4 Myths About Psychopaths We Believe Because Of Movies
By now you probably know that the Hannibal Lecter's and the Michael Myers' of Hollywood aren’t widely considered to be accurate portrayals of serial killers and/or psychopaths. Most psychopaths aren’t genius scholar-types with a fondness for fine dining, and most real-life serial killers don’t go around wearing masks and killing people because they saw their babysitting sister have sex once.
Contrary to popular belief, not all serial killers are psychopaths, and not all psychopaths are violent criminals with mommy issues. While Hollywood is always upping the ante and giving us the most malfunctioning and macabre characters (looking at you, Jigsaw Guy), the truth about psychopaths — as we know, presently — is less Texas Chainsaw and slightly more Coen Brothers.
You see …
Psychopaths Don’t Look Like We Think They Do
When hearing the word “psychopath,” most folks probably see the faces of World’s Awful Guys like Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, and that Gacy jerk with his clown makeup on. That, or they’re thinking about that one neighbor who just wouldn’t stop playing banjo music all day and always smelled like cheese. Anyway, did you know that the members of the clown community are actually scared of the public because people are so weird about clowns? Blame Gacy (and also Stephen King, we guess).
Seriously though, psychopaths rarely look like the masked killers in movies, or someone Zac Efron could pull off. They don’t have any universal distinct physical traits, and they really just look like everyone else. They’re not all vying for the Most Charming Person title, and those serial killer psychopaths who do like to turn on the charm, seldom come across as intimidating (like Hannibal) or threatening (like any villain you’d find in Gotham). That Efron movie about Ted Bundy could’ve done more to show how Bundy’s church unequivocally supported him because they couldn’t believe that a charming young man with such an agreeable disposition was, in fact, a diabolical woman killer.
But psychopaths who abuse, torture, and murder rarely look like Bundy. In fact, Stanley Tucci’s character George Harvey in the supernatural thriller The Lovely Bones not only showcases how criminally violent psychopaths can look like the “everyman" but, according to forensic psychiatrists, is also one of the most accurate portrayals of a serial killer psychopath in cinema.
Psychopaths Are Not Psychotic
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes psychosis as “conditions that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality. When someone becomes ill in this way it is called a psychotic episode.” It is most often linked with schizophrenia, because it involves deep delusions and hallucinations that are so bad, the person suffering from it has a hard time distinguishing what’s real and what's not. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Norman Bates? He’s not a psychopath. He suffers from psychosis.
Ironically, Stu from Scream gets his self-diagnosis absolutely right when he says they (he and Billy) prefer the term “psychotic.” Stu is delusional, because he believes they’re not simply committing a string of violent murders. He believes they’re making a movie.
Billy, though? Yep, he’s a violent psychopath, because Billy knows exactly what he’s doing, and can distinguish reality from illusions and fantasies. Psychopathy is not an official mental disorder — it’s not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — and some experts agree that it should rather be treated as a personality disorder. So yeah, Norman Bates who thinks his dead mother is still alive and scolding him whenever he sees the hem of a dress wouldn’t be defined as a psychopath. In fact, a study done by forensic psychiatrists Samuel Leistedt and Paul Linkowski revealed that of all the “psychopaths” found in cinematic history (up until 2013, that is), this guy is as close to actual psychopathic behavior as it gets:
God, what a scene. According to Leistedt and Linkowski, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men is a “well-designed prototypical idiopathic/primary psychopath” and note that he shows an “incapacity for love, absence of shame or remorse, lack of psychological insight, inability to learn from past experience, cold-blooded attitude, ruthlessness, total determination, and lack of empathy." In fact, Javier Bardem’s ruthless character reminded them of real-life contract killer Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski.
More interesting is that the study found Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko to be the other most accurate fictional portrayal of psychopathic behavior. Which leads us to …
Not Every Psychopath Is A Violent Murderer
Part of the reason psychopathy has not been added as an official diagnosis by the medical community is the stigma that inevitably comes with such a diagnosis. Most people go around fearing the psychopaths of the world, because they think they need to watch out for someone who will strangle them the first chance they get. But psychopaths don’t all brandish knives and chainsaws and whatever they dug up in Grandma’s closet. Not every psychopath is a murderous maniac. In fact, only a small percentage of psychopaths end up committing violent crimes.
Enter the “successful psychopath” — a term used in the psychiatric community to describe psychopaths with enough impulse control to live in society like everybody else (sort of). The most widely-known of these are corporate psychopaths, and according to the experts, they’re basically Gordon Gekko.
Says Leistedt and Linkowski about Michael Douglas’ famous character: "One of the most interesting, manipulative, psychopathic fictional characters to date.” New York industrial psychologist Paul Babiak explains how psychopaths get to proverbially shine in a corporate environment: “The psychopath has no difficulty dealing with the consequences of rapid change; in fact, he or she thrives on it. Organizational chaos provides both the necessary stimulation for psychopathic thrill seeking and sufficient cover for psychopathic manipulation and abusive behavior.”
All of this and what we’ve learned so far basically means that, depending on how you want to interpret American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is not actually a psychopath. He’s a narcissistic, sociopathic psychotic (because of his hallucinations), and quite frankly, just a mess of a character put together. But, you know, that’s probably not/totally the point.
In any case, many psychopaths seem able to handle their potential propensity for violence. And while they can be found in many occupations ranging from lawyers to cops to the guy cooking your food at your favorite restaurant, many of them end up at some corporate company, and many of them are CEO’s and salesmen. Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare, who came up with the standard Psychopathy Checklist tool, said: “If I wasn’t studying psychopaths in prison, I’d do it at the stock exchange.”
Psychopaths Have And Feel Emotions, Too
Sure, psychopaths may lack remorse and come across as cold and heartless, but they can feel emotions just like us, albeit often for different reasons. Psychopaths can show concern for their families, and they can even suffer from depression. They can love people (in their own way), even their pets (not all psychopaths and psychopathic serial killers torture animals), and they can feel sad when they disappoint the people that care about them.
Forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland who interviewed and analyzed Dennis Rader (the “BTK” Killer) in Confession of a Serial Killer, noticed that Rader subverted from the classic psychopath profile. She theorized that he may have struggled with what is known as the “hidden suffering.”
“He has protected his family from (the) media, describes regret over causing them embarrassment, and mourns his loss of contact with them. In his first letter to me, he wrote, ‘I ask a couple of things … that the private matters of my family remain that way. My crimes hurt them terribly.’ He also mentioned that he misses his wife ‘so much, it still hurts if I dwell on the memories too long.’ … In response to news of a mass murder, he asked, ‘Why is it that I can have normal emotions, sudden tears, yet do what I did?’”
Yes, it’s true that the true psychopath can manipulate, lie, and convince many people that they are just like them with normal feelings and expected responses. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t feel pain and sadness, even if it’s because they failed in their goal, or their own needs cannot be fulfilled.
But hey, no one really wants to see Hannibal Lecter cry over a plate of liver and fava beans now, do they?
Thumbnail: Lionsgate Films