HARLEEN’S THEORY OF CRIMINALITY

STRESS DRIVES OUR BEHAVIOURS FAR MORE THAN WE REALISE, MANdY WAN takes a look…


By Mandy Wan: Literature Columnist


In recent years, we have come to know Harley Quinn as the gum-blowing, mallet-swinging, ever devoted sidekick to Batman’s most notorious supervillain, the Joker. However, before her life as the Gotham queen of crime, Harley (or rather, Dr Harleen Quinzel) may be one of DC Comic’s most humanly flawed and tragic characters. Stjepan Šejić masterfully re-imagines her origin story in Harleen (2019) – a grim and psychologically haunting tale told in three stunningly illustrated volumes.

The story opens with a young and determined Dr Quinzel proposing a theory that could revolutionise Gotham City’s outlook on crime: antisocial behaviours and related mental illnesses are products of innate human survival mechanisms. Although she initially struggles to obtain the necessary support for her research, an opportunity later arises which grants her access to patients from the infamous Arkham Asylum. In turn, this places her directly into the Joker’s radar. What she doesn’t anticipate is that this will ultimately lead to her grim descent into madness through “Mr J”’s manipulation and exploitation.

To add insult to injury, it is revealed at the end of the tale that the Joker had simply lied in his interviews with Dr Quinzel to endear her to him by giving the impression he was going to be the solid proof that her theory was true. Likewise, her interviews with other patients, including Poison Ivy and the Killer Croc, proved to be fruitless. In essence, her research in Arkham Asylum was doomed from the moment it began. The same could be said for her mental wellbeing. On the other hand, we, the audience, are lucky enough to not to reside in Gotham where chaos reigns relentlessly. This begs the question of is there evidence that mental illnesses can be attributed to survival mechanisms in our society?

See Mandy on the Team page. Visit the Literature Department.

The answer to this question lies in the effects of stress on the human body. In her opening lecture, Dr Quinzel links the development of antisocial behaviours to the fight-or-flight response – a near-instantaneous bodily reaction to a stressful situation. This allowed us to evade life-threatening scenarios by altering hormonal levels and activating certain physiological responses. For example, small airways in our lungs expand rapidly to allow maximum airflow to the brain thus increasing alertness and subsequently, our chances of survival.

However, the body is also known to overreact to instances that pose no fatal dangers such as student exams, relationship issues, and work pressure. Depending on the individual, these stressors can become long term issues that require constant activation of their fight-or-flight response leading to chronic stress or in the words of Dr Quinzel, “an autoimmune disease of the mind”.

Several studies in the past years have discovered that as stress levels of university medical students increased, empathy levels decreased. Furthermore, negative moods – such as fatigue, anger, and distress (all with the potential to be influenced by stress) – were found to reduce empathic concern. A feasible explanation for this phenomenon is that stress results in depersonalisation and emotional exhaustion which both inhibit our social skills. With significantly reduced levels of empathy, people are more likely to commit crimes and behave aggressively as they are unable to understand the anguish caused to others by their actions. These are symptoms of antisocial personality disorder.

It is important to note that correlation does not necessarily equal causation and we must acknowledge the need for additional research regarding these topics. Nonetheless, we can see that Dr Quinzel’s theory may very well be true and if so, could transform our society’s perception of crime for years to come.

It is important to note that correlation does not necessarily equal causation and we must acknowledge the need for additional research regarding these topics. Nonetheless, we can see that Dr Quinzel’s theory may very well be true and if so, could transform our society’s perception of crime for years to come.