Saturday, October 4, 2008


by Maria Hsia Chang

Published in New Oxford Review (vol. LXXV, no. 9, October 2008), pp. 20-24, The version below contains footnotes and a couple of minor passages that were edited out of the published article.

“I think the Joker killed Heath Ledger.”

So writes licensed attorney and former public defender Jay Gaskill in his review of The Dark Knight.1 Gaskill is not being melodramatic; he is simply stating what other reviewers only hint at.2

The Dark Knight, the latest Hollywood incarnation of the superhero Batman, broke records for best opening weekend at $158.4 million. The movie ranked top in box office for four consecutive weekends, which pushed its domestic total to a staggering $461 million, making The Dark Knight second only to the all-time ticket revenue champion, The Titanic.3

No doubt, many went to see The Dark Knight out of a macabre curiosity because of the untimely death of one of its main actors. On January 22, 2008, six months before the movie’s opening, Ledger was found unconscious in his Manhattan apartment. Paramedics called to the scene could not revive him. The medical examiner later determined that the 28-year-old had died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs—a lethal brew of sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medication, and the painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Reviewers have lauded The Dark Knight for its fine acting. In particular, Ledger’s “electrifying” performance is singled out for praise; there is increasing talk of a posthumous Academy Award. His face caked with moldy makeup, with black-shadowed eyes, a red-smeared mouth, and yellowing teeth,4 Ledger’s Joker is more than a master criminal. Instead, reviewers use the language of the supernatural, calling him “demonic” and “diabolical,”5 “a hound fresh out of hell,”6 “a vivid, compelling picture of naked, nihilistic evil . . . with almost preternatural power,”7“a truly frightening vision,” and “like Satan.”8 Michael Caine, who plays Batman’s butler Alfred, said that he found Ledger’s performance so terrifying and disturbing that he sometimes forgot his lines.9

At the time of his death, Ledger had only recently completed his work for The Dark Knight, which was in post-production. Reportedly, the Joker role had taken a decided toll on the actor’s health. For weeks, he was unable to sleep, averaging only two hours a night. He told a New York Times reporter in November 2007 that even after taking two sleeping pills, “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”10

What is less known are Ledger’s film roles both before and after The Dark Knight. Before he assumed the Joker persona, Ledger already was emotionally drained from playing a heroin addict in the Australian film, Candy. To make matters worse, after the Batman movie, Ledger immediately went to work on another dark-themed film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, without taking a break. The latter is a retelling of the Dr. Faust story, wherein the leader of a traveling theater troupe makes a compact with the Devil and takes audience members through a magical mirror into a fantastic universe of limitless imagination. Ledger’s part was that of Tony, a “charming” and “mysterious outsider” who joins the troupe.11

An Oscar nominee for his acting as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, Ledger was known for his total absorption into his film roles. He told a reporter that “the only way that I can act” was to climb inside the skin of the person he was playing. This was Ledger’s way of compensating both for his feelings of insecurity as an actor (he had no formal training in acting) and for an abiding sense of impermanence from having spent his formative years shuttling between the homes of his divorced parents. Though born in Australia, Ledger allowed in an interview that “I’m not a resident of Australia. I’ve never voted in Australia.” At the same time, although he owned homes in Los Angeles and New York, he was a non-resident of the United States. Giving voice to his rootless and uncertain identity, the actor admitted that “I’m not really sure where I belong.”12

To prepare for his part in Candy, Ledger had spent time with a real-life junkie in the dark, troubled milieu of Sydney’s red light district. For The Dark Knight, he spent a month alone in a hotel room to work on his character and voice, perfecting an unhinged cackle that sends shivers up the audience’s spine. But by immersing himself in the role of the Joker, Ledger might well have gazed too deeply into the abyss.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” This famous but cryptic quote by Friedrich Nietzsche is understood to be a warning against too close a contact with evil. As one interpretation has it, if a person gazes too long at evil, it will become a part of him or her.13 Did Ledger fall prey to this mysterious phenomenon?

Nietzsche’s adage is not our only warning about evil. Aldous Huxley opined that “No man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected . . . . The effects which follow too constant and intense a concentration upon evil are always disastrous.”14 Similarly, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck cautioned that “an exclusive focus on the problem of evil is actually extremely dangerous to the soul of the investigator . . . . The dangers exist . . . for anyone who becomes preoccupied with the subject of evil. There is always the risk of contamination, one way or another. The more closely we rub shoulders with or against evil, the more likely it is that we may become evil ourselves.”15

Like Heath Ledger, the brilliant historian and journalist Iris Chang, who wrote The Rape of Nanking (1997), seemed to have been another moth that flew too close to the flame. Her book has the distinction of being the first English-language full-length nonfiction account of the Imperial Japanese Army’s massacre of 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians in 1937. It remained on the New York Times’ bestseller list for ten weeks.

In August 2004, Chang had a nervous breakdown, which her family and doctors attributed in part to constant sleep deprivation. At the time, she was several months into research for her fourth book on yet another atrocity perpetrated by the Japanese military. It was the Bataan Death March in 1942, when some 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners-of-war (POWs), many of them ill and severely malnourished, were forced to march sixty miles in tropical heat from the Bataan peninsula to prison camps. The Japanese inflicted great cruelties on the POWs, including the withholding of food and water, bayonet stabbings, rapes, beheadings, and disembowelments.

Friends and colleagues said Chang was deeply disturbed by her research. She was in Kentucky, en route to the city of Harrodsburg to listen to audio recordings by U.S. servicemen who had survived the march, when she was overcome with acute depression. She was admitted into Norton Psychiatric Hospital in Louisville and diagnosed with reactive psychosis. But her depression persisted even after she was released from the hospital. On the morning of November 9, 2004, she was found dead in her car parked on a rural road not far from her home. The beautiful 36-year-old wife and mother of a two-year-old, whose “celebrated life . . . most people believed had been perfect,”16 had shot herself in the mouth with a revolver.

In the suicide notes she left, Iris Chang wrote: “I am doing this because I am too weak to withstand the years of pain and agony ahead . . . . Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take — the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea.”17

There are others besides Ledger and Chang whose work also brings them into evil’s proximity. Among them are FBI agents who specialize in the most difficult cases, such as murders by serial killers. In his book, FBI veteran Robert Ressler revealed that “many of us” in the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit had experienced weight losses, pseudo heart attacks, and “other problems”18 such as suicides. Contributing factors for suicides by FBI agents include, most commonly, depression, as well as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).19

PTSD also seems to be an occupational hazard of soldiers and police officers. A recent U.S. Army study of the mental health of troops who had fought in Iraq found that about one in eight (or 18 percent) reported PTSD symptoms. Before deployment, the PTSD rate in the armed forces was 5 percent, about the same as the general U.S. population. Studies done years after the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars showed the PTSD rate at the time was 15 percent for Vietnam veterans and 10 percent for Gulf War veterans.20

More alarming than the high incidence of PTSD is the steep increase in suicides among active-duty soldiers. In 2007 those suicides reached their highest level since 1980 when the Army began keeping such records. In 2007, 121 soldiers took their own lives, nearly 20 percent more than in 2006. Since the Iraq war began, there has also been a sharp rise in the number of attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries in the Army. That number was 2,100 in 2007, which is a sixfold increase from the 350 soldiers who injured themselves or attempted suicide in 2002. The increase in suicides is attributed to servicemen’s repeated redeployment due to the military’s stop-loss policy.21

Suicides, PTSD, and other symptoms of distress are also prevalent among police officers who, in their daily work, encounter the grim underside of life that most people rarely see. The police are usually first at the scene when babies are killed, when wives are battered, when addicts die of an overdose, or when people are killed or maimed in accidents and homicides. All of which exacts an emotional and physical toll on even the most hardened officer.

A study of 2376 policemen in Buffalo, New York, found that they had higher mortality rates for cancer, suicide, and heart disease than the white male population at large. Research also shows police suffer a substantially higher divorce rate. Whereas the national divorce rate is 50 percent, estimates for police officers range from 60 to 75 percent.22

Suicide rates within law enforcement are also much higher—perhaps two or three times higher—than those in the general population. A recent study found that New York City officers killed themselves at a rate of 29 per 100,000 a year, more than double the rate of 12 per 100,000 among the general population. The real suicide rates of police officers may even be higher because many suicides go unreported to avoid stigmatizing families and to allow them to collect insurance claims and other compensation. This much is known: more police commit suicide than die in the line of duty. According to a study by the National Association of Police Chiefs, nationally, twice as many cops—about 300 annually—commit suicide as are killed in the line of duty.23

Some of the most vivid warnings about evil’s insidious effects are by writers of fiction. As an example, J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings used the motif of the One Ring to convey the seductive and corrupting power of evil. So terrible is that power, the wizard Gandalf—whom Tolkien identified to be an angel in the incarnate form of an old man24—would not risk taking the Ring into his possession. In the end, even the valiant ringbearer Frodo became so consumed by the Ring that he could not bring himself to toss it into the fires of Mount Doom. Were it not for Gollum, the arduous quest of the Fellowship of the Ring would have failed.

J. K. Rowling is another popular fiction writer who has expounded on the pernicious effect of evil. In the third book of her phenomenally popular series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling introduced demonic creatures called dementors, “among the foulest creatures that walk this earth.” They are soul-less and soul-sucking wraiths who guard the wizard prison of Azkaban until the return of the dark lord Voldemort frees them to wreak havoc upon the world. Dementors are about ten feet in height and have a generally human shape beneath dark, hooded cloaks. Protruding from their cloaks are hands, “glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water.” Where eyes should be, there is only “thin, gray scabbed skin, stretched blankly over empty sockets.” And instead of a mouth, there is “a gaping, shapeless hole, sucking the air with the sound of a death rattle.”25

Infesting the darkest, filthiest places, dementors are visible only to wizards but exert the same baleful effect on wizards and muggles (non-magic folks) alike. The very presence of a dementor makes the surrounding atmosphere grow cold and dark. Along with the cold is a feeling of despair that descends upon the person, who is drained of all happiness and good memories. It is a hopelessness so profound that, as Ron Weasley puts it, “I felt . . . I’d never be cheerful again.” Feeding on its victim’s positive emotions, the wraith eventually performs the Dementor’s Kiss and sucks out the person’s soul. The victim is left in a state worse than death, an empty shell with the brain and heart still working but with neither memory nor a sense of self.26

Given the ill effects of too close a contact with evil, one would think that writers on this subject would provide us with more information than enigmatic warnings about the dangers. Alas, like Nietzsche, those who have broached this subject are hazy on exactly how or why a person can become contaminated by a preoccupation with evil. Worse still, the writers are also vague on whether and how we can protect ourselves should we peer into the abyss.

And so we are left to our own conjectures and speculations.

To begin with, who are the potential victims? It appears that “looking into the abyss” refers to anyone whose work or interests bring them into a close proximity with evil. It can be an actor, such as Heath Ledger, who immerses himself too deeply into portraying evil and, in so doing, invites malefic forces into himself. It can be a writer, such as Iris Chang, whose subject is an historical account of man’s inhumanity toward man. It can be FBI agents, soldiers, and police who enter the arena to directly confront and fight evildoers.

There may be others. If chroniclers of historical instances of evil put themselves at risk, it stands to reason that even more are philosophers and psychologists who aim to unearth evil’s very nature and essence. If FBI agents who specialize in the behavioral analysis of criminal psychopaths gaze too deeply into the abyss, so too must psychotherapists who, in Peck’s words, “tangle therapeutically with an evil patient.” Peck thought that since the ultimate objective of all good psychotherapy is to combat lies by shining the light of truth, such therapists in effect are lay versions of exorcists who wrestle with the demon-possessed. Indeed, Peck maintained that all psychotherapy is but “a kind of exorcism.”27

But how exactly does evil exert its nefarious influence on a person? Evil’s baneful effect may be likened to the invisible, odorless, and deadly radiation emitted by uranium. While it is wholly conceivable that writers such as Iris Chang would be perturbed by their research, why should it trigger such an acute depression that life becomes unbearable and relief is sought only in suicide? All of which leads one to wonder just what is this evil that lurks in the abyss.

It may be that those who sound warnings about the abyss cannot but be vague because the phenomenon is other worldly, beyond our empirical realm.

It is oft said that the greatest achievement of the Devil is to convince us that he does not exist. Catholic priest and scholar Malachi Martin called this “the ultimate camouflage.” As he explained, “If your will does not accept the existence of evil, you are rendered incapable of resisting evil. Those with no capacity of resistance become prime targets for Possession.”28

Today, many among the Christian clergy eschew speaking of the Devil or of Hell. Some no longer believe;29 others are convinced that such talk would only alienate their flock.30 Along with colleges and universities,31 it seems that churches have also succumbed to the relentless drive of the market. Indeed, in an interview in 1984 on the state of the Catholic Church, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger noted that “no other topic unleashes such a storm of indignation among the mass-media of secularized society as that of the ‘devil’.” The attitude of many people, including Christians, is that the Devil is a “vestigial piece of folklore,” something which is “unacceptable to mature faith.”32

What is curious about the clerical reticence is that the Scriptures are replete with references to the Devil. The word “Satan” appears 18 times in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the word “devil” appears 35 times and the word “demon” appears 21 times. More importantly, Christ made references to the fallen angels throughout the Gospels. He spoke of “the devil and his angels” in Matthew 25:41, and of “Satan” in Matthew 12:22-28, Mark 3:22-27, and Luke 11:15-22. He referred to “the wicked one” and “the devil” in Matthew 13:38-39, and to “unclean spirits” in Matthew 12:43-45 and Luke 11:24-26. Jesus cured those afflicted with physical diseases and mental illnesses, but also undertook numerous exorcisms,33 thereby making a distinction between mental sickness and demonic possession. Christ also made evident that evil exists and is embodied in personal entities who actively work against God and man. He called the leader of these evil spirits “the father of all lies” and “a murderer from the beginning.”34

The clergy’s reluctance to speak of the Devil and of Hell is all the more ironic because available evidence points to the laity’s belief in both. Gallup polls of American adults found that in 2001, 71 percent believed in Hell. Increasing numbers also believed in a personal entity of evil called the Devil, from 55 percent of U.S. adults in 1990 to 70 percent in 2004. The percentage of Americans who believed that “people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil” also rose from 37 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 2001.35

If the Devil wants most of all to have us think he doesn’t exist, then he would have every reason to target those who study and expose evil because they are shedding the light of truth on what would prefer to remain in the shadows. In so doing, the scholars of evil have identified themselves as belonging to the opposing camp, just as much as FBI agents and police officers who take on evildoers in direct combat. No wonder the patron saint of policemen and soldiers is none other than the good Archangel Michael who leads the heavenly host against Lucifer and his co-rebels.

So how should someone who peers into the abyss arm himself ?

Huxley observed that “To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous. Every crusader is apt to go mad. He is haunted by the wickedness which he attributes to his enemies; it becomes in some sort a part of him.”36 Peck, for his part, warned that psychotherapists who have evil patients “may be placing themselves in great jeopardy” and advised against young therapists taking on such patients. Peck also recommended that the therapist “thoroughly cast the beam out of his or her own eye, for a weak-souled therapist will be the most vulnerable.”37

Huxley’s and Peck’s recommendations are not unlike the prescriptions in the Catholic Church’s Roman Ritual of Exorcism, which instructs that the priest chosen to be an exorcist “should be of mature age and be respected as a virtuous person.” He must have “no greed for material benefit,” but only “the necessary piety, prudence and personal integrity.” Above all, the exorcist must prepare himself with prayer and fasting so as to “perform this most heroic work humbly and courageously, not relying on his own strength, but on the power of God.”38

Contrary to the recommendations of both Peck and the Roman Ritual that it should be a mature seasoned individual possessed of a firm and sure sense-of-self who duels with evil, both Heath Ledger and Iris Chang were young. It is also instructive that in all the media accounts of their deaths, there is no mention of either having or actively practicing a religious faith. In the end, the answer to the question of how one who peers into the abyss fortifies himself is found in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (6:10-16):

Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.


1. Jay Gaskill, “Bleak Knight: A Review,” The Human Conspiracy Blog, July 24, 2008, Gaskill is a former public defender for Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay Area.
2. Scott Foundas, “Heath Ledger Peers Into The Abyss in The Dark Knight,” Village Voice, July 16, 2008,
3. The Titanic is the reigning all-time box-office winner, at $600.8 million.
4. Peter Travers’ review of “The Dark Knight” in Rolling Stone, July 18, 2008,
5. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Office of Film & Broadcasting,
6. Travers in Rolling Stone, op. cit.
7. Gaskill, op. cit.
8. Maurice Broaddus, “To Job or not to Job,” Hollywood Jesus,
9. Dominic Wells, “Dark Knight marks new chapter in Batman's seven decade screen career,” The Times, July 12, 2008,, viewed July 25, 2008.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Mark Chipperfield, “Heath Ledger: Edgy and evasive interviewee,” Telegraph, January 24, 2008,, viewed August 22, 2008.
13. Http://, viewed August 4, 2008.
14. Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon (Harper & Row, 1952), pp. 260, 192.
15. M. Scott Peck, M.D., People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (New York: Touchstone, 1983), pp. 42, 261.
16. “Iris Chang—The Woman Who Loved Truth,” Sunday Star Times, February 1, 2008,, viewed August 6, 2008.
17. “Iris Chang,” Wikipedia,, viewed July 26, 2008.
18. Robert H. Ressler and Tom Shachtman, Whoever Fights Monsters (New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1992), pp. 272-273.
19. Vincent J. McNally, “Federal Bureau of Investigation's Employee Assistance Program Response to Suicide,” in Donald C. Sheehan and Janet I. Warren, eds., From Suicide and Law Enforcement (US Dept of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2001), pp. 125-138.
20. “1 in 8 returning soldiers suffers from PTSD,” Associated Press, June. 30, 2004,, viewed July 30, 2008.
21. Dana Priest, “Soldier Suicides at Record Level,” Washington Post, January 31, 2008, p. A1,, viewed July 30, 2008.
22. “The Effects of Stress On Police Officers,” a speech (undated) by Dan Goldfarb to a group of union delegates,, viewed July 30, 2008.
23. Claude Lewis, “Police Suicide Is An Alarming Problem Rarely Discussed Publicly,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, no date,, viewed July 30, 2008.
24. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000), p. 202.
25. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (New York, NY: Scholastic Press, 1999), pp. 187, 83, 384.
26. Ibid., pp. 85, 247.
27. Peck, People of the Lie, pp. 261, 185.
28. Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Living Americans (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), p. xv.
29. Ibid., pp. xvi-xvii. “[I]gnorance, disinterest, disbelief, even adamant unwillingness on the part of many Church officials to so much as discuss demonic Possession and Exorcism, is literally the order of the day.”
30. In the United States, at the same time as church membership is down among traditional Protestant denominations, mega-churches have become increasingly popular. They are non-denominational evangelical churches with congregations of more than 2,000 in which the emphasis is on consumer appeal rather than “anything threatening” such as “fire and brimstone.” See C. W. Nevius, “Supersize Churches Booming,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 2004, pp. B1-2.
31. In “The Twilight of the Professors,” The Intercollegiate Review, 34:2 (Spring 1999), pp. 8-12, Bruce S. Thornton writes that there has been a “decades-long transformation of the university from a haven of truth-seekers dispensing liberal education, into a utilitarian industry, a profit-making trainer of technicians.”
32. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview On the State of the Church (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1985), p. 135.
33. See Matthew 4:24, 8:16, 8:28-32, 9:32-33, 10:1, 10:8, 12:22, 12:29, 15:22-28, 17:14-18, 17:21; Luke 4:41, 6:17-18, 8:26-35, 9:40-42,11:14; Mark 1:21-27, 1:32-34, 1:39, 3:7-11, 3:15, 5:1-13, 6:7, 6:13, 16:9.
34. John 8:44.
35. Http:// startdate=&enddate=&criteria=all; “Eternal Destinations: Americans Believe in Heaven, Hell,” Gallup Poll News Service, May 25, 2004,
36. Huxley, The Devils of Loudon, p. 260.
37. Peck, People of the Lie, p. 261.
38. “Appendix One: The Roman Ritual of Exorcism,” in Martin, Hostage to the Devil, pp. 461, 460.

1 comment:

brenda cox giguere said...

Your piece was well-researched, insightful, beautifully articulated.

Those observations will be on my mind when I finally see the film.