Now this is the kind of intensive scientific study just about any horror fan would love to participate in: Samuel J. Leistedt M.D., Ph.D, a professor of psychiatry in Belgium who specializes in analysis of psychopathic behavior, assembled a diverse team of experts in forensic psychiatry and film criticism who were willing to watch hundreds of horror movies (as well as numerous thrillers and true-crime dramas) in order to assess which actors portrayed the most realistic screen psychopaths.
As fun as it sounds, the study was scientifically rigorous; Leistedt postulated that “increased understanding of clinical psychopathy by professional mental health providers” has led to more realistic portrayals of psychopaths in the movies. Even though he acknowledged that fictional films seldom get the pathology right, those which do can be used as “teaching movies” for students of psychiatry.
Using online references as their guide, the team dug through the vaults of cinema history from the silent film era to the present, ultimately researching 400 movies over a period of three years, evaluating the various performances and determining how the characters fit specific psychological profiles.
First ruling out superhuman slashers and other fantasy-based villains (sorry Michael, Jason and Freddy… you didn’t make the cut), they then diagnosed the characters’ behaviors and profiled them by categories such as “classic/ideopathic” psychopaths (those who kill with no remorse or empathy), nonviolent psychopaths (yes, those exist), “macho” (anger-driven) psychopaths, manipulative psychopaths, and so-called “pseudopsychopaths,” whose disorders often have physiological causes.
The results of the intensive study were published in 2013 in the paper Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction? So, as you’re probably wondering, which screen psychos were considered the most believable?
Not surprisingly, characters based on real people — as in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER — easily fit the “classic” profile. But you might be surprised to know that Billy Loomis from SCREAM, Baby Firefly from THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, Krug from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and even Charles Lee Ray from the CHILD’S PLAY series also fit the ideopathic mold. AMERICAN PSYCHO may have been a surreal meditation on ‘80s materialism, but the title character, Patrick Bateman, falls into the classic profile as well.
On the flipside, one of the most iconic movie madmen — Dr. Hannibal Lecter — didn’t make the cut at all. Lecter falls into the category of “elite psychopath” or “Hollywood psychopath,” a purely fictional persona whose intelligence and skills are “up to superhuman and supermediatized levels.”
Amazingly, another classic character who doesn’t measure up is PSYCHO’s psycho, Norman Bates. He conforms more to the clinical definition of “psychotic,” as opposed to a psychopath, as he is portrayed as delusional and “disconnected from reality.”
Interestingly, according to the study, one movie character who best fits the textbook psychopath profile is Anton Chigurh — the cold-blooded assassin from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. The team’s diagnosis determined that Chigurh’s total lack of remorse, shame, empathy, love or self-reflection could be labeled as an “anti-human personality disorder.” While his portrayal is very stylized, the team notes that it conforms closely to the traits of real-life mob hitman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski. Now that’s scary.