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Why psychopathic film villains are rarely realistic — and why it matters

This finding is of interest to more than just film buffs. Other research has shown that films exert a strong influence on people’s perceptions of mental illness.

Norman Bates: not the typical psychopath

Many of film’s most memorable villains, from Tony Camonte in “Scarface” (1932) to Norman Bates in “Psycho” (1960) to Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” (2007), have been portrayed as psychopaths.

But just how clinically realistic are those portrayals?

Not very — with a handful of exceptions, according to a paper published recently in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

This finding is of interest to more than just film buffs. Other research has shown that films exert a strong influence on people’s perceptions of mental illness.

And those perceptions are often wrong. A study published earlier this year found that almost half of respondents to two surveys taken last January believed that people with a serious mental illness are more dangerous than members of the general population. In reality, however, less than 5 percent of individuals with a serious mental illness become violent. They are much more likely, in fact, to be the victim of a violent crime.

A century of films

For the study, two Belgian psychiatrists, Dr. Samuel Leistedt and Dr. Paul Linkowski, selected 400 films released between 1915 (“The Birth of a Nation”) and 2010 (“The Lovely Bones”) that had a villain (one per film) who was portrayed as psychopathic.

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Psychopathy can be broadly defined as a personality disorder characterized by diminished empathy, a lack of guilt or remorse, and a tendency to manipulate or antagonize others. (The preferred clinical term is antisocial personality disorder.)

Leistedt and Linkowski eliminated all but 126 of those 400 films from their final analysis because the villains were “too caricatured and/or too fictional.” (In other words, no Darth Vaders or Freddy Kruegers.)

They found that the “Hollywood psychopath” is often given a string of traits — high intelligence, a preference for intellectual stimulation (music, fine arts), a stylish and vain demeanor, an always-in-control attitude, and exceptional skills at overpowering and killing people (often with ordinary household objects) — that are not characteristic, particularly in combination, of real psychopaths.

Furthermore, some of film’s most famous psychopaths — most notably Norman Bates in “Psycho” and Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” — are not psychopaths at all, but psychotics.

“These characters are, in varying ways, disconnected from reality and suffer from delusional ideation,” write Leistedt and Linkowski.

Examples of realistic portrayals

But Hollywood has sometimes gotten it right — or at least come close — when depicting psychopathic personalities, say the two psychiatrists. They provide these examples:

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. Having read and studied [New Jersey serial killer] Richard Kuklinski’s case, Chigurh and Kuklinski have several traits in common. In the case of Chigurh, the description is extreme, but we could realistically almost talk about “an anti-human personality disorder.”

Another realistic interesting example is Henry (inspired from Henry Lee Lucas) (Henry-Portrait of a Serial Killer, 1991). 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. George Harvey is another different and interesting character found in The Lovely Bones, 2009. Harvey is more ‘adapted’ than Chigurh and Henry. He has a house, is socially competent and seems like ‘the average man on the street’. Through the film, we learn that he is in fact an organized paraphilic SVP [sexually violent predator]. Here, the false self is well illustrated.

In terms of a ‘successful psychopath,’ Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987) is probably one of the most interesting, manipulative, psychopathic fictional characters to date. Manipulative psychopathic characters are increasingly appearing in films and series. Again, we observe the same process, as observed and explained before, with antisocial psychopaths. For the past few years, with the world economic crises and some high-profile trials (such as the Bernard Madoff trial), the attention of the clinicians is more focused on ‘successful psychopaths’, also called corporate psychopaths by Babiak et al. Films and series presenting characters such as brokers, dishonest traders, vicious lawyers, and those engaged in corporate espionage are emerging (e.g., Mad Men, The Wire) and are generally related to the global economy and international business. Again, we see a strong parallelism between what happens in our society and what happens in film.

‘Unlikely companions’

“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,” conclude Leistedt and Linkowski. “It is, of course, this point of convergence that will keep these two unlikely companions inextricably bound for years to come.”

It’s important that filmgoers realize, they add, that “psychopathy in the cinema, despite a real clinical evolution, remains fictional [their emphasis]. Most of the psychopathic villains in popular fiction resemble international and universal boogeyman, almost as ‘villian 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 probably outcomes.”

“Realistic fictional psychopathic characters do exist,” they conclude, “but they are in the minority.”

You’ll find an abstract of the study at the Journal of Forensic Sciences’ website, but, unfortunately, the study itself (with its list of 126 psychopathic villains) is behind a paywall.