Psychopaths are everywhere; please, beware! Aside from being a passable album title, there’s also more than a grain of truth to that opening line. In fact, there is a scientific certainty that a psychopath has read this very article (unless it tragically bombs). Perhaps they’re reading it right now. Might it even be you?
Although estimates vary wildly, the most accepted figure put forward by Oxford University states that 1% of the western populous are psychopaths. That’s one in a hundred. That’s at least one on your street, at least one in your average office and a plethora of the bastards in government!
Contrary to the blood guts and mayhem of deranged nutjobs in slasher movies, real-life psychopathy sports a much more multifaceted front. The standard notion of measuring psychopathy is a checklist of twenty categories first devised by legendary psychologist Dr Robert D. Hare.
You can see the list of points, below:
• Glib and superficial charm.
• Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self.
• Need for stimulation.
• Pathological lying.
• Cunning and manipulativeness.
• Lack of remorse or guilt.
• Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness).
• Callousness and lack of empathy.
• Parasitic lifestyle.
• Poor behavioural controls.
• Sexual promiscuity.
• Early behaviour problems.
• Lack of realistic long-term goals.
• Failure to accept responsibility for own actions.
• Many short-term marital relationships.
• Juvenile delinquency.
• Revocation of conditional release.
• Criminal versatility.
FBI profilers use these points to score a suspect or criminal on their scale of psychological assessment. If this is the measure for real-life psychopaths, how do the silver screen’s most unsettled characters stack up on the scales? Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder because as part of the Channel 4 documentary, Psychopath Night, the very same FBI profilers who deal with real-world threats to society delved into the dark world of movie fiction to do a spot of rather less consequential analysing. Here, we’re taking a look at the top ten most realistic psychopaths that have appeared on our screens, according to the best psychological science available.
The top ten movie psychopaths:
10. Norman Bates – Psycho
The eponymous movie psycho himself obviously makes the list. How could he not? It would be like a list of the top cheeses without cheddar or arseholes without… But the reason that he props up the rear of the list is because FBI analysts don’t necessarily consider him to be an out and out psychopath if indeed a middle ground exists. The experts claim that Norman seems to exhibit classic symptoms of a multiple-personality disorder rather than the traits of your classic singular mindset of a psycho.
On-screen, the impact is chilling, and Hitchcock certainly has a lot to answer for when it comes to the harrowing asterisk that he applied to the shower’s tranquil separatist sovereignty.
9. Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs
The scene where a fresh-faced recruit in the shape of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling first meets Sir Anthony Hopkins indelibly iconic Hannibal Lecter may well be the stuff of thriller movie legend. However, as the FBI experts declare, it is also pretty much the perfect portrayal of an interview with a psycho. It is explained in the documentary that interview exchanges are often led by a power dynamic in which the psycho gainfully establishes themselves as the predator and the interviewer as their prey. The one tip they offer up Clarice for the inevitable forthcoming Netflix series or franchise reboot is ‘never engage them in an argument’.
In every one of the scenes that Hannibal appears in, there is an unmistakable level of “cunning” and “manipulation” that not only single him out as true to form psycho but also as a captivating on-screen presence.
8. Replicant Leon Kowalski – Blade Runner
In many ways, the replicant tests that centre the movie are based on the actual psychopath checklist. The goal to establish empathy is far from a million away from the test that the FBI use. In both this fictionalised version and real-life interrogations, the aim is to establish the basic human response of empathy that resides to some degree in 99% of us.
Leon Kowalski fails the test and then some to a shockingly violent degree. Unlike other psychopathic movies, Blade Runner broods along engagingly on the covert concept that you just never quite know.
7. Gordon Gekko – Wall Street
“Greed is good,” yells Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko about fifty times in a stirring speech that just about has you believing it by the end. His preacher-like ways are the perfect demonstration of the power of a psychopath. The combination of manipulation, grandiose self-esteem and searing superficial charm can prove deadly in more ways than one.
Michael Douglas pulls off a movie portrayal that toes the line perfectly between being utterly loathsome and offering just enough charismatic charm. Gordon Gekko is too interesting to outright despise but also too devoid of humanity to like, and there are more than a few real-life Wall Street types that you can say that about.
6. James Bond – ‘The Sean Connery Years’
What seems like an odd choice on the list is made perfectly clear by the analysts – chopping a man’s head off in a turbine engine and making a pun about it is not the behaviour of a normal person. The fact that it was done “for Queen and country” is beside the point. Even when your actions are perpetrated against villains, it is only natural that there would be some empathetic response. At the very least, you’d take a breath before digging out the joke book, but not good old Connery.
Sexual promiscuity, poor behavioural controls, callousness and lack of empathy – it’s all there when it comes to Bond, and it makes for one hell of an on-screen romp no matter who’s playing him.
5. Tom Ripley – The Talented Mr Ripley
Many of the points on the psychopath checklist could be summed up with the obtuse blanket term of ‘deviant’, and that is a phrase that could certainly apply to the murderous Mr Ripley. The charm is on full display too, but beneath the neatly parted hair and pressed collared polos is a malicious whirring mind.
Once again, the movie succeeds on the true to life tension it imparts through the concept of a fragile veneer of stability. Matt Damon’s portrayal is raucous and composed in equal measures, like a lid on a bubbling pan.
4. Alex – A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel was described as “disturbing” upon release, and away from less liberal quarters, there were calls to have it banned. The psychopathic behaviour of the Droog gang leader Alex is on full maddening display as he gruesomely goes about his wicked ways. Less realistic than the utter lack of empathy and constant need for stimulation and thrills is the aversion therapy used to treat him. Aside from that, Alex remains horrifyingly true to form.
The movie is a berserk milk-drinking piece of mayhem that had an indelible impact on culture, never mind movie audiences. All in all, it takes a particularly vicious psycho to permeate the peaceful tones of Beethoven with visceral violence.
3. Kevin – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Psychopathy in children is harder to diagnose, not least because it brings forth the nettlesome notion of nature vs nurture, but nevertheless, it is still detectable in some form. As the film chronicles Kevin’s youth, he exhibits no rapport with others and a complete lack of remorse, two key early psychopathic traits.
It is the movies slow build and almost insistence on psychopathic realism that proves to be utterly captivating. Even a simple little dinner table scene is loaded with the weight of total discomfort as it catapults the audience into the scene and makes it very clear you are in the presence of one alarmingly disturbed young man.
2. Jed – Malice
In Malice, Alec Baldwin plays a surgeon with a God complex, one of the key traits to understanding psychopathy. The cocksure bastardry of Baldwin’s Jed is a haunting example of how a thinly veiled disguise can covertly mask the psychopaths among us.
He might be a surgeon, but the ‘know it all’ ways of the wicked doctor get under your skin in more ways than one. Jed once again offers up more than a fair share of superficial charm, and when that mask slips, it does so to a chilling effect that leaves you wary about where you place your trust.
1. The Joker – The Dark Knight
According to the FBI, the most realistic psychopath in movie history is a clown who wages war on a bat. The beauty of Christopher Nolan’s epic saga was that it transposed the comic book genre onto a thriller as opposed to the other way around. As the experts reveal, if you take away the obvious fiction, you are left with a perfectly psychopathic result.
The first scene alone depicts the Joker with all of his check-listed evil on full display. The heist style in question is referred to by the FBI as ‘a takeover robbery’, with all the fireworks and thrills that psychopaths love, but prove entirely unnecessary when it comes to getting the job done. The Joker has no fear about anything, no bones about killing, and a patently apparent lust for thrills. Thankfully with it being fiction, his insatiable sensation-seeking provides more than enough popcorn thrills for audiences to devour. But I temper this with a note of caution: if The Joker is the most true to life psycho in movies and 1% of everybody out there shares the same make-up, then best to be on your toes.