bankrupt, unhinged stereotype of the “mad scientist.” Yes, he has a rapacious curiosity in his younger days and possesses overbearing faith in the possibilities of science, but he quickly realizes the magnitude of his mistake in the seconds after he raises the creature to life. For the rest of the novel, Victor Frankenstein is guilt-ridden, penitential, and dedicates the rest of his existence to eradicating his mistake. He understands what he has done by attempting to overcome death, and redeems himself by turning his life story into a cautionary tale for Captain Walton, an Arctic explorer who, like the young Victor, believes that science is absolutely boundless in its possibilities. 

Conversely, the monster is not the grunting, dumb animal that Boris Karloff portrayed in the 1931 movie. In Shelley’s original novel, the monster is capable of human speech, has taught himself classic works in the Western Canon such as Plutarch’s Lives, and shows a keen insight into the human condition. Ironically, this makes him much less sympathetic than in the later film adaption, because it is clear he knows exactly what he’s doing when he murders Victor’s friends and family. In the movie, most of the monster’s victims are a result of self defense or a complete accident (such as when he accidentally throws a young girl in a lake, not knowing that she would drown).

The fundamental issue with the monster is that he is essentially the anti-Pinocchio. He desperately wants to become a real human, but refuses to transcend his own suffering, thus remaining a monster. We can certainly empathize with him. He was created as an abomination, abandoned by his creator moments after his perverted birth, and shunned by anyone who would look upon his face, but at the end of the day, how can any of this justify the murder of an innocent child? By the end of the story, while we may be able to empathize with the monster, it’s hard to see how can sympathize with him.

Similarly, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a man shunned by society, desperately seeking validation and acceptance from a world that shuns him. And while there is a huge difference between him and Frankenstein’s monster in that Arthur Fleck (the Joker’s real name) finds a strange sort of validation in the Occupy Wall Street-esque protestors rioting against the rich of Gotham City, he is only able to find this validation by embracing his role as a victimized outcast, unleashing his resentment in acts of murderous violence.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, the Joker refuses to become fully human by wallowing in his suffering instead of transcending it. Instead of using the very real pain that he feels to assist others through their own pain, he allows it to overtake him, and encourages others around them to weaponize their own resentment in often lethal ways. Perhaps both characters can help us to understand what goes through the minds of terrorists and mass shooters, thus bringing our society closer to healing.


Photo by Meet The Chumbeques