I saw the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight last week, and, like everyone else, I was blown away by Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. Of course, the fact that Ledger died of a drug overdose not long after finishing the film added a surreal dimension to his performance as a demented killer and "agent of chaos."
People have wondered if playing the role added to the insomnia, depression and anxiety that had Ledger taking a cluster of powerful drugs. Cast members of the movie he was filming when he died, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, reported that Ledger did indeed complain about the Joker's effect on him. He told a New York Times writer the same thing. And Jack Nicholson, who played the Joker in an earlier movie, reported that he had warned Ledger about the psychological toll of the role.
What is the mechanism by which such a phenomenon can occur? Interestingly, I think it's closely related to what's depicted in the movie itself. This latest Batman film is filled with allusions to 9/11, terrorism and torture. But it especially takes up the way decent people can turn into monsters. Batman bars the door so that police cannot intervene while he effectively tortures the Joker; he later conducts surveillance of the entire city's cell phones.
The figure of Batman has always been one of a vigilante operating outside the normal constraints of the law – thus "the dark knight" – but in this film we see Batman turn into a full-fledged anti-hero, eventually assuming the role of a villain. We also see a heroic district attorney turn into a literal monster. In the terms of Carl Jung's psychology, these characters become identified with the "shadow," the repressed part of the psyche that can overtake us, if we do not eventually relate to it consciously.
Ledger's own character, the Joker, can reasonably be viewed as the radical personification of Batman's shadow. Batman's daylight personality, Bruce Wayne, is intellectual, rational, cultured and heroic. The Joker is exactly the opposite – an agent of chaos who only wants to see the world burn.
A simple turn of the plot clearly illustrates their roles as shadows of one another: Given the opportunity, they cannot kill one another. They acknowledge that psychologically they cannot live purposely without one another. They've even swapped appropriate uniforms. The evil one is dressed like a clown and the hero is dressed in imitation of a creature from the underworld.
As in real life, the hero often comes off relatively pompous while the villain entrances us with a complete lack of ethics replaced by black humor. One of Ledger's best moments is blowing up a hospital while wearing a wig and candy striper's outfit. It's a murderous act but hilarious to watch.
These figures – the shadow, the hero, the evil trickster – are archetypal in Jung's view. That means they personify patterns that are potentially common to everyone's experience. So, Heath Ledger's real-life psychological turmoil could in part have been the result of meeting his shadow, personified by the Joker.
In Jungian thought, this is not a process we have much control over – no more than when we are stricken with love by the sudden appearance of someone.
I've had my own experience meeting the shadow. Twenty years ago, I was given a contract to write a book that involved exploring what is left of the Southern Gothic world described in Flannery O'Connor's work.
While spending time with a freak show, visionary artists and criminals, I fell into a deep depression, drinking too much and unable to write. Later I realized that my book topic had evoked my own shadow.
A year or so ago, I met a man who is writing a biography of O'Connor. I shared my experience of being overwhelmed by her world and he said that another writer, a quite famous one, had given him the same warning. She, like me, abandoned her project.
We'll never know the full truth about Heath Ledger, but his story is certainly consistent with those whose shadow overtakes them.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For his blog and information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.