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Psychos and Psychopaths of the Silver Screen

January 21, 2014

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Robert de Niro

So which characters qualify as psychopathic? The authors single out “Anton Chigurh””€”that Golem-looking dude in No Country for Old Men (2007)”€”for special attention. His character’s flat affect and lack of empathy, they write, are the top two “tells.”

Again, though, the fluid (and subjective) criteria for psychopathology seem to strain the researchers’ diagnoses.

“In the case of Chigurh,” they conclude, “the description is extreme, but we could realistically almost talk about ‘an anti-human personality disorder.’”

But how can a character really be said to “fit” a diagnosis if he’s also so “extreme” that he may well deserve a new disorder of his very own?

And why did the authors include such head-scratchers as John Carradine’s male-slut folkie in Nashville but leave out the one movie character who fits more of the criteria than almost any other: “‘Professor’ Harold Hill” in The Music Man?

According to Leistedt’s team, the paucity of female psychotics on their list reflects their relative scarcity in real life. I noted with relief that poor “Nurse Ratched” didn’t make the cut, but I wondered why Bette Davis’s “Regina Giddens” and Gene Tierney’s “Ellen Berent” did not.

The authors note with considerable good humor how often psychiatrists are portrayed in the movies as stark raving mad. Which brings us to James Fallon.

The neuroscientist was shocked when own brain scan displayed psychopathic characteristics. Then he thought about it some more.

“I’m obnoxiously competitive,” Fallon admitted to Salon.com. “I won’t let my grandchildren win games. I’m kind of an asshole, and I do jerky things that piss people off.” These and other traits, he was forced to conclude, did indeed place him among the world’s psychopathic one percent.

However, Fallon went on to grant himself the novel diagnosis of “pro-social psychopath,” one who, according to Slate, “can keep his behavior within socially-acceptable bounds, despite not feeling true empathy for others.”

It’s hard not to hear echoes of Norman Bates’s final words:

They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching…they’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, “Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly….”

 

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