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How real are cinema psychos? New study finds out

Fictional characters Gordon Gekko and Anton Chigurh top the list of realistic psychopaths, research says, while classic characters like Norman Bates may not be as true to the clinical definition.

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Bonnie Burton profile photo
Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
4 min read

Was Norman Bates really a psycho, or was Hitchcock's classic character just a misdiagnosed pseudopsychopath? Just because you torture your favorite author like Annie Wilkes did in "Misery," does that make you more realistic than Baby Firefly in "The Devil's Rejects"?

Gordon Gekko: one of the "most interesting, manipulative, psychopathic fictional characters to date," according to the study. Twentieth Century Fox

For a recent study titled "Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction?" physicians Samuel J. Leistedt and Paul Linkowski studied more than 400 films released in the last century to determine which fictional psychopathic characters were indeed portrayed accurately.

Out of the films, 126 fictional psychopathic characters -- 21 female and 105 male -- were selected to be examined based on the "realism and clinical accuracy of their profiles," according to the paper, which was published in December in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. Senior forensic psychiatrists and cinema critics then analyzed the films and their psychopathic characters.

Excluded from the study were any characters that had magical powers; were invincible; non-humans (monsters or ghosts); or possessed any non-realistic characteristics. So Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, vampires, and werewolves had to sit the study out.

While the authors concluded that "realistic fictional psychopaths" in film remain in the minority, they also said that as understanding of clinical psychopathy by mental health professions has increased, "the clinical description of and epidemiological data on fictional psychopaths in popular films have become more realistic."

While some researchers, as with this case study, break down psychopaths into "primary psychopaths," whose conditions are believed to be genetically caused, and "secondary psychopaths," who are considered more a product of their environments, there is also a widely accepted list of criteria in determining if someone should be labeled a "psychopath." Included are these traits: uncaring, shallow emotions, irresponsibility, insincere speech, overconfidence, narrowing of attention, selfishness, an inability to plan for the future, irritability, and violent tendencies.

The study diagnosed such iconic film characters as Bill (primary, classic, idiopathic, macho) from "Kill Bill"; Gordo Gekko (primary, manipulative) from "Wall Street," whom the study calls "probably one of the most interesting, manipulative, psychopathic fictional characters to date"; Michael Corleone (secondary, macho) from "The Godfather: Part II"; Norman Bates (secondary, pseudopsychopath) from "Psycho"; Annie Wilkes (secondary, pseudopsychopath) from "Misery"; Alex Forrest (secondary, pseudopsychopath) from "Fatal Attraction"; Baby Firefly (primary, classic, idiopathic) from "The Devil's Rejects"; and Hedra "Hedy" Carlson (secondary, pseudopsychopath) from "Single White Female."

Interestingly enough, according to the paper, "the arrest and popularity of the notorious serial killers John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy and the eventual formation of the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) in 1985 led to an additional increase in the description of how psychopathy and criminal investigations (such as criminal profiling) were perceived and portrayed in film. An increasing interest in the realistic depiction of psychopaths led to the formation of a new hybrid of traditional psychopaths from early film and late 19th century literature, with high-functioning behavior and the false-selves presented by psychopaths such as Bundy and Dahmer.

"This change lead to the popularity of the 'elite psychopath,' or a psychopath exhibiting exaggerated levels of intelligence, sophisticated manners, and cunning, sometimes up to superhuman and super-mediatized levels. Doctor Hannibal Lecter is probably one of the best examples of this type of unrealistic but sensational character. Since early 2000, the depiction and description of fictional psychopaths has changed. In fact, they have become more human and vulnerable, having true weaknesses."

The study also reveals that many famous "psychos" in films are not psychopaths, but psychotics. These include Norman Bates from "Psycho" and Travis Bickel from "Taxi Driver."

The study cites Anton Chigurh, played in "No Country for Old Men" by Javier Bardem, as one of the most realistic psychopaths on film. Paramount Vantage - Miramax

One of the most realistic psychopathic characters includes hitman Anton Chigurh from the 2007 Coen brothers film, "No Country for Old Men." The study determined that "Anton Chigurh is a well-designed prototypical idiopathic/primary psychopath. 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."

Another realistic psychopath, according to the study, is Henry (inspired by Henry Lee Lucas) from "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." The study notes that "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."

Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in "Misery": Not the healthiest film character around. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

(Via Mind Hacks)