Psychopathy, loosely defined, is a combination of cold-heartedness and violence. The most extreme psychopaths may kill without remorse, mutilating victims with as much emotion as you or I might brush our teeth.
This is known as “classic” or “idiopathic” psychopathy, but sometimes the disorder is more covert, as with some manipulative smooth talkers who aren’t necessarily violent.
In 2014, Belgian psychiatry professor Samuel Leistedt wanted to find out which movie characters embodied psychopathic traits best.
Leistedt called on 10 of his friends to help him watch 400 movies over the course of three years. The films spanned nearly a century, from 1915 to 2010. When the team finished watching all the films, they’d found 126 psychopathic characters.
Here’s a breakdown of their findings.
Javier Bardem’s character in the Cohen brother’s film, “No Country for Old Men” is a classic psychopath, Leistedt and his colleagues concluded in their report.
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Chigurh approaches murder with an uncanny sense of normalcy, perfectly happy to empty his trademark bolt pistol without so much as a wince.
“He seems to be effectively invulnerable and resistant to any form of emotion or humanity,” the researchers wrote.
In the 1931 German film “M,” Peter Lorre plays a child-killer who embodies many of the traits now thought of as belonging to a child predator, Leistedt and his colleagues observed.
“Lorre portrays Beckert as an outwardly unremarkable man tormented by a compulsion to murder children ritualistically,” the researchers wrote.
In the 1986 John McNaughton film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” the titular character’s inability to plan ahead, coupled with his turbulent personal life and poor family relationships, make him a textbook idiopathic psychopath, Leistedt said.
Note: Films like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” delivered a brand-new take on the cinematic psychopath. But Leistedt and his colleagues argued in their report that Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees aren’t psychopaths.“In these slasher films,” they wrote, “psychopathic characters are generally unrealistic, accumulating many traits and characteristics, such as sadism, intelligence, and the ability to predict the plan that the future victims will use to escape. Today, these are more iconic popular evil representations of fictional killers than of interesting psychopaths.”
Out of the 126 psychopaths in the team’s sample, only 21 were female.
Typically, those characters fit a similar mold, often serving “as scheming manipulators whose main weapons are sexual,” the research team wrote. Examples of such female psychopaths in film include Hedra Carlson in “Single White Female” and Catherine Tramell in “Basic Instinct” — both of whom use men’s sexual desires against them.
Characters such as Annie Wilkes in “Misery” and Rachel Phelps in “Major League” are among the few exceptions to that rule.
Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho, Norman Bates in “Psycho,” and Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” are all entertaining and frightening. But Leistedt and his team said their character traits don’t quite fit the psychopath mold.
“In our specific topic of interest, it appears that psychopathy in the cinema, despite a real clinical evolution, remains fictional,” the authors wrote. “Most of the psychopathic villains in popular fiction resemble international and universal boogeyman, almost as ‘villain archetypes.'”