According to a study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, depictions of movie villains who are psychopaths - or who are intended to be read as psychopaths - have grown more realistic over time, even as clinical understanding of psychopathic syndrome has increased. The study examined more than a hundred films released between 1915 and 2010, with the intent of analyzing whether (and how well) the movie villains presented in the films conformed to the clinical definition of what is often known as psychopathic syndrome.
While there is no entirely agreed-upon classification for different subtypes of psychopathic personalities, the study used a two-step breakdown to classify various movie psychopaths. The first step involved dividing villains into either primary psychopaths, those whose condition was heritable, or secondary psychopaths, or those whose condition was "environmentally acquired," often in childhood.
Then, the study further broke movie psychopaths down into four additional categories: classic or idiopathic psychopaths, those who scored highest on the clinical Psychopathy Checklist - Revised (PCL-R) and the ones we are most likely to associate with the term; manipulative psychopaths, who were more likely to engage in confidence schemes and often displayed elements of narcissism; macho psychopaths, more prone to violence and intimidation but lacking the "glibness and charm required for a confidence game"; and pseudopsychopaths, also called sociopaths, who did not necessarily meet the clinical requirements for a diagnosis of psychopathic syndrome and often had other accompanying diagnoses.
The study concluded that greater clinical and public understanding of psychopathic syndrome had led to the creation of increasingly accurate psychopathic movie villains over the years but that the movies still got it wrong more often than not. Of those they surveyed, however, these 23 villains were among those found to be legit psychopaths.
Who Is He: We never learn much about Anton Chigurh in Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name, but what we do see is chilling in the extreme. A hitman hired to track down some missing money, Chigurh goes about his work with an unsettling detachment that actually led to his character being singled out as one of the most realistic psychopaths on film in the study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
His Classification: Primary Idiopathic
Most Psychopathic Moment: Chigurgh ruthlessly and unemotionally racks up quite a body count as the movie goes along, but perhaps his most iconically psychopathic moment involves actually sparing someone's life, which he does when the owner of a gas station correctly guesses the result of a coin toss.
Who Is He: A juvenile delinquent in a future version of Britain, Alex and his "droogs," a slang term for friends, enjoy Beethoven, drinking drug-laden "milk-plus," and engaging in a bit of the ol' "ultra-violence." Alex is eventually (if only temporarily) "cured" of his criminal tendencies through aversion therapy.
His Classification: Primary Idiopathic
Most Psychopathic Moment: In one of the film's most notorious scenes, Alex sexually assaults a woman while crooning "Singin' in the Rain."
- Photo: Die Hard / 20th Century Fox
Who Is He: A former member of a West German radical group, Hans Gruber was ultimately kicked out for being too greedy and violent, so you know we're off to a good start. He then proceeded to use the knowledge he had gained to plan what looked like a terrorist attack on Nakatomi Plaza when his actual goal was to make off with $640 million in untraceable bearer bonds being stored in the building's high-security vault.
His Classification: Secondary Macho
Most Psychopathic Moment: When hostages refuse to give Gruber what he wants, he executes them without a moment's hesitation - a fact made all the more heartless because he's simply after some money, not the ideals that his group is pretending to represent.
Colonel Walter E. Kurtz - 'Apocalypse Now' (Secondary Manipulative/Psychosis)
Who Is He: "Every man has got a breaking point," Lt. General Corman says when describing Colonel Kurtz. "Walter Kurtz has reached his, and very obviously, he has gone insane..." A former hero in the Korean War and a highly decorated soldier, Kurtz began to unravel after his report on the failings of the military policies being employed during the conflict in Vietnam was ignored. Sent back into combat, he proceeded to wage an unsanctioned guerilla campaign until Captain Benjamin Willard was sent to do him in.
His Classification: Secondary Manipulative, with an alternative or additional diagnosis of psychosis
Most Psychopathic Moment: Kurtz is determined to do whatever it takes to win, including sowing fear and terror by taking the lives of noncombatants and displaying the heads of his enemies on sharpened stakes.