Fictional portrayals of psychopaths

Fictional portrayals of psychopaths, or 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/assessed 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.[1]

Early depictions

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.[2] 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.[3][4]

'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.[5]

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, 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 Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) in Brighton Rock, 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 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 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. Lorre portrays Beckert as an outwardly unremarkable man tormented by a compulsion to ritualistically murder children. A German film (allegedly based on the real life serial killer Peter Kürten), it was released in America in 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.[6]

The Ostap Bender character from novels The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf by Soviet authors Ilf and Petrov is also considered a portrait of a charming psychopath.[7][8]

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 necrophiliac, cannibal or transvestite, though these appear to have been unsupported other than by brief affirmations from Gein to leading questions by interrogators.[9][10] 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'.[11][12] Robert Bloch, a prolific pulp horror author, 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.[13] The villain, Norman Bates, is portrayed as an outwardly unremarkable man who murders a woman while under the control of an alternate personality that takes the form of his domineering mother, who he himself murdered. Both the novel and Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film adaptation were influences on the popular media portrayal of psychopaths.[14][15] Neither the book or film elaborates on the term 'psycho', though it is commonly taken to refer to either psychotic or psychopath. At the end of the film, a 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 to this day commonly confused with schizophrenia. Bloch later wrote a script for the 1966 film The Psychopath, the original working title for which was "Schizo".[16]

A different thread within fictional portrayals of psychopathy continued to focus on rebelliously antisocial characters. The title of the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, came from a 1944 book of the same name detailing the hypno-analysis of a diagnosed psychopath. In the book, psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner also discussed psychopaths in general as pointlessly selfish individuals who appear unable to accept society's rules. In Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the protagonist Randle McMurphy, after being admitted to a mental institution, 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 a 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".[17] In the script for the popular film adaptation in 1975, only the latter is retained and the term psychopath is never used. Ironically, the main authority figure in the hospital—the cold, sadistic Nurse Ratched—was later described as a psychopath under later understandings of the term.[18]

Late 20th century

The 1973 film Badlands involved two lead characters based loosely on Charles Starkweather 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 mis-estimating her audience, to be a quite typical Southern girl wanting to help narrate and come off well but still give the hard facts, and not dwell on herself or on personal tragedies.[19][20]

The increasing media focus of serial killers in the late 20th century, fueled by cases such as John Wayne Gacy (1978), Ted Bundy (1978) and Jeffrey Dahmer (1991), lent an additional momentum to 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.[21][22]

The psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer 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 of the 20th century. Lecter is intelligent and sophisticated (whereas psychopathy is generally associated with lower than average verbal intelligence[23]), 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. Lecter first appeared in Thomas Harris' 1981 novel Red Dragon, in which he is characterized as not fitting any known psychological profile. In the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, he is referred to as a "pure psychopath".[24] In the later novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, Lecter's psychopathy is portrayed as the result of seeing his sister Mischa murdered and cannibalized during World War II. In 2013 Harris revealed that he originally based the Lecter character on Alfredo Ballí Trevino, a Mexican physician who had killed and dismembered his homosexual lover, in what was called a crime of passion over a financial dispute.[25][26]

The novel American Psycho tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a yuppie serial killer working on Wall Street in the 1980s. It was made into a film in 2000. Author 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" would describe such incidents. Some commentary, including in scientific journals, has suggested the Bateman character appears to be a psychopath. However, Bateman also exhibits signs of psychosis such as hallucinations, and as such appears to be an unreliable narrator; it is left ambiguous whether Bateman is actually a serial killer, or is merely hallucinating about committing murder.[27][28] In Ellis' 1998 novel Glamorama which features models-turned-terrorists a character also remarks "basically, everyone was a sociopath...and all the girls' hair was chignoned."

In the 1993 book Girl, Interrupted and its 1999 film adaptation, the character of Lisa (played by Angelina Jolie in the film) is a rebellious, antisocial young woman who is diagnosed as a sociopath.[29] However, it is left ambiguous whether that diagnosis is accurate.

The 1996 film Primal Fear depicts a suspected murderer who appears to suffer from multiple personality disorder, who at the end reveals that he has been faking the disorder. In the original novel by William Diehl, the psychiatrist Molly Arrington and others repeatedly explain psychopathy and psychosis as if they are the same, inherently antisocial, condition.

Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling has described Lord Voldemort, the series' main villain, as "a raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people's suffering, and there ARE people like that in the world".[30]

21st century

Numerous characters in television shows are informally described as psychopaths by the actors who play the parts. Examples include Natalie Buxton in Bad Girls,[31] Sean Slater and Michael Moon in EastEnders,[32][33] and Dexter Morgan in the American show Dexter[34]

David Platt from the British TV soap Coronation street, is also known for having a serious personality disorder. His character is famous for presenting several tendencies of a sociopathic personality including, manipulation, lying, and aggression. He has served time in prison and often blames his mother for his traumatic childhood, His character has matured over the years however, the mask tends to slip from time to time and he returns to his darker side, most recently when he helped hide a dead body with a terrifying, cold-hearted attitude.

Dr. Gregory House, the title character in the FOX medical-thriller House is referred to as a sociopath multiple times by several characters throughout the course of the show.

Sherlock Holmes, the lead character in the BBC series Sherlock, is referred to as a psychopath multiple times throughout the course of the show; in response to these claims, Holmes describes himself as a "high-functioning sociopath". He has also been described as having Asperger syndrome.[35][36]

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 John Wayne Cleaver, a teenaged diagnosed sociopath who lives by a rigid code of behavior in order to avoid becoming a serial killer.[37]

One Chicago academic has argued in a review of TV trends that the contemporary fantasy of sociopathy/psychopathy 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.[38]

Princess Azula from the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender is the secondary antagonist in the series. A fire-bending prodigy and skillful combatant, she is a dedicated perfectionist and borderline psychopath, as she lacks absolute remorse and torments anyone who doesn't agree with her opinions with sadistic aggression. She is an expert manipulator and uses Psychological warfare and intimidation tactics to get what she wants. She eventually has a psychological meltdown in the series finale.

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 secondary characteristics, can vary.[39]

In 2013, the video console game Grand Theft Auto V was released with numerous references to psychopaths and sociopaths, including reports from a fictional psychiatrist. One of the lead characters, Trevor, is described both psychopathic and psychotic; the voice actor who played the part says he based his performance on Tom Hardy's portrayal of Charles Bronson in the film Bronson.[40]

See also


  1. 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.
  2. Patrick Brantlinger, William B. Thesing (2002). A companion to the Victorian novel. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 76 & 236. ISBN 0-631-22064-X.
  3. 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
  4. 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).
  5. Science of conscience: Metaphysics, morality, and rhetoric in psychopathy research Jarkko Jalava, 2007, PhD at Simon Fraser University, then Professor at Okanagan College, Canada
  6. "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)
  7. Be cautious - socially adapted psychopath, damned attractive man
  8. sociopaths and narcissists in movies
  9. Deviant Harold Schechter, 1998, Pg 192, 238
  10. Ed Gein: the Cannibal Myth Exposed
  11. Gonyea, Floyd. "Ed Gein Adjudged Insane" Milwaukee Sentinel. January 7, 1958.
  12. "Rule Woman Butcher Edward Gein insane; Sent to State Hospital" Warsaw Times-Union. January 7, 1958.
  13. PSYCHO EXCLUSIVE: An Interview With Author Robert Bloch By Ed Gross, Media Geek Network, November 24, 2012
  14. Teacher's Notes: Psycho Penguin 2008
  15. 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
  16. The Psychopath – 1966: Plot Synopsis
  18. The Psychopath in Film 1999 By Wayne Wilson. Pg 68
  19. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us Robert D. Hare, Guilford Press, 1993/2011. Pg 85
  20. Terrence Malick Lloyd Michaels, University of Illinois Press, 2009. Pg 103
  21. Serial Killing Myths Versus Reality: A Content Analysis of Serial Killer Movies Made Between 1980 and 2001 Sarah Scott McCready, Masters Thesis, 2002
  22. Consuming Cannibals: Psychopathic Killers as Archetypes and Cultural Icons Journal of American Culture, Volume 18, Issue 1, pages 87–96, Spring 1995
  23. DeLisi, Matt; Vaughn, Michael G.; Beaver, Kevin M.; Wright, John Paul. "The Hannibal Lecter Myth: Psychopathy and Verbal Intelligence in the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study" (PDF). Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment. 32 (2): 169–177. doi:10.1007/s10862-009-9147-z.
  24. In Red Dragon and its first film adaptation, 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, Lecter's jailer 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." In the script for the film version of 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."
  25. Real Hannibal Lecter was Murderous Gay Mexican Doctor Alfredo Ballí Treviño Umberto Bacchi, IB Times, July 2013
  26. Who Was The Real Hannibal Lecter? Valdez, Latin Times, 2013
  27. Bret Easton Ellis, The Art of Fiction No. 216. Interviewed by Jon-Jon Goulian
  28. “Psycho for Psychology: American Psycho” Amanda Sebester, October 2012
  29. Girl, Interrupted—Cuckoo's Nest Redux By Elaine Cassel, 2000
  30. Jensen, Jeff. (7 September 2000). "'Fire' Storm". Entertainment Weekly.
  36. "Sherlock "The Hounds of Baskerville" (Episode 2.2) | Planet Claire Quotes". Retrieved 2014-01-07.
  37. Author's website
  38. Why We Love Sociopaths. Adam Kotsko, New Inquiry, April 2012
  39. Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction. Jessica Morrell. 2008. Chapter 7: Sociopaths: Ice in their Veins
  40. An Interview With Steven Ogg, The Voice Of "GTA V’s" Trevor. September 30, 2013 Joseph Bernstein, BuzzFeed Staff

Further reading

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