Psychopath Movies: Are Psychopaths in Movies Realistic?
Some of audience's most loved – and most feared – movies are psychopath movies. It's hard to forget that Hannibal Lecter "ate her liver with fava beans and a nice chianti" no matter how many years it's been since one has seen Silence of the Lambs. But movie psychopaths are not necessarily indicative of real-life psychopaths (psychopath definition), like these famous psychopaths.
Real-life psychopaths are characterized by their inability to feel emotion, a lack of guilt or empathy, manipulativeness, lack of connection to others, narcissism, superficial charm, dishonesty, manipulativeness and reckless risk-taking. While psychopath-types in movies may meet some of these characteristics of the psychopath, they may not meet all of them. Moreover, moviegoers lean towards believing that anyone who is a serial killer is a psychopath, and this is not the case either. (20 Signs of a Psychopath. Are You With One?)
Most Realistic, Best Psychopath Movies
According to psychiatrist, Samuel Leistedt, who has interviewed and diagnosed real psychopaths, some psychopaths in movies are realistic while others aren't. Additionally, Hollywood's portrayals of psychopaths in movies has improved over time. And Leistedt should know, as he and his partner, Paul Linkowski, screened over 400 movies with portrayals of psychopathy, many multiple times, looking for the best examples to use as tools to teach psychiatry students.
Here are a few of the most realistic, best psychopath movies:
- No Country for Old Men (2007) – Anton Chigurh
In this film, Chigurh is a contract killer and Leistedt says Chigurh is his favorite portrayal of a psychopath on film. Leistedt says, "He does his job and he can sleep without any problems. In my practice, I have met a few people like this." Leistedt would diagnose him as a classic psychopath.
- M (1931) – Hans Beckert
This character portrayed a man who was normal on the outside and yet was driven to kill. This portrayal was not typical of the time period so this character was far more realistic than most. The researchers would diagnose this character as being a sociopath also suffering from psychosis (Read more about the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath.) .
- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1991) – Henry
In this film, Henry likes to find new ways to kill people. The researchers write of 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." Henry's diagnosis would be that of a classic psychopath.
Two Scary But Less Realistic Psychopath Movies
Two movies that many people have seen are Psycho (1960) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), both containing protagonists quite able to give audiences justifiable nightmares. The researchers say these two characters are just not as realistic as some of the other depictions of psychopaths. This is not to suggest that no psychopaths like these two exist but, rather, to say that they are not nearly as common.
In the case of Norman Bates, from Psycho, the researchers feel a general diagnosis of psychosis (being out of touch with reality, the presence of delusions and hallucinations) would be a better fit as Bates appeared to be detached from reality, which is not typical of psychopaths.
Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs can be thought of as a prototypical "elite" psychopath with almost superhuman intelligence and cunning and this isn't typical of anyone – including psychopaths.
Last Updated: 21 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD