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Psychologists Studied Horror Movie Psychopaths And Determined Which Ones Are The Real Deal

Updated September 24, 2018 89.6k views10 items

People have an unquenchable fascination with psychopaths in our movies. At least from a fictional perspective, they're thought of as borderline supernatural, as though they exchanged some portion of sanity for heightened mental abilities. Even more so for horror movie serial killers.

You no doubt have your favorites, and might even have a perfectly folded list in your pocket right now. If you do, today’s your day to augment it with this list containing movie serial killers, diagnosed for your pleasure. Because the truth is, most movie psychopaths are exaggerated, overblown, or just plain fictional.

But not all.

Two enterprising doctors, Samuel Leistedt and Paul Linkowski, decided to study 400 films made between 1915 and 2010 and pulled 126 realistic characters that exhibited some form of psychopathy. Which, by the way, is a fantastic job - who wouldn't want to figure out who the most realistic killers in movies are? 

Anyway, the two released a paper with their findings in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, entitled Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction? They, along with senior forensic psychologists and film critics, placed those characters into categories to determine just how accurate and realistic they are in terms of clinical psychopathy. 

The first category the characters are put into is based on the primary-secondary psychopathy method developed by Benjamin Karpman. 

Both types have clear boundaries between the behaviors that the characters exhibit, for example: if a character is highly manipulative, then they'd be categorized into primary, however if a character has poor impulse control, then they'd be categorized secondary.

They then categorized them further based on the PCL-R, a comprehensive psychopathy test. The categories are: Classic/Idiopathic, macho, manipulative, and pseudopsychopath. They more or less measure just how much empathy the characters lack, with Classic/Idiopathic having the least empathy, while pseudopsychopaths don’t qualify being labeled as psychopaths at all, being more along the lines of a sociopath.

Without further ado, here’s a list of the most realistic horror movie psychopaths, as diagnosed by real psychologists.

  • Henry - Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

    Henry is based on a real serial killer: Henry Lee Lucas. Henry is a totally cold, remorseless killer without any loyalty to his friends or anyone close to him. Unlike other movie serial killers, he doesn't do this necessarily because he enjoys it, or because he's driven by it.

    It’s as though it’s a part of him, like he’s going through the normal motions of life, the same way you might behave while doing something rote or routine. Mowing the lawn. For him, killing is simply business as usual. And his every kill is methodical, almost ritualistic, exhibiting a total lack of empathy, which places him right at the top. Henry exists only to be a psychopath.

    Psychopathy Classifications: Primary, Classical/Idiopathic


    • Alright, Cady is more of a serial rapist than a serial killer but he definitely deserves a mention mostly because of his total lack of repentance to his own crimes. And his absolute willingness to take on whatever identities he needs to in order to get closer to the Bowden family; a classic psychopathic trait.

      He has the absolute intent of performing bloody, brutal vengeance on Bowden and his family for landing him in jail in the first place. Moreso, he enjoys the power he has over them, knowing that his very presence inspires fear. His narcissism is off the charts as well, cementing his position as a truly realistic psychopath.

      "I ain't no white trash piece of shit. I'm better than you all! I can out-learn you. I can out-read you. I can out-think you. And I can out-philosophize you. And I'm gonna outlast you..."

      Psychopathy Classifications: Primary, Classical/Idiopathic

      • Actor: Robert De Niro

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    • As with Jame Gumb, the psychotic main antagonist in Silence of the Lambs, Francis Dolarhyde is psychotic, but he is not psychopathic. Dolarhyde meets many, but not all of the criteria that defines a psychopath.

      For example, he leads a dual life - one where he is a regular, but withdrawn member of society, and another where he is the murderous Tooth Fairy on his way to transforming into the Red Dragon. He believes that every murder he commits brings him closer to that transformation. 

      However, he can’t be labeled as a psychopath for one simple reason: he has empathy.

      In fact, he has a deep emotional attachment towards Reba McClane, his blind coworker. And throughout the film, he is torn by his obsession with transforming, and his very real emotions for another human being, each one pulling him in separate directions

      Psychopathy Classifications: Secondary, Pseudopsychopath

      • Actor: Ralph Fiennes

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    • Krug is a sadistic rapist and torturer who has total command of the people around him, and very clearly doesn't care about anyone or anything but his own visceral needs. Most tellingly, he finds serious, almost profound pleasure in torturing his victims as evinced by that wry smile he wears as he cuts his name into his victim's chest.

      And his psychopathy is full front and center twice. First is when Krug forces another one of the women he kidnaps to urinate on herself, taking the time to light a cigar in order to revel in the woman’s humiliation. The second: through sheer force of will, he makes his own son kill himself with a single bullet through the head. This shows that he lives only for the depraved pleasure of the moment, with no attachments to anyone at all.

      Psychopathy Classifications: Primary, Classical/Idiopathic

      • Actor: David Hess