No, The New 'Joker' Movie Will Not 'Cause' Incel Violence

A mix of terror, outrage and occasional admiration has been the response to the new 'Joker' film starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role.

For some critics, the film’s dark themes and tortured character study make an interesting flick.

For others, such as Stephanie Zacharek from Time, the sympathetic portrayal of an ‘incel’ psychopath is likely to inspire real-life copycats.

Much attention has been drawn to the sinister 'incel' (involuntary celibate) subculture since 2014, after its posthumous figurehead Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Santa Barbara, leaving six dead.

READ MORE: Misery And Misogyny: The Danger Of Incels

"There’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur [the Joker] practically every other week," Zacharek wrote in her review.

"Arthur inspires chaos and anarchy, but the movie makes it look like he’s starting a revolution, where the rich are taken down, the poor get everything they need and deserve, and the sad guys who can’t get a date become killer heroes.

"He could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels."

Critics argue the sympathetic portrayal of an ‘incel’ psychopath is likely to inspire real-life copycats. (Image: Warner Bros)

It's a tired argument. Concerns about media violence inspiring real-life terror have been around since the invention of media. Whether it’s conservative concern about the impact of ‘video nasties’ or first-person shooters, or more progressive media criticisms about perceived misogynist/racist characters or the valorisation of sexual violence.

Whilst such analyses often get papers off shelves and website clicks, attempts to establish causal links (whether directly or indirectly) between vile, violent media depiction and criminality are murky.

READ MORE: 'Joker' Director Braces For Backlash

Why we like horrific media

The psychology underpinning humanity’s love of evil characters and violence has always been a bit of an oddity.

After all, we are evolutionary programmed to avoid dangerous situations (and people!) -- why do we pay filmmakers to simulate terror and show us what we should objectively loathe?

For some, it may be the chemical rush gained when our bodies are triggered into a fight-or-flight response: a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters which trigger an excitable terror-high followed by pleasant relief. This can be even more fun, when you share this high with a friend.

For others, horrific media allows for the indulgence of sadistic, otherwise socially unacceptable fantasy.

Why do we pay filmmakers to simulate terror and show us what we should objectively loathe? (Image: Warner Bros)

Professor Hilary Neroni from the University of Vermont, writing on the early 2000s ‘torture porn’ genre in movies such as Hostel, sees violent spectacle as a means to “disrupt the narrative flow of daily life”.

Indeed, part of the joy of violent films and problematic characters is to briefly free yourself of social moors to identify with something transgressive and abhorrent.

But the barrier between dark fantasy and actual violence is a chasm for most. Indeed, there’s no need to worry too much about our slight case of sadism.

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Real-life effects

Research into media effects on real-life violence have a number of methodological limitations.

Due to ethical concerns, researchers can’t simulate real-life violence in the lab, so often studies involve showing a violent film and then asking participants to do something safely ‘aggressive’ to others: such as the administration of unwanted hot sauce to make food too spicy for a subject, making a startling noise or ‘pranking’ other participants.

When it comes to these ‘media effects’ studies the evidence is mixed.  But it’s also very unclear how any of this research translates to real life violence. Media effects are heavily dependent on individual psychology and social context, making it difficult to speak in generalities about consumers particularly when the research is done in an artificial lab.

READ MORE: Joaquin Phoenix's 'Joker' Is A Creepy Psychological Thriller

Certainly, broad-scale correlations between the availability of violent media and real-life violence don’t exist. Indeed, despite the growth in popularity of sinister media, most violent crime rates in Australia continue to fall.

Things get more confusing as perpetrators of violence, sometimes do refer to films or games as inspiration.  For example, mass shooter James Holmes loved the Joker and was clearly inspired by a film narrative when he killed 12 people in a Colorado theatre as it premiered the new Batman film.

Things get more confusing as perpetrators of violence do refer to films or games as inspiration, such as Colorado shooter James Holmes. (Image: Getty)

But these thematic inspirations need to be viewed as a small part of a much larger tapestry of factors strongly correlated with violence including personality disorders, childhood abuse, genetic predispositions and impulse control issues.

READ MORE: We Have Proof That Listening To Death Metal Doesn't Make You Violent

As Dr Melanie Brown wrote for the Australian Institute of Criminology, “Numerous research studies identify an association between exposure to violence in entertainment and violent behaviour, but do not prove that exposure causes violent behaviour."

So, should we be concerned about the new Joker film? No.

Violent films are a spectacle in which the majority of law-abiding consumers can explore their darker desires.

We should be focusing on core risk factors for violence and let people enjoy violent -- and in many cases -- problematic media in peace!