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Deconstruction of a Psychopath

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

By Shiva Chopra

Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs

In criminology programs around the world, students study terminology that law enforcement and caseworkers often use to define a unique group of individuals classified as psychopaths. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines psychopathy as a “mental illness characterized by both antisocial and egocentric characteristics” (“Psychopathy” n.p.). Psychologists, however, classify psychopaths as people with behavioral problems that are marked by unsociable and asocial acts but lack other symptoms of mental illness.  But these various definitions can leave audiences scratching their heads, wondering “What exactly are the antisocial characteristics that psychopaths supposedly possess?” The psychopath is captivating not only students but also to the media and pop culture. There have been numerous shows and films made portraying psychopathy: Psycho, Gone Girl, and Silence of the Lambs to name a few. Famous depictions of psychopaths have almost romanticized them. In a way, despite their inhumanity, we are made to empathize with their struggles. Hollywood rarely gets the depictions of these complex characters right. In the media, there’s a widespread idea of the “elite” psychopath, even though some may not be “true” psychopaths. For example, Hannibal Lecter, an individual of sophisticated taste, with a high degree of intellect and social status, who is also capable of killing and eating his victims, is commonly referred to as a psychiatrist. Patrick Bateman from American Psycho is portrayed as a man of integrity, wealth, and intellect. These portrayals have established a stereotype in which psychopaths are assumed to possess high intelligence are strategic and clever and yet are frequently capable of outsmarting the authorities or anyone considered to be inferior. They are depicted as the anti-hero who is in charge and way ahead of everybody else. They invoke empathy while fundamentally lacking it. For example, when Hannibal Lecter empathizes with Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee, we feel pity for his position, although we know he's deceiving her. These depictions raise a variety of concerns. Pop culture has allowed the terms ‘psychopath’ and ‘sociopath’ to be thrown around film and television with knowing what exactly those words mean. An individual on television who may or may not have antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is simply referred to as a psychopath. This reduces them to a glorifying, oversimplified stereotype to be devoured by the audience. It also strengthens the notion to people with ASPD that they do not have an opposite path to choose, apart from what's been portrayed in the media. It makes it seem as if in real life, people with ASPD are villains as well. This sets a bad precedent for anyone diagnosed with the illness as they are portrayed as one-dimensional and devoid of individual personality traits.

Written by writer Shiva Chopra

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