Welcome to Science of the Scare! Every month I will dissect a Big Science Question from a horror movie and talk through it in (mostly) easy-to-digest terms.
Science and horror have a wild, entangled history and have left us with loads of questions to ponder. Deep, important questions like: just how many ways could we have a zombie pandemic? Is genetic engineering always a slippery slope to monstrosity? This month’s Big Science Question:
Psycho killer: qu’est-ce que c’est?
This question is brought to us by a Talking Heads lyric, but also by Psycho (1960), American Psycho (2000), and every movie under the sun that tries to diagnose its killer as either a psychopath or a sociopath.
Both psychopathy and sociopathy are out-of-fashion terms (at least diagnostically; they’re still in heavy use in pop culture, so I’ll be using them in this writing) for personality disorders characterized by impaired empathy, lack of remorse, and a disregard for social norms. They’re sometimes used interchangeably, but more often, they’re considered distinct conditions. Psychopathy is often described as the more extreme of the two, correlating with a higher likelihood for criminal or violent behaviour, but being diagnosed a psychopath doesn’t mean a person has been handed a one-way ticket to Killersville. Traits that characterize these types of disorders exist on a spectrum, and someone living with psychopathy sits at a more extreme point.
The traits that make up what we know about sociopathy and psychopathy are easy enough to describe, but really challenging to actually recognize. It’s not like you can diagnose a sociopath with a blood test or a urine sample. Diagnosis comes out of evaluating difficulties in how a person experiences themselves as well as other people, as well as looking at broad areas of personality traits and trying to fit them into categories. Psychopathic traits in particular are super uncommon and difficult to describe and diagnose, and some circles are moving toward eradicating psychopathy as a diagnosis altogether. The current diagnostic manual (DSM-V) houses what we would traditionally consider sociopathy and psychopathy under the Antisocial Personality Disorder category, although there’s criticism here too that psychopathy should be a separate but overlapping condition. It’s hard for everyone to agree on a definition when all of the factors and measures exist in terms of spectrums and nuances.
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Likewise, the histories of psychopathy and sociopathy have been braided together since the beginning. The first definitions of psychopathy to really grab popular imagination came from American Psychologist Hervey Cleckley in the 1940s, with his 1941 publication The Mask of Sanity. Cleckley identified a checklist of 16 psychopathic traits, from superficial charm, to lack of insight, to failure to live life in any ordered way (unless for destructive purposes or a sham). Some items on his list may be surprising for people who are used to movie portrayals of psychopathy, such as an absence of delusions (which would point to different disorders), and failure to learn from mistakes (which takes out a lot of fictional criminals). Despite the world largely moving beyond his original definitions, Cleckley’s categories are still referenced often enough in contemporary research.
Since there’s such a huge social component to these disorders, the behaviours that qualified as “disregard for social and moral norms” have also been shaped by time and culture. If you go back far enough to the beginning of the 20th century (so we’re talking pre-DSM) , even homosexuality at one point fell under the psychopathy umbrella. Obviously, that wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) fly today.
“The traits that make up what we know about sociopathy and psychopathy are easy enough to describe, but really challenging to actually recognize.”
The Hollywood Psychopath
On-screen, portrayals of criminal psychopaths have also evolved over time, although not necessarily in ways that followed our developing understanding of the disorder. The earliest portrayals tended to give us confusing caricatures of emotionally unstable, giggling villains. A rare exception to this rule was murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), although it wouldn’t be appropriate to call it a perfectly “realistic” exception.
Depictions began to shift in the 1960s and 70s, thanks to public knowledge of real serial killers during this period (the beginning of this shift seems to align with Ed Gein’s murders in 1957). Movie psychopaths of this era usually ticked one of two boxes: 1) social misfit with a compulsion to kill (with motivations usually tied to sex), such as good ol’ Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) from Psycho (1960) and Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) from Peeping Tom (1960) or 2) extremely violent, chaotic mass murderer, à la Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Michael Meyers (Nick Castle, mostly) of Halloween (1978). Suddenly there was a whole slasher genre that was modelling a new kind of psychopath that had little to no connection to any clinical definition of the term.
The public arrests of killers such as Ted Bundy, an outwardly charming man, in 1975, John Wayne Gacy, an active community member, in 1978, and Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991 led to yet another shift in portrayals. This was the era of “elite” on-screen psychopaths in the 80s and 90s, such as Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox; Anthony Hopkins) in Manhunter (1986) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in American Psycho (2000). For what it’s worth, neither Lecter nor Bateman would be likely candidates for a psychopathy diagnosis in real life. Even if we look at the real examples of Bundy, Gacy, and Dahmer, only Bundy has ever been given the possible diagnosis of psychopathy. To get a sense of how commonly psychopathy is diagnosed in real life, psychiatrist Dr. Lewis, who worked with Ted Bundy during his trials, reportedly told Bundy’s lawyer Polly Nelson, “I always tell my graduate students that if they can find me a real, true psychopath, I’ll buy them dinner.”
One interesting study by Doctors Leistedt and Linkowski watch 400 films depicting fictional psychopaths, classified them, and ranked them in terms of how “realistic” the portrayals were, with an aim to use the more faithful depictions as teaching tools. I am personally not super keen on their two-part categorization system, which first (unhelpfully) organized the characters as primary (nature) psychopaths and secondary (nurture) psychopaths, and then plopped them into one of four diagnostic subgroups based on old definitions (Classic/Idiopathic, Manipulative, Macho, Pseudopsychopath (Sociopath)). According to their reckoning, realistic psychopathic portrayals are rare, and the most interesting and perhaps realistic for the classic psychopath category are Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) from No Country for Old Men (2007) and Henry (Michael Rooker) from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Traits that Leistedt and Linkowski identified as realistic for Anton Chigurh included his cold-blooded attitude, lack of empathy or remorse for his violent acts, and an inability to learn from past experience, while for Henry, they noted his lack of empathy and insight, and his inability to plan ahead.
“[…]neither [Hannibal] Lecter nor [Patrick] Bateman would be likely candidates for a psychopathy diagnosis in real life. “
It’s safe to say that depictions of sociopathy and psychopathy have improved somewhat in the past century, even including some interesting and decidedly non-killer examples, like Amanda (Olivia Cooke) in Thoroughbreds (2017). In the real world, we’re still a long way away from understanding the disorder, which is perhaps why watching fictional depictions is so captivating. Film is a medium built to give us insight into individual characters and live some sort of vicarious experience, and creating psychopathic and sociopathic characters, whether realistic or not, gives us the sense that we might penetrate an otherwise poorly understood perspective.