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

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.

Photo: user uploaded image

  • Cards on the table: Patrick Bateman is an exemplary psychopath. There's excessive narcissism at play, everything is about him and his desires, and everyone else is just window dressing. He kills because he’s used to getting what he wants, and because the thrill of the kill drives him beyond anything else in the world. 

    More so, he leads a double-life, pretending to be a successful, charming businessman, but underneath he's just a base serial killer with a lust for blood. What’s scariest about Patrick Bateman is that he's a cold, dark reflection of America itself.

    Psychopathy Classifications: Primary, Classical/Idiopathic

    • Actor: Christian Bale
  • Norman Bates, the titular Psycho, isn’t a psychopath at all. He’s certainly psychotic and might even have an Oedipal complex. But even those combined will not get him closer to psychopathy.

    Leistedt and Linkowski both note that he’s deranged and delusional, however he lacks almost all of the necessary traits needed to be labeled as psychopathic. While he does suffer from antisocial personality disorder and dissociative personality disorder, he doesn't have any charm or charisma, nor does he exhibit any sort of narcissism.

    Both of which are crucial traits in determining what makes a psychopath.

    Psychopathy Classifications: Secondary, Pseudopsychopath

    • Actor: Anthony Perkins
  • Jame Gumb - The Silence Of The Lambs
    Photo: MGM

    Isn’t it interesting that Buffalo Bill, one of our most favorite film crazies, isn’t quite listed as a full-blown psychopath? As other psychologists have noted, Gumb most certainly has antisocial personality disorder, and is a psychotic.

    However, he is a far cry from full-blown psychopathy. Though he certainly shows that he’s without any sort of empathy or remorse, and has a taste for peeling his victims' skin off, he doesn’t have the high levels of narcissism, charisma, and serious lack of impulse control that defines psychopathy. He's sick, but not dead inside.

    Psychopathy Classifications: Secondary, Pseudopsychopath

    • Actor: Ted Levine
  • Billy Loomis & Stu Macher - Scream

    Billy Loomis & Stu Macher - Scream
    Photo: Miramax

    It is both telling and interesting that Stu himself says the line, “We prefer the term psychotic,” which is exactly the term that helps differentiate realistic psychopaths from the ones who aren't. Stuart's blurring between reality and movies simply make him psychotic, while Billy is a through-and-through psychopath, making him far more interesting of the two.

    Billy’s eyes are totally cold and uncaring, even towards Stuart, his co-conspirator in the murders. The fact that he's able to hide his psychopathic side from his girlfriend Sidney, amply shows the depth of his true nature. In fact, he's completely driven by his irrational anger towards Sidney's mother, whom he's already killed, but still motivates his murderous intent. And his psychopathy is perfectly evidenced when he stabs Stu too deeply and gives a curt smile about it - he clearly enjoys inflicting pain, even to his only ally. And when he lashes out at Stu and stabs him further? Just more nails on the psychopathic coffin.

    Psychopathy Classifications:

    Billy - Primary, Classical/Idiopathic

    Stu - Secondary, Pseudopsychopath

    • Actor: Skeet Ulrich & Matthew Lillard
  • 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