The Horrors of 'Joker': How the Controversial Comic Book Film Earns a Place in the Genre

This article contains minor spoilers for Joker.

More than any other genre, horror is the most heated when it comes to discussing what movies belong in that category. We continue to see debates about a number of prestigious genre films in regards to whether or not they classify as horror. While that argument is often tiresome – the majority of the films that crop up in these disputes are more horror than they aren’t – it is worth considering when we experience films that might seem like they are playing in other well-established genres.

And while comic book movies have certainly played around in the horror genre before (I’ve written about the history of the sub-genre), they’ve often done so in a cartoonish or far more palatable way to audiences. Now, with Joker becoming one of 2019’s lightning rod wide releases, it’s time to accept that comic book horror has evolved into something much stickier and difficult.

Strange Bedfellows

My first exposure to the idea that Joker could be considered a horror film came from Chris Evangelista’s /Film review when he called it, “a violent, nihilistic horror film masquerading as both a character drama and a comic book movie.” That description got me thinking about what movies might act as good pairings for Joker. After seeing Joker, the films from that list that feel the most like cousins to Todd Phillips’ movie are Maniac and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

All of these films are grimy character pieces about loner men who lash out at those parts of society that enrage them. Now, that alone isn’t what crosses them over into full-on horror territory. Instead, it’s a mixture of a number of factors. One of those is how these films approach their lead subjects and build out the tone of their worlds.

These are wretched places that Arthur Fleck, Frank, and Henry inhabit. And the movies all take great pains to place the audience directly in the headspaces of their deranged and horrifying protagonists. For these men, their world is horror. We find it easier to slap that moniker on Maniac and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer because the lead characters are already monsters when the movies begin. Joker begins the same kind of tale but just before the lead character tips over into true evil. And once he does, we see just how freeing this evil is for him. By the end of the film’s inciting incident, Arthur is already changing into an outright villain.

Atmosphere and Intention

But, it’s not enough to just draw comparisons between similar movies that are widely accepted as horror. We have to look at Joker’s intentions and execution when talking about its horror status. More than any tropes we associate with the genre, I’d argue that these are the most valuable factors when contemplating whether or not a movie is “horror.”

As far as execution, this feels like the easiest case to make for Joker belonging in the horror genre. The film is oppressively grim and filled with a feeling of dread from the very first images of Arthur forcing his mouth to smile and frown in a mirror. A huge part of that dread comes from Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score. When it was first released, I stated that you could have told me it was the soundtrack for a movie about a monastery that falls under the influence of Satan. The droning strings and the dark hum of the music imply a sense of foreboding throughout the entire movie. And it makes every scene feel portentous as if certain doom is just a second away from whatever it is your seeing.

The music also showcases intention in regard to how the movie feels about Arthur’s actions. A great example is the track “Following Sophie”, in which Arthur stalks his neighbor while she drops her daughter off at school. Listen to this and try not to feel the artist desire to create something gruesome and terrifying, like a shark circling its prey and finally devouring it:

Intention is also followed up on when it comes to the film’s progression of Arthur’s actions. There is a scene later in the movie where Arthur murders someone and the intention is not celebratory or slight. The impact of this moment is as grisly as anything in The Silence of the Lambs and it wants to be. That’s the biggest factor in what qualifies Joker for inclusion in the horror genre: it wants to be horrifying and make you scared of the person you’re being asked to follow for two hours.

The Stigma of Tropes

I mentioned tropes earlier and I think it’s fair to bring up when we talk about what we often describe as horror. There are countless tropes that we often deem necessary to label something as horror – ex: supernatural elements – but those are nebulous factors as far as genre classification goes. Just because a movie has a body count, extreme gore, or otherworldly beings in it does not make it horror. John Wick, Kill Bill Vol. 1, and Casper each tick off a box for those categories and very few people would consider them horror movies.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Pretend that we have a movie that is exactly in tone and construction as Joker, but instead of an origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime, it’s a story about a man named Fred Krueger. There are no supernatural elements and the film plays out similarly to Joker’s structure in that we follow the movie through Fred’s perspective as he descends into murder and insanity. The film ends with him being killed by the parents of Springwood and there is only the slightest of implications that Krueger will return in some supernatural form. 

Would that be considered a horror film?

Is it only because of the character’s history in the genre? If the proposed film played exactly like Joker but you swapped out protagonists, why is it the addition of Krueger suddenly takes that story into the realm of horror?

As it stands, Joker is that exact genesis tale about a dark, horror take on the most recognized villain in comic book history. And maybe that would be easy to accept if horror wasn’t something that’s more of a marketing tool for studios than it is an appraisal of their actual films.

How We Are Sold “Horror”

More than anything, horror is often seen as a “lesser” genre by studios. Movies that are designated as horror are often low-budget and intended to make the quickest buck possible. When it comes to marketing, that’s how they are treated and the easiest way to ensure audiences will see these films is to sell them as something familiar.

Joker is being sold as a prestige picture that also happens to be a “comic book movie.” That description isn’t an indicator of a specific genre. It’s just a reference to the movie’s legacy as a property that sprung out of comic book stories. But, if the studio sold this movie as a horror film, it would be seen as a “cheaper” product.

So much of genre assignment has to do with marketing. It makes categorization easier for consumers looking for a specific experience. A movie like Joker is not something that would be sold as horror because that would clash with general audiences’ understanding of the genre. That doesn’t mean it isn’t horror just because a studio won’t call it so.

Feelings and Definitions

In my research for this piece, I came across quite a few quotes and definitions that strengthened my stance about Joker being a horror film. In a video from Wisecrack called “How Horror Movies Changed”, I found this quote rather important:

“…the horror genre blossoms anywhere there was pain and national chaos.”

Considering the myriad discussions and controversies surrounding Joker, it’s clear that this movie painted a big target on itself by capturing a lot of the pain and national chaos that surrounds our current discourse. My GenreVision cohost Travis Newton called Joker, “a movie about a nightmare we’re all having.” That feels incredibly spot-on and what are nightmares if not horror movies in our heads? Joker has captured that sense of horror that’s pulsating throughout American culture. It’s a piece of social horror that has clearly touched a nerve with what is going on today. Whether or not the movie works, it has certainly cemented itself as that nightmare.

Another piece that struck a chord with me is the Wikipedia definition of the sub-genre “psychological horror.” I won’t quote the entire thing (though you should read it as I think many of its explanations line up with Joker), but the one characteristic that jumped out at me was this: “Psychological horror usually aims to create discomfort or dread by exposing common or universal psychological and emotional vulnerabilities/fears and revealing the darker parts of the human psyche that most people may repress or deny.” If you’ve seen Joker, that sounds like it to a T.

The Last Laugh

No matter what I say here, I’m sure there will be people in the comments differing with my read of the film. All I can say is Joker is one of the scariest, unsettling, and unpleasant movies I’ve seen all year. Heck, it even has a few effective jump scares if that’s a necessity for you to consider something “horror.”

At the end of the day, horror is whatever makes you feel the emotions you associate with the genre. A lot of people view horror as something purely fun, and maybe that lack of fun is what prevents them from calling movies like Joker “horror.” Maybe it’s the absence of familiar constructs and tropes. It could be anything.

But as someone who considers horror the greatest and most diverse genre in all of fiction, I can’t help but see Joker as one of 2019’s biggest horror films.

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