Figures of insanity are common in story telling, and perhaps especially so in the genres that depart from realism. They often serve as a counter point to the actions of the sane heroes of the story while also illuminating aspects of the world that are not accessible to those rational characters. In the case of asylum patient Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Harley Quinn, the psychiatrist turned lunatic of 2016’s Suicide Squad, the character’s insanity allows an exploration of a dark master. Both figures seek out a master who is already established as evil and their respective stories explore whether they are insane because of the dark master figure or if their insanity is what caused them to seek out that master in the first place. These are conceptions of insanity that are separated by 119 years and the establishment of psychology as its own science, but the trajectory of Harley Quinn and Renfield are remarkably similar in their dynamics with their respective dark masters.
Harley Quinn as we see her for most of the Suicide Squad movie is a product of the Joker himself. She is a twisted version of the psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel who had fallen for her psychotic patient. The film is somewhat recalcitrant about how exactly that transformation happened but what is shown includes manipulation, violence, and Harley Quinn demonstrating that she has let go of everything that tied her to her former morals. In the main plot line of the film the Joker manages to stand out as Harley’s dark master even when many of the other protagonists are insane in some way shape or form. The Joker is a kind of evil that the other protagonists cannot reach and Harley is shown as particularly insane because of her love for him.
In opposition to the at least partially constructed back story of Harley Quinn, Renfield in Stoker’s Dracula has a completely blank past. He is a character that only exists within the time constraints of the main narrative and is only accessible to the reader through the hero protagonists. Dr Seward presents Renfield as zoophagous, an obsessive eater of animals, once he is already in the asylum, the result is that Renfield’s draw towards Dracula is viewed as an extension of his pre-existing insanity. Like Harley Quinn, Renfield consistently shows that he is willing to give up personal freedom or identity in order to better serve his dark master. Renfield is dedicated to escaping the asylum in order to join Dracula but he is also willing to stay locked up if that better serves Dracula’s plans.
There are such great pains taken in both Suicide Squad and Dracula to establish the characters as insane because their insanity is the gateway to an exploration of the alternatives to the choices the protagonist has made to oppose the dark master. The protagonists are supposed to be based in rationalism and strong morality, which is what led them to oppose the dark master figure so within that framework anyone choosing to follow these dark masters must be insane. While this is demonstrated fairly obviously in Dracula because of Renfield’s patient status to Dr. Seward, the dynamic is perhaps more interesting in Suicide Squad. This is because it is not just Harley Quinn who resides in Arkham Asylum, the rest of the protagonists do as well. All of the protagonists are supposed to be criminally insane but somehow Harley Quinn still stands out. Her insanity in following the Joker is placed against people who are being shown as insane in their own ways but still aren’t crazy enough to follow the dark master in the Joker.
Aside from explaining why someone would follow the dark antagonists of these stories, the use of insane characters as the followers of the antagonists enables the storyteller to present these characters as victims. The same insanity that is used to explain why someone would follow a dark master at all also gives the audience a way to view the follower as not entirely at fault. In these two stories in particular the characters have been lured in by some promise of future happiness. Renfield wants to consume the life that is ultimately at the top of the chain of animals he eats, he wants to consume a human. This is not a promise that Dracula makes explicitly, in fact Stoker shows only a few moments where Renfield and Dracula actually interact, but it is clear that this consumption of human life and energy is Renfield’s ultimate goal. Harley Quinn on the other hand is not lured in by some promise of power but rather by the idea that she can give up her sanity in order to have a romantic relationship with the Joker. These desires that the dark master is to some degree offering to meet show the lunatic of as a victim of false promises and manipulation rather than being truly evil themselves.
Interestingly, these promises also become the breaking point for the loyalty both Harley Quinn and Renfield have to their dark masters. Renfield fights back against Dracula when the vampire indicates that he intends to drink from Mina, something Renfield seems to alternately want to do himself or prevent from happening altogether. Harley Quinn also seems to realize that she will never truly have the relationship she wants with the Joker as it is the presentation of this life that sparks her final fight against Enchantress, the main threat of the story. As much as both Dracula and Suicide Squad present the lunatic follower of the dark master as simply crazy these breaks in loyalty show that they retain agency at least to some small degree.
Narratives like Suicide Squad and Dracula are told in a way that portrays the villain as wholly evil and without redemptive qualities, so the construction of the lunatic follower is essential to the development of the dark master figure. By creating characters like Harley Quinn or Renfield who are represented as insane even in relation to other insane characters the creator is able to explore the ways in which the dark master figure can be appealing. The lunatic follower’s insanity is demonstrated simply by their willingness to follow a figure like Dracula or the Joker, but their mentally fragile state also allows these insane characters to be shown as worthy of pity. The lunatic follower and their relationships to their dark masters is construction that brings depth to the antagonists of these stories that is not possible through the sane protagonists.