Fictional portrayals of psychopaths
Fictional portrayals of psychopaths, also known as sociopaths, are some of the most notorious in film and literature but may only vaguely or partly relate to the concept of psychopathy, which is itself used with varying definitions by mental health professionals, criminologists and others. The character may be identified as a diagnosed psychopath or sociopath within the fictional work itself, or by its creator when discussing their intentions with the work, which might be distinguished from opinions of audiences or critics based only on a character appearing to show traits or behaviors associated with an undefined popular stereotype of psychopathy.
Such characters are often portrayed in an exaggerated fashion and typically in the role of a villain or antihero, where the general characteristics of a psychopath are useful to facilitate conflict and danger. Because the definitions and criteria in the history of psychopathy have varied over the years and continue to change even now, many characters in notable films may have been designed to fall under the category of a psychopath at the time of the film's production or release, but not necessarily in subsequent years. There are several stereotypical images of psychopathy in both lay and professional accounts which only partly overlap and can involve contradictory traits: the charming con artist, the deranged serial killer, the successful corporate psychopath, or the chronic low-level offender with Juvenile delinquency. The public concept reflects some combination of fear of the mythical bogeyman, fascination with human evil, and sometimes perhaps envy of people who might appear to go through life unencumbered by the same levels of guilt, anguish or insecurity.
In the 19th century the diagnostic categories of monomania or moral insanity (the word 'moral' then meant either emotional or ethical) made their way into works of literature, covering numerous eccentricities, obsessions or breakdowns - and sometimes acts of apparently senseless criminality, occasionally violent! This period also saw the rise of crime fiction such as sensation novels, where often someone in a local community who appeared normal would turn out to be criminally insane, and detective novels, playing on increasing anxieties about the characters of people in the newly expanding and diversifying industrial cities. The term 'psychopath' came into use in the late 19th century (as did the term it would often be confused with, psychotic), and also spanned a very wide range of conditions (etymologically and originally equivalent to 'mentally ill'). Nevertheless an early rise to prominence followed its use in a Russian trial between 1883 and 1885 concerning a child murder, contributing to the release of a probable false confessor while the original suspect was found guilty. 'Psychopaths' began to appear in vaudevilles, ditties (songs) and press articles. The psychopathy defense was reported internationally as having enabled a remorseless female child killer to go free, a usage still quoted in dictionaries today.
'Degenerates' were also depicted in popular fiction of the 19th through to mid 20th century, sometimes in similar ways to the modern usages of the concept of psychopaths, sometimes being cited as a cause of psychopathy. The concept fell into disrepute due partly to its use by the Nazis to justify eradicating their opposition.
Early 20th century
The meaning gradually narrowed, initially as 'psychopathic inferiors' covering all of what today might be called personality disorders and various other conditions, then intertwining with the terminology of the 'sociopath' (and eventually antisocial personality disorder), though psychopathy remained variously defined in both broad and narrow ways.
Early representations of psychopaths in film were often caricatured as sadistic, unpredictable, sexually depraved, and emotionally unstable (manic) characters with a compulsion to engage in random violence and destruction, usually with a series of bizarre mannerisms such as giggling, laughing, or facial tics. Up until the late 1950s, American cinematic conventions usually relegated the psychopath to roles of genre villains such as gangsters, mad scientists, supervillains, and many types of generic criminals. Examples of this type are Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in Kiss of Death, Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat, and Antonio 'Tony' Camonte (Paul Muni) in the 1932 version of Scarface. Homosexuals were also referred to as psychopaths under the broad definition then in use; the American Psychiatric Association in the first DSM in 1952 would list it under 'sociopathic personality disturbance'.
One exceptional depiction in this period was the character of child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) in the 1931 Fritz Lang film M (short for Murder). Lorre portrays Beckert as an outwardly unremarkable man tormented by a compulsion to ritualistically murder children to satisfy abnormal erotic desires, which he claims is due to psychopathy. A German film (allegedly based on the real life Peter Kürten), it was released in America from 1933 and has been seen as indicative of a turning point in American media depictions of psychopaths. Until the 1930s psychiatrists typically applied the diagnosis to unemployed males or 'hypersexual' women, but several psychiatric, cultural and economic trends, together with sex crime panics, converged to transform the popular psychopath into a violent, male, sexual deviant or criminal - a threat to innocence, gender roles and the social order.
Mid 20th century
One of the earliest real life cases which had a pervasive influence on American movies was that of Ed Gein, arrested in 1957. A farmer who had resided with his mother until her death, he had then killed two women and dug up female bodies from the local cemetery, making various items out of their skin. Rumours spread that he was also a sexual necrophiliac, cannibal or transvestite, though these appear to have been unsupported other than by brief affirmations from Gein to leading questions by interrogators. Gein was found mentally ill and legally insane before trial, deemed to have had schizophrenia (psychosis including delusions and hallucinations) for at least 12 years, though at least one media psychiatrist dubbed him instead a 'sexual psychopath'. Robert Bloch, a prolific pulp horror writer whose mother was a social worker, says his 1959 novel Psycho was based on the Gein murders and the idea of an apparently sane person in a local community committing heinous crimes, but not necessarily on Gein himself despite numerous similarities. The protagonist Norman Bates is portrayed as an apparently regular American who secretly cross-dresses and murders a naked woman in the shower while switched into a personality based on his domineering mother, both in the book and as played by Anthony Perkins in the infamous 1960 Hitchcock film Psycho. Neither the book or film elaborates on the term 'psycho', though it is commonly taken to refer to either psychotic or psychopath. The psychiatrist describes Bates as having a split personality. Multiple Personality Disorder was at that time very popular (cf 1957 movie The Three Faces of Eve) and is commonly confused with schizophrenia. Bloch later wrote a script for the 1966 film The Psychopath, the original working title for which was 'Schizo'.
A different thread within fictional portrayals of psychopathy continued to focus on low-level rebelliously antisocial characters. The title of the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, starring a culturally iconic performance by a young James Dean, came from a 1944 book of the same name detailing The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, in which psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner also discussed psychopaths in general as pointlessly selfish individuals who appear unable to accept society's rules. In 1962's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel), the protagonist Randle McMurphy is repeatedly referred to by the authorities, other patients and himself as a possible or definite psychopath. He reads from his record: 'repeated outbreaks of passion that suggest the possible diagnosis of psychopath', and adds that the doctor told him it means 'I fight and fuh-pardon me, ladies-means I am he put it overzealous in my sexual relations.' The current doctor then reads out the note: "Don't overlook the possibility that this man might be feigning psychosis". In the script for the popular film adaptation in 1975, only the latter is retained and the term psychopath is never used. Ironically the coldly clinical and controlling Nurse Ratched would be described as a psychopath by observers under later understandings of the term.
Late 20th century
The 1973 film Badlands involved two lead characters based loosely on a young serial killing couple from the late 1950s, Charles Starkweather (who was influenced by watching Rebel Without a Cause) and Caril Ann Fugate. While the male lead Kit (Martin Sheen) is sometimes described as a psychopath or sociopath, psychologist Robert D. Hare, a leading proponent of the assessment of psychopathy, has identified Holly (Sissy Spacek) as exemplifying his concept of a psychopath due to her poor emotional sense of the meaning of events and her attempted mask of normality. However, writer and director Terrence Malick has said he considered Kit's shallow bitter insensitivity to be a result of suffering and neglect growing up in the Midwest, and 15-year old Holly, though immature and humorously mis-estimating her audience, to be a quite typical Southern (born in Texas) girl wanting to help narrate and come off well but still give the hard facts, and not dwell on herself or on personal tragedies as that would not be proper.
An increasing panic about civilian serial killers from the late 1960s, fuelled by cases described as psychopaths such as John Wayne Gacy (1978), Ted Bundy (1978) and Jeffrey Dahmer (1991), lent an additional momentum in the way psychopathy was both perceived and portrayed in film and literature, sometimes incorporating a hybrid of traditional psychopaths from early film and late-19th Century literature with the high-functioning behaviors detected in some serial killers.
The cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, most notably portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the Academy Award-winning 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, is perhaps the most infamous fictional 'psychopath'. Lecter is intelligent and sophisticated (whereas psychopathy is generally associated with lower than average verbal intelligence), and his disarming charisma and wit disguise his true nature as a serial killer. He spends most of the film in a cell, taunting protagonist Clarice Starling with clues to the identity of another serial killer, Buffalo Bill, in exchange for intimate details of Starling's troubled childhood. The Lecter movies are based on books by Thomas Harris first published in 1981, in which Lecter's patient evaluations are described as all being different but they call him a sociopath as they can't understand him. In the Silence of the Lambs he is simply referred to as a pure psychopath. In 2013 Harris revealed that he originally based the Lecter character on Alfredo Balli Trevino, a Mexican physician who had killed and chopped up his homosexual lover who was also a doctor, in what was classed as a crime of passion over a financial dispute. While Lecter is not described as homosexual, Buffalo Bill is bisexual and (pseudo) transgender and trying to use the skin of victims to look like a woman.
American Psycho was also published in 1991, turned into a movie in 2000. Bret Easton Ellis has told interviewers that the book is a satire on shallow consumerist lifestyles, but also that the writing of the violent scenes was based on fictional horror and FBI material on serial killers, along with how he imagined "a psychotic who worked on Wall Street" (Patrick Bateman) would describe such incidents. Some commentary, including in scientific journals, has suggested the Bateman character appears to be a psychopath, but Bateman appears to be an unreliable narrator with psychosis so that it is unclear which of his reported acts really occurred.
In the 1993 book Girl, Interrupted and its 1999 film adaptation, which have been described as female versions of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the character of Lisa, played by Angelina Jolie, is a mischievously rebellious young women who is proudly diagnosed as a sociopath.
1996's Primal Fear (film) played on fears about the insanity defense and malingering, depicting a killer and possible victim of sex abuse appearing to suffer from multiple personality disorder, who at the end lets slip his deliberate creation of his alter ego. In the film one character asks "But don't we all invent psychopaths to do our dirty work for us, doctor?", while in the book of the same name by William Diehl the psychiatrist 'Molly' and others repeatedly explain psychopathy and psychosis as if the same, inherently antisocial, condition.
The author J. K. Rowling has described her Dark Lord character of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books and films as "a raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people's suffering, and there ARE people like that in the world".
The book and film The Corporation discussed the legal fiction, especially in America, that a business entity is a legal personality, and concluded that it inherently meets the criteria for being a psychopath, which some consider to be a metaphorical usage.
Numerous characters in television shows are informally described as psychopaths by the actors who play the parts, including in the UK the characters Natalie Buxton in Bad Girls, Sean Slater and Michael Moon in EastEnders, Dexter Morgan in the American show Dexter and the Master in Doctor Who.
The Dan Wells novel I Am Not a Serial Killer and its sequels, Mr. Monster and I Don't Want to Kill You, are narrated by a teenage diagnosed sociopath who sets himself rigid rules of behavior in order to lead a moral life.
One Chicago academic has argued in a review of TV trends that the contemporary fantasy of sociopathy is of someone whose emotional disconnection from others in society, rather than being the hindrance that it can represent in real clinical cases, enables them to be an amazingly successful manipulator due to a breakdown in the social contract.
Contemporary advice on writing psychopathic/sociopathic characters suggests that lack of a conscience and lack of empathy are always the chief characteristics, along with an ability to fool others, while the type of selfish antisocial behavior, and any quirky secondary characteristics, can vary.
In 2013, the same year in which the DSM-5 was published, again with a category of antisocial personality disorder noted to also have been called psychopathy or sociopathy, the video console game GTA 5 was released with numerous references to psychopaths and sociopaths, including in tailored reports from a fictional psychiatrist. One of the lead characters 'Trevor' is described as a psychopath but also as psychotic; the voice actor who played the part says his acting was influenced by Tom Hardy's portrayal of Charles Bronson (prisoner) (assumed name after the actor Charles Bronson) in Bronson (film).
- Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Other Bad Guys: What do personality labels contribute to popular discourse? Steven Reidbord, M.D., January 2013, Psychology Today.
- Portrayal of psychopathy in the movies Hesse, M. (2009). International Review of Psychiatry, 21(3), 207-212 (Login needed for full text).
- Is James Bond in fact a psycho? Stephen Dalton, The National, UAE, Oct 29, 2012 (cited study, was actually about the 'dark triad')
- Rating of personality disorder features in popular movie characters BMC Psychiatry 2005, 5:45
- La femme fatale: the female psychopath in fiction and clinical practice ('women in fiction who appear to demonstrate psychopathic traits') Caroline Logan, Mental Health Review Journal, Vol.16 No.3, 2011
- Mass media, 'monsters' and mental health clients: the need for increased lobbying. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2001 Aug;8(4):315-21.
- Looking for the Hannibal behind the Cannibal: Current status of case research (2012) Hege J. Tunstad interviewing Aina Sundt Gullhaugen
- Hollywood’s Misrepresentation of Psychopathy Fielding on Film, Apr 5, 2012
- Skeem, J. L.; Polaschek, D. L. L., Patrick, C. J., Lilienfeld, S. O. (15 December 2011). "Psychopathic Personality: Bridging the Gap Between Scientific Evidence and Public Policy". Psychological Science in the Public Interest 12 (3): 95–162. doi:10.1177/1529100611426706.
- Patrick Brantlinger, William B. Thesing (2002). A companion to the Victorian novel. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 76 & 236. ISBN 0-631-22064-X.
- Oxford English Dictionary 2011: Psychopath: 1885 Pall Mall G. 21 Jan. Article archive text via MLLE. SEMENOVA'S ACQUITTAL 1885 NY Times from Pall Mall Gazette. Online Etymology Dictionary: Psychopath cites instead a reference to the british Daily Telegraph's coverage of the case. Retrieved August 26th 2013
- Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia Louise McReynolds, Cornell University Press, 18 Dec 2012 (spells child victim as Sarra Bekker).
- Science of conscience: Metaphysics, morality, and rhetoric in psychopathy research Jarkko Jalava, 2007, PhD at Simon Fraser University, then Professor at Okanagan College, Canada
- "Uncontrolled Desires": The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960 Estelle B. Freedman, The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jun., 1987), pp. 83-106. Also reproduced in Passion and Power: Sexuality in History (from Pg 199)
- Deviant Harold Schechter, 1998, Pg 192, 238
- Ed Gein: the Cannibal Myth Exposed
- Ed Gein Judged Insane (1958)
- Edward Gein insane; Sent to State Hospital
- PSYCHO EXCLUSIVE: An Interview With Author Robert Bloch By Ed Gross, Media Geek Network, November 24, 2012
- Teacher's Notes: Psycho Penguin 2008
- Ed Gein and the figure of the transgendered serial killer by K.E. Sullivan. from Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 38-47
- The Psychopath – 1966: Plot Synopsis
- The Psychopath in Film 1999 By Wayne Wilson. Pg 68
- Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us Robert D. Hare, Guilford Press, 1993/2011. Pg 85
- Terrence Malick Lloyd Michaels, University of Illinois Press, 2009. Pg 103
- Serial Killing Myths Versus Reality: A Content Analysis of Serial Killer Movies Made Between 1980 and 2001 Sarah Scott McCready, Masters Thesis, 2002
- Consuming Cannibals: Psychopathic Killers as Archetypes and Cultural Icons Journal of American Culture, Volume 18, Issue 1, pages 87–96, Spring 1995
- DeLisi, Matt; Vaughn, Michael G., Beaver, Kevin M., Wright, John Paul (NaN undefined NaN). "The Hannibal Lecter Myth: Psychopathy and Verbal Intelligence in the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study". Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment 32 (2): 169–177. doi:10.1007/s10862-009-9147-z.
- In Red Dragon (Pg 64) (and the script of the movie Manhunter) FBI profiler Will Graham suggests that psychologists "say he's a sociopath" because they "don't know what else to call him". Shortly afterwards in Red Dragon the medical director of Lecter's psychiatric hospital Frederick Chilton says "...we thought he might provide us with a singular opportunity to study a pure sociopath...As it turned out, I don't think we're any closer to understanding him now than the day he came in." (Pg 72). In the script for the movie The Silence of the Lambs, the same character calls Lecter a "pure psychopath". In the novel of the same name, FBI agent Jack Crawford tells Starling "I'm waist-deep in inaccessible patient evaluations of Dr. Lecter and they're all different" and Chilton later tells Starling ""A pure sociopath, that's obviously what he is. But he's impenetrable, much too sophisticated for the standard tests."
- Real Hannibal Lecter was Murderous Gay Mexican Doctor Alfredo Ballí Treviño Umberto Bacchi, IB Times, July 2013
- Who Was The Real Hannibal Lecter? Valdez, Latin Times, 2013
- Bret Easton Ellis, The Art of Fiction No. 216. Interviewed by Jon-Jon Goulian
- “Psycho for Psychology: American Psycho” Amanda Sebester, October 2012
- Girl, Interrupted—Cuckoo's Nest Redux By Elaine Cassel, 2000
- Jensen, Jeff. (7 September 2000"). "'Fire' Storm". Entertainment Weekly.
- The corporation is not a psychopath Sep 13, 2011 Chris MacDonald. Canadian Business
- Putting Corporations on the Couch Ted Nace, 2004
- Why We Love Sociopaths Adam Kotsko, New Inquiry, April 2012
- Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction Jessica Morrell. 2008. Chapter 7: Sociopaths: Ice in their Veins
- An Interview With Steven Ogg, The Voice Of "GTA V’s" Trevor September 30, 2013 Joseph Bernstein, BuzzFeed Staff