What Can We Learn From On-Screen Psychopaths?

Few psychopaths who terrorize the big screen could pass a reality check, but those who do can be used as teaching tools for aspiring psychiatrists.

Tune in to SciFri on August 29, 2014 for an hour-long chat about the science of the silver screen. 

Moviegoers might identify psychopaths on the big screen by their murderous blood lust and disregard for human life—think Michael Myers in Halloween. Such portrayals hardly paint an accurate picture, however. In reality, psychopathy is more complex, with experts still debating its definition, although basic criteria usually include lack of emotional empathy, fearless dominance, aggressiveness, and confidence that borders on recklessness. But the disorder actually occurs over a spectrum; the cold-blooded killers many of us associate with the condition are just on the extreme violent end.

For forensic psychiatrists who double as educators, this complexity makes teaching students how to recognize psychopaths exceedingly difficult. “I am a teacher, and to me, describing human behavior to young students is not easy,” says Samuël Leistedt, a forensic psychiatrist at Marronniers Regional Center for Psychiatric Care and a professor of medicine at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

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While mulling over how to improve his lessons, Leistedt thought that video examples of psychopathic humans—even ones who are just acting—might help put textbook lessons into a real-world context. He turned to movies, which have portrayed hundreds of psychopathic characters over the years. “That was my plan: to make my teaching more fun, more interesting,” he says.

But because some movies are more realistic than others, Leistedt needed to figure out which ones could be valid teaching tools. He systematically waded through reams of cinematic gore to analyze nearly every psychopath who has graced the silver screen. After watching 400 films, he identified 126 non-supernatural, non-superhuman fictional characters that possessed some plausible, real-world psychopathic traits. He then diagnosed and classified them into sub-types.

Leistedt found plenty of examples of “classic” or “true” psychopaths—a term used to describe people who are on the extreme end of the spectrum who lack emotional empathy and are aggressive and hyper-confident. (In reality, however, these individuals are quite rare.)

Anton Chigurh, from 2007’s No Country for Old Men, is one realistic example, according to Leistedt. Like some true psychopaths, he’s cold, smart, determined, and feels no remorse. A real-life doppelganger would be the serial killer Richard Kuklinski, who supposedly murdered up to 250 people.

During his research, Leistedt also considered manipulative psychopaths, people who aren’t violent but excel at the art of lying and cunning to get what they want—often at the expense of others. Leistedt identified Gordon Gekko, the filthy-rich, power-hungry CEO from Wall Street, as a believable representation.

The macho psychopath, meanwhile, is a person who is not necessarily smart and manipulative, but is violent and dangerous. In film, these individuals are best represented by mafia characters such as Francis “Frank” Costello in The Departed.

Finally, Leistedt examined his evidence for pseudo psychopaths. He counts the murderer Matthew Poncelet from Dead Man Walking as a good model: Poncelet is violent and anti-social, but he does have emotions and can feel guilt.

Other familiar screen antagonists, however, didn’t make the cut for believability. For instance, Hannibal Lecter, the memorable doctor from The Silence of the Lambs, is too sensational, Leistedt concluded.

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Lecter presents a medley of extreme traits borrowed from real-world psychopaths such as Albert Fish, Issei Sagawa, and Ed Gein—but finding all those characteristics in one individual is highly implausible, according to James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, whose own brain resembles that of a psychopath’s (listen to his interview on SciFri). “Writers for T.V. and film often create villains that are impossibly complex, and the symptoms and traits are often contradictory to real psychiatric disorders,” he says.

Now that Leistedt has his list of vetted characters, he plans to integrate them into his fall courses by showing movie clips and challenging his students to evaluate their personalities. His own diagnoses, Leistedt adds, are not absolute. “I’d be very happy if my students say they disagree with me,” he says. “I want my diagnoses to be the basis for discussions.”

Leistedt isn’t the only psychiatrist to find film useful in the classroom. Glen Gabbard, a professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Baylor College of Medicine, has been using movies as educational tools for years. “I particularly like the ‘teaching moments’ in these films,” he says—that is, when a psychopathic character reveals how his mind works. For example, in the movie House of Games, a psychopathic patient explains to his psychiatrist how to pull off a con. “When I am giving a lecture about how we can all be conned by a smart psychopath, I introduce this clip by saying, ‘Here’s how it’s done,’” Gabbard says.

Since reporting his results in the Journal of Forensic Sciences last January, Leistedt has received thousands of emails from interested instructors and students. Soon, Anton Chigurh, Gordon Gekko, and Frank Costello might be joining course syllabuses along with their real-life counterparts.


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About Rachel Nuwer

Rachel Nuwer is a freelance science journalist who writes for outlets such as The New York Times, the BBC and Smithsonian. She lives in Brooklyn.

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