Peeling the Psychopath off the Screen

Peeling the Psychopath off the Screen

Could you spot a psychopath in a crowd? As it turns out, the task may prove easier than expected. In a manner of speaking, a glance in the mirror may be all it takes. As Levenson’s self-report psychopathy scale shows, we’re all somewhere on the spectrum.

No saints

To understand the reason behind this, it’s important to note that “psychopath” isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used to diagnose mental health disorders, but exists as a personality trait linked to “antisocial personality disorder”. The insinuation that we cannot distance ourselves from the label may prove uncomfortable to some and outrageous to others, but the portrayal of psychopaths in film is largely to blame for this.

To some degree, we all lie, cheat, manipulate others by charming them, take risks, break the rules for fun, and display emotional detachment. Or we simply show a lack of empathy for certain people. By definition, psychopathy merges antisocial and sensation-seeking behavior with a lack of empathy, guilt or remorse, and a willingness to manipulate others.



Psychopathic personalities have been depicted as caricatures throughout film history, often appearing sadistic, volatile, sexually depraved and possessed by strange mannerisms, chilling the audience with bouts of hysterical giggling and strange tics.

If this brings to mind notable villains, that’s because until the late 1950s, American cinema used the mold of the psychopath to shape serial killers, mad scientists and gangsters in film. Similarly, homosexuality was portrayed as psychopathic behavior. These lively caricatures can be seen in Kiss of Death (1947) and White Heat (1949).

In the wake of the arrest of Ed Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield, in 1957, the mold of the psychopath was resculpted to reflect the qualities of the film genre it was now actively shaping: horror. The elements of his crimes, which included grave robbing, cannibalism and necrophilia, led to his psychosis being mistaken for aspects of psychopathy.


A slight diversion in the portrayal of psychopaths followed. Ed Gein’s crimes were dissected to separate the sexual aspect from his chaotic immoderation. In film, psychopaths were either shown as sexually charged murderers, or brutally unpredictable and violent killers. Thus, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the character of Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) were born.

Bloody fascination

Interestingly, our implicit fascination with savagery and deviance led to the creation of a new subgenre: slasher films. While viewers relished the sensational qualities of films such as Halloween (1978), the film industry uncovered the subgenre’s alluring marketability, using it to start producing trademarked masks for Halloween, for example.

And even though the psychopath shaped by this sudden demand is unrealistically sadistic and omniscient, the dominance of this blueprint served as the psychopathic model for decades, as Leistedt and Linkowski observed.

What’s surprising is that the original slasher films served as commentary on the nature of human morality. The rerouting of the subgenre brings to mind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818), the famous novel that is often mistakenly referenced.

Though Frankenstein is the titular scientist plagued by moralistic contrition, his name is often assigned to the Monster, Frankenstein’s suffering creation. And while the novel is deeply philosophical, those unfamiliar with the text are quick to label is as a work of tantalizing horror.

Elite psychopath

The arrest of serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, and the creation of the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) in 1985, achieved something unprecedented. The need for criminal profiling, and a deeper understanding of how psychopathy affects criminal investigations, led filmmakers to step back from the unquestioned portrayal of psychopaths to allow a true depiction to surface, mostly in the form of documentaries.

But as fascination with realistic aspects of psychopathy grew, an unnerving side of our society’s psyche was exposed. The “elite psychopath”, showing inflated levels of intelligence, manners and guile, brought on the ostensible appeal of psychopathic traits.

Ted Bundy

In fact, Dr. Katherine Ramsland revealed that we tend to romanticize psychopaths. After the premiere of Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), some young women proved smitten. One went so far as to get a tattoo on her hip of the bite mark Bundy left on one of his victims. This, again, goes back to the portrayal of psychopaths in the media, and the way their weaknesses and vulnerabilities began to be emphasized.

What this marked was the beginning of the end of the narrative of the human monster. Its very basis was the introduction of a single individual with abnormal beliefs and a “deviant system of morality”, who plots to “change the social order”. This banal treatment of sociology has led people to recount World War II as the result of Adolf Hitler’s wickedness, rather than a compex system of processes.

By overlooking the economic repercussions of World War I, the political fallout between European states, the rise of communism and society’s reliance on the ideology of the nation state, a single scapegoat could be identified. But while finger-pointing may accelerate us into the future, it also means that we fail to learn anything from history.

Who’s Who

In 2014, Belgian psychiatry professor Samuel Leistedt wanted to see which movie characters represented psychopathic traits best. He called ten of his friends and together, they set out to watch 400 movies, dating from 1915 to 2010, in three years.

No Country for Old Men

In the end, they identified 126 psychopathic characters, 21 of whom were female. Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007) was the most realistic. Women were all uniformly portrayed, namely “as scheming manipulators whose main weapons are sexual”. Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992) appeared on the list.

The most widely recognized depictions of psychopathy in film, as seen in American Psycho (2000), Wall Street (1987), Psycho (1960) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) proved too unrealistic to fit in the psychopath mold. What’s more, the team of specialists noted that cinema preserves a fictional image of psychopathy, and that most villains tend to come across as a “universal boogeyman”.

Final thoughts

What’s interesting is that psychopathy belongs to the Dark Triad, alongside narcissism and Machiavellianism. As a society, we appear to not only embrace these traits, but celebrate them. And as Foulkes pointed out, “psychopathy is simply the awful endpoint of a line on which we all stand”.

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