Fact vs. Fiction
Humans have long been fascinated with the most troubled and dangerous among us.
Especially with the rise of art made for the masses both in print and on film, macabre tales of death and murder became a staple of storytelling. What may have well started as sensationalism with the first penny dreadfuls soon worked its way into even the most acclaimed literature of the Victorian era, shortly thereafter coming to life in moving pictures. Today, stories of murder are everywhere, from the news we watch to the countless channels and podcasts dedicated to true crime and innumerable movies about bloodthirsty murderers.
But how real are these depictions? Why this obsession with the most banal aspects of our humanity? And just how well do even the most notorious murderers from fiction reflect real-life pathology? That’s exactly what one psychiatrist decided to find out.
Often, movies depict crazed killers as brilliant criminals, masterminds capable of fooling law enforcement and civilians to pursue their bloodlust. But personality disorders that lead to psychopathy in the real world are often much more subtle. Which of your favorite characters make the cut?
One of the reasons why psychopathy so fascinates us as a society is due to the fact that we still understand so little about it. Even today, professionals struggle to hammer down a precise definition of what the disorder is and is not, not to mention its causes and symptoms.
“Is it a disease? Is it a personality disorder? We don’t know,” remarks Samuel Leistedt, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at the Université Libre of Brussels. Fully aware of how much art has borrowed from the field of psychology, especially in character-building, Leistedt and his colleague Paul Linkowski set out to examine just how well presumed psychopaths and sociopaths are represented in film. For their research paper, Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction?, they watched 400 movies from 1915—2010 and narrowed down their list to 126 characters based on their “clinical accuracy.”
As it turned out, some of film’s most iconic “psychopaths” didn’t even make the list. Leistedt and Linkowski explained, “Psychopathy in film is often portrayed in a haphazard or exaggerated fashion to enhance the dramatic properties of a character or characters to render them memorable [….] Moreover, some of the most famous ‘psychos’ in films are not psychopaths, but psychotics.”
That being said, fan favorites like Norman Bates (Psycho), Travis Bickel (Taxi Driver), and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) were considered less believable. Bates, specifically, is at the mercy of a fantasy than intent on committing real crime. Hannibal Lector (Silence of the Lambs) didn’t even make the list. (“Dr. Lecter accumulates many personal characteristics that are not generally found in everyday clinical practice.”)
The study remarked:
“In the final analysis and in a more general way, psychiatry and the cinema are both capable of offering a compelling glimpse into the complex human psyche. It is, of course, this point of convergence that will keep these two unlikely companions inextricably bound for years to come. In our specific topic of interest, it appears that psychopathy in the cinema, despite a real clinical evolution remains fictional. Most of the psychopathic villains in popular fiction resemble international and universal boogeyman, almost as ‘villain archetypes,’ who are related to the existence of universal countless forms that channel experiences and emotions, resulting in recognizable and typical patterns of behavior with certain probable outcomes.”
As you may have gathered by now, these professionals much preferred the tamer, more subtle depictions of psychopaths as those best representing reality. In order to appreciate these characters, we need to forget the sensationalism and sometimes even the entertainment factor. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Leistedt conceded that “not all psychopaths are crazed killers.” According to the psychiatrist, “We all have psychopathic traits. It’s a spectrum.”
So which characters best represent real-life psychopathy? Not surprisingly, one such character is Henry (Henry-Portrait of a Serial Killer), who was inspired by the real-life murderer Henry Lee Lucas. “In this film, the main, interesting theme is the chaos and instability in the life of the psychopath, Henry’s lack of insight, a powerful lack of empathy, emotional poverty, and a well-illustrated failure to plan ahead.”
Another example is Hans Beckert from the 1931 German film M, a role which would later lead to actor Peter Lorre’s strong association with the macabre. The study asserts that this characterization was even ahead of its time: “Lorre portrays Beckert as an outwardly unremarkable man tormented by a compulsion to murder children ritualistically, which is a substantially more realistic depiction of what would eventually be known today as a sexually violent predator (SVP) most likely suffering from psychosis.”
The men didn’t try to hide the clear favorite:
“Among the most interesting recent and most realistic idiopathic psychopathic characters is Anton Chigurh in the 2007 Coen brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men. Anton Chigurh is a well-designed prototypical idiopathic/primary psychopath. We lack information concerning his childhood, but there are sufficient arguments and detailed information about his behavior in the film to obtain a diagnosis of active, primary, idiopathic psychopathy, 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. He seems to be affectively invulnerable and resistant to any form of emotion or humanity […] In the case of Chigurh, the description is extreme, but we could realistically almost talk about ‘an anti-human personality disorder.'”
The paper concluded, “Realistic fictional psychopathic characters do exist, but they are in the minority,” an important lesson to keep in mind when basing our assumed knowledge of these real-world men (and women) off of what we’ve learned from film.
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