The myth of the elite psychopath

hannibal elite

 

I’ve had some readers disappointed that we never really get into the depths of Harper’s head in The Shining Girls, that there’s a lack of depth of deep dark motivation, unlike, say someone diabolical like Hannibal Lecter.

But there’s a reason I wrote him like that. Because that’s what real serial killers look like – shallow, violent opportunists with impotence issues. I did a lot of research on this and if you read prison interviews with real serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, say, the truth is that they’re not fascinating monsters with deep dark histories – they’re pathetic men, violent losers really, (although often charismatic), who have don’t have insight into why they did what they did.

I wrote about that in a bit more depth in an interview with Zola Books over here and critic and author Julia Keller skewered the idea of the pop culture serial killer in her Chicago Tribune review of The Shining Girls.

Angela Hundal just sent me a great article in Quartz Magazine on the myth of the elite psychopath by @rachefeltman and the improbability of anyone remotely like Hannibal Lecter. It’s worth reading in full, not least cos YOU might be a psychopath, but here’s the relevant snip:

“In the results published in The Journal of Forensic Sciences (paywall)the researchers say a pattern emerged: Nearly all the villains were either socially functional misfits with a compulsion (usually sexually motivated) to kill, or extremely violent, chaotic mass murderers with “idiosyncratic behaviors and appearance.” Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho would be an example of the former, and Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre represents the latter. Additionally, many “psychopaths” in film are actually “psychotic.” Norman Bates, for example, experiences severe delusions and hallucinations during his stint as a villain—and being disconnected from reality isn’t a psychopathic trait.

And the king of the hollywood psychopaths—Hannibal Lecter of the Silence of the Lambs franchise—failed to impress Leistedt and his colleagues. The quintessential “hollywood psychopath” has certain characteristics—ones that aren’t always present in real-life psychopaths. The researchers list high intelligence (and a preference for intellectual pursuits like music and fine art), a vain, “cat-like” demeanor, a prestigious career, a calm and “always-in-control” attitude, and an “unrealistic, exceptional skill at killing people, especially with blades or household objects.”
Not surprisingly, this combination of attributes is difficult to achieve in real life, empathy or none. But this character archetype, the “elite psychopath,” has become increasingly common in the literature and cinema in recent decades.”
There’s ANOTHER great article on the same paper over at Science News, which looks at the most realistic and least realistic movie psychopaths – with diagnoses.