Non-Fiction

Why Does Literature Love A Psychopath?

This article has been adapted from a talk I gave at The February Alternative Book Club at The Bottle of Sauce in Cheltenham.

My fascination with psychopaths started with a book. When I was about 15 years old, I got my hands on a copy of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and almost immediately fell in love with Patrick Bateman.  

Not even his axe-wielding, nail gun firing, brain eating depravity could put me off. I read it feverishly in about a week, and was desperate for more.  

Then I watched the film and simultaneously fell in love with Christian Bale’s portrayal of Bateman. But that might have had something to do with him running around naked and having a lot of sex… 

Nude Christian Bale aside, there was something… alluring about Patrick Bateman. He’s successful, attractive, charming, and dangerous. This juxtaposition between the suave seducer and the homicidal maniac is hard to reconcile, and it’s that struggle that seems to have made Pat Bateman into an icon.

From there, I moved onto real psychopaths. From Charles Manson to Ted Bundy, I wanted to learn about them all, and as the popularity of the recently released Ted Bundy Tapes shows, it’s not just me that has an unhealthy obsession with psychopaths.  

I received the book Talking with Psychopaths and Savages by criminologist Christopher Berry Dee, for Christmas. Intended to be a joke present, to poke fun at my morbid fascination, it ended up being one of my favourite gifts. 

Dee recounts correspondence and conversations he’s had with convicted psychopathic killers, but it’s not their crimes that really capture the imagination, it’s the way they think. 

There’s a particularly interesting chapter on serial killer Michael Bruce Ross, the Roadside Strangler, who Dee interviewed face to face while he was on death row. Ross shows no remorse for his crimes as he’s discussing them,
but when Dee mocks his relatively low number of victims in comparison to other serial killers, he angrily confesses to two additional murders. It is this poke to his ego which hurts him most. 

When Dee interviews Arthur Shawcross, a savage killer who cannibalised his victims, the coldness with which he remembers his acts of brutality is chilling, even to the author, an experienced criminologist. 

Likewise when speaking to Kenneth McDuff, he described killing a sixteen-year-old victim as “like squashing a cockroach.”  

So our collective fascination with psychopaths is morbid indeed, but what is it that makes them so fascinating?  

Let’s start with what actually defines a psychopath in real terms.  

A conservative estimate says that around 1% of the world’s male population are psychopaths. That figure is apparently much lower for women. Meaning that the risk psychopaths pose to the general public is relatively low.  

But while not all psychopaths are criminals – in fact it’s argued that many of our most successful politicians, sportsmen and actors are high in psychopathy – a large number of serial killers, rapists and murderers have been assessed as psychopathic, so there’s a somewhat skewed representation.  

This means that when it comes to our insatiable appetite for true crime, psychopaths are frequently on the menu.  

In terms of diagnosing psychopathy, anyone who’s read The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson will have heard of the PCL-R checklist. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a test developed by a psychologist called Robert D. Hare, and in the hands of a qualified individual, it gives you a score that determines whether or not you are, in fact, a psychopath.  

There are 20 items on the list that can be rated from 0 to 2. In the UK, a score of 25 or above out of 40 puts you in camp psycho. Just for reference. when Ted Bundy did it, he scored 39.  

Some of the traits include:
•  glib and superficial charm  
•  grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self  
•  pathological lying  
•  cunning and manipulativeness  
•  lack of remorse or guilt  
•  callousness and lack of empathy  
•  parasitic lifestyle  
•  poor behavioural controls  
•  sexual promiscuity  
•  lack of realistic long-term goals  
•  failure to accept responsibility for own actions  

Am I describing anybody’s ex here?

But despite what appears to be a pretty damning list of traits, psychopaths are very rarely recognised for what they are, until it’s too late. Their ability to effectively switch on and off their ability to empathise, has often allowed them to manipulate and charm their victims, before brutalising them in unimaginable ways.  

John Wayne Gacy would dress up as either Pogo or Patches the clown and perform at fundraising events, even at times visiting sick children in hospital. He went on to rape and murder at least 33 people, many of them teenage boys.  

Doctor Death himself, Harold Shipman, was regarded as a Saint, by his loyal patients. Until he started killing them by lethal injection. 

And even after their crimes, some psychopathic murderers are still idolised, frequently by women.  

One of Night Stalker Richard Ramirez’s admirers wrote him over 75 love letters in 3 years, and eventually went on to marry him while he was in prison for a spree of burglaries, rapes and murders.  

The previously mentioned Michael Bruce Ross had two cells – one for him, and one for the masses of correspondence he received, some from medical professionals desperate to try and “cure” him of his sadistic sexual preferences, and the rest from women proposing marriage. This of a man who raped and murdered school girls.  

Ted Bundy was described as handsome and charismatic by nearly everyone who saw him. Even the judge presiding over his case seemed to admire him. Despite being a rapist, murderer and necrophile, this man fathered a child while he was on death row for the Chi Omega murders. Directors are still making films and documentaries on him, 30 years after his execution… and I’ll bet he’d just love that.

There are even “serial killer tours.” On an episode of Netlix series Dark Tourist, journalist David Farrier goes on the Jeffrey Dahmer tour in Milwaukee, with a largely female group on what looked like a hen party, which he finds more than a little disturbing. 

There’s an argument that women in particular are drawn to these people because women are so often the victims of psychopaths and serial killers. Learning about the inner workings of a mind like Ted Bundy’s may help stop you from getting sucked in if you ever did come across a real-life psychopath. 

But there’s also a dark side to this fascination. There’s a condition called Hybristophilia, most often applied to women who are sexually aroused by or attracted to a partner who has committed a crime. The fantasy that you are special enough to give the love that would stop such a man doing the things he does, is apparently a powerful driver of these women’s attraction. 

So what do we, as regular readers and viewers get from empathising with psychopaths?

Criminologist Scott Bonn thinks it is a form of catharsis, a way of allowing us to indulge our vengeful fantasies without acting upon them, and free of guilt, as the killers are already locked up. Another criminologist, Elizabeth Yardley, says serial killers are to adults what monsters are to children. Something that engenders fear in you, but from a safe distance.  

Similarly, the author Fiona Cummins believes it’s because it’s a way of processing our darkest fears in a space which is safe.  

Unless you’re very, very unlucky, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever come face to face with a living, breathing psychopathic serial killer, and if you do, you probably won’t make it out alive. 

But through books, podcasts, films & TV series, we can get inside their heads. Like watching a horror movie, we can feel the thrill of indulging our macabre fascination. Through books like Christopher Berry-Dee’s, we can sit inside their cells and hear their stories from their own mouths, without the risk of actually getting murdered.  

And when real-life psychopaths have captured our imaginations so successfully, it’s no wonder that literature and entertainment are littered with fictional psychopaths too. From Patrick Bateman to Hannibal Lecter. Frank Cauldhame to Amy Dunne. Dexter to Villanelle.  

Emma Cline’s bestselling novel The Girls is arguably heavily influenced by the story of the Manson family, and while Stephen King has never acknowledged it, the theory that Pennywise was inspired by John Wayne Gacy, is an enduring one.  

They’re often characters we romanticise too. For anyone who has read or watched You, if you’re anything like me I’m sure there were moments you found yourself rooting for Joe – who is, by all accounts, a violent stalker – but he’s just so… charming.  

The actor who played Joe in the Netflix adaptation was so disturbed by how many people were attracted to his character, that he started calling them out on Twitter.  

I’m sure there are a lot of people who believe that Jay Gatsby is just a hopeless romantic, but when you start to dissect his actions, he starts to become more than a little psychopathic. 

A grandiose sense of self, a lack of realistic long-term goals, superficial charm, manipulation, poor behavioural controls. See where I’m going with this? 

When you strip back the saccharine exterior of Fifty Shades of Grey, what you’re left with is a sexually sadistic predator, who stalks and forces a naïve young woman into doing things she never thought she’d do, hurting and injuring her in the process. Hardly the harmless BDSM romance it purveys to be.  

What about the writers then? The minds who create these convincing fictional psychopaths, with their own uncontrollable, sadistic urges.  

Surely writing a psychopathic character doesn’t necessarily make you psychopathic yourself, does it? 

Well… maybe it does.  

Psychologist Adrianne Galang conducted a study that found creative people are likely to have psychopathic personality traits. Her team found that narcissism & psychopathic boldness were positively correlated with levels of creative achievement & that divergent thinkers – as in those who come up with clever or unexpected solutions to problems – displayed the same kind of emotional disinhibition as psychopaths.  

The study did note that while comics displayed both psychopathic boldness and meanness, creative writing was negatively correlated with meanness, indicating that generally us creative types tend to be nastier to our characters, than we are to actual humans. Apologies to the comedians in the room.  

That said, according to Professor Kevin Dutton, some of our most famous writers could, indeed, have been psychopaths according to the Psychopath Personality Inventory, or PPI.  

Oscar Wilde scores surprisingly high on the PPI, largely due to narcissism and rebelliousness, and for anyone who saw James Clay’s talk in January, as well as being a bit of a bastard, Charles Dickens was also apparently a bit of a psychopath. And by a bit, I mean, more than Adolf Hitler. 

So what does that say about me and my morbid fascination? 

Well, luckily for you, not a great deal. My PPI score was only 36%, so you can sleep soundly, at least for tonight. 

Standard
Poetry

Call Me Grass

Do not call me flower,
For I am stronger 
Than their delicate petals.

Even the rose,
With blood red blooms,
And thorny stems,
Is easily crushed
In brutish hands.

No. Call me grass.
For grass may be burnt,
And grass may be frozen,
Grass may be trampled,
And grass may be torn, 
But still it grows.  
Breaking, unapologetic, through cracks in concrete.

So do not call me flower, 
Delicate and sweet.
Call me grass,
For I will keep growing, always, 
In spite of you. 

Standard
Fiction

Little Red

The night I died, the cold permeated everything. The kind of cold that got into your bones.  My fur had thinned so much that I feared hypothermia may kill me, but that wasn’t how my story would end.  

It was unusually dark at the edge of the forest. I could barely see in front of me. I felt something catch on my fur and yelped, waiting for the searing pain of the killer fence, but none came. Over the cliffs I could see the yellow haze that usually hung over town was gone, leaving a dark hole below and an inky blue sky punctured by shards of white light above. I sat down to catch my breath. The chill of the damp floor on my stomach reminded me how hungry I was. It had been nearly 6 weeks since I’d eaten. 

When the colonists came, they brought giant machines with jagged, tree-eating teeth, flattening our home and building theirs in its place, forcing us to retreat to the high forest. A treacherous journey with young pups and elderly parents. We lost some to the ravines, but most of us made it unscathed. For months they left us alone up there, but before long the food was gone and things got desperate. Those brave enough to risk the journey into town suffered a cruel fate, their pelts ripped from their carcasses and strung up as a warning to the rest of us. Enter at your peril.  

It was October when the fence went up. A wire thing, as tall as 2 men, which traced the perimeter of high forest and buzzed like an angry wasp. I could still smell acrid, charred fur whenever I went near it. I felt powerful knowing it had no effect on me that night and climbed through to explore the settlement. 

Out of the blackness, I saw a spot of light moving jerkily. The scent of meat hit me like a bullet. My muscles tensed, my fur stood on end. At least my instincts were still strong. It was a girl. Young, maybe 15. When she spotted me, she shone the torchlight into my eyes. She was rooted to the spot, eyes wide, fear palpable. I snarled, baring my teeth. The smell was driving me wild. 

“Please, I lost the path, the power’s out and I’m looking for my granny’s cabin. It’s not far from here, she’ll starve to death if I don’t take her food!” 

I held her stare. Fearful eyes peered out from under the hood of her thick, red cape. I could have ripped her throat out right there and then, but even in my deranged state, I knew killing a youth would have been wrong. As I contemplated, she ran, disappearing into the darkness. I didn’t chase her though, I knew the cabin, and how to get to it. 

The old lady lay in bed while a solitary candle guttered on the nightstand. The girl was right, there was no food. I’d been told human meat was stringy and tasteless, especially the old ones, but hunger had taken over my senses. As I clenched my teeth around her skinny neck, the smell of lavender was so strong it almost choked me, but she didn’t put up a fight and it wasn’t long before I was tearing the meat from her fragile old bones until I was satisfied. 

I had expected the panic-stricken girl to return home, but instead she came bustling in the old woman’s back door, ruddy cheeked, regaling granny with her tale of the grisly old wolf. I attempted to conceal my heinous deed by hiding underneath the old woman’s nightdress, but as she approached the bed, she realised the truth and shrieked. I sprang up and around the girl, straight into the path of a brawny, axe wielding sawmill worker who happened to be passing within earshot. I felt his thick hands around my tail as he yanked me backwards and flung me onto my back. He looked into my eyes as his heavy boot landed in my guts, but looked away as he swung the axe down, hacking my innards in half.  

I believed in my dying moments that my thoughts would have turned to my pack. My home. Instead there was only one thing on my mind. Why hadn’t I just eaten the girl?

Standard
Non-Fiction

5 Ways To Get Out Of a Creative Rut

This article was originally written for and appeared on LinkedIn.

Creative block. Brain fart. Hitting the wall. Whatever you call it, every creative has experienced that deadening inability to come up with an idea, leaving you questioning everything you thought you knew while gently banging your head against your desk.

Being able to churn out creative ideas day in, day out, is not an innate ability. It’s a skill. And no matter how skilled we are, we all have off days. Or off briefs.

So when you feel like you’ve fallen down a hole of creative ineptitude, how can you drag yourself out of it? Here are 5 tips I use:

Take a break

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why this is a good idea. Pressuring yourself to continue struggling when you’re feeling totally frustrated is unlikely to produce the result you want. After all, pressure is a creativity killer.

Have you ever had that Eureka moment in the shower? I regularly think of great ideas when I’m in the car on my commute home, so much so that I have to leave myself voice memos so I don’t forget by the time I reach my destination. Your subconscious brain is working on problems long after you stop actively concentrating on them, and those moments when you’re alone, winding down, or performing a monotonous task allow your mind to wander, and find solutions to those problems that have been bugging you.

There’s also evidence to suggest that trying to work on a mentally taxing task for more than 4 hours is pointless. Some of the most outstanding creative thinkers are known to have only worked for 4 hours a day, and achieved amazing things within that time.

So go and put the kettle on. Chat to a friend or colleague. Or even better, take a walk in the park. Spending time out in nature has been shown to have myriad positive effects, including stress relief, improved concentration and, you guessed it, a boost in creativity.

Change Your Environment

This works in two ways. You can physically go and work somewhere else, or you can try and optimise the environment you’re already in.

The stereotypical image of a trendy author or social media expert working from a coffee shop is sometimes mocked, but the levels of ambient noise in places like coffee shops can actually improve your creativity. Where silence forces focus and loud noise or music can overwhelm, a moderate level of ambient noise increases abstract processing, and therefore, creativity.

If you can’t get to a coffee shop, apps and sites like Noisli can pump canned coffee shop ambience into your headphones for a similar effect.

Lighting is also important. Dim lighting can help you find focus by reducing distractions; and let’s face it, any excuse to escape the cold, sterile lighting of most offices is good news to me.

Getting comfy can work wonders for your creative brain too. Comfortable chairs where you can sit in close proximity to colleagues you’re working with can make you more creative, while maintaining a warm but comfortable temperature boosts creative thinking. For most people working in an office, the air con struggle is real, so if you can’t make the office warmer, invest in a good cardy or jumper to keep at your desk.

And if all else fails, head to the pub. As well as being comfy and dimly lit with plenty of ambient noise, drinking alcohol has been shown to improve creative performance. There’s even a Danish beer called Problem Solver designed precisely for this.

Think Obliquely

Being forced to employ oblique strategies can be frustrating, but it can also produce astonishing results. In Tim Harford’s Book “Messy” he describes how Brian Eno used the technique when working with artists like David Bowie and Phil Collins. He’d make the musicians draw a card with an oblique statement on it, and immediately do whatever the card said.

Commands include “think like a gardener,” “emphasise repetitions,” take away the elements in order of apparent importance” and “work at a different speed.”

Apparently, Phil Collins was so infuriated by the process that he threw a beer can across the studio, and while I don’t advocate getting into that kind of state, making your brain think in a different way can lead to ideas you’d never have had otherwise.

A former colleague of mine used to swear by a brainstorm technique called the Random Links Box. With your eyes closed, you would plunge your hand into a box and fish out an object. You’d then have to try and link your object to your brief, with sometimes hilarious, sometimes surprisingly effective consequences.

You might never use the ideas you come up with during these exercises, but the process of making your brain do something different can help you overcome your creative block when you get back to it.

Switch Projects

This might sound counter-intuitive. If you’ve reached an impasse on one project, switching to a completely separate one might feel nonsensical, but it could be exactly what you need.

There’s anecdotal and laboratory evidence that suggests switching between projects opens up your mind to creative thinking, in a similar way that taking a break to do a monotonous task, as discussed above, does.

Tim Harford also discusses this in “Messy,” with examples of inventors and scientists who regularly switched between projects, often finding a breakthrough for one while working on another.

Collaborate

Forced collaboration can be bad for creativity, but choosing to collaborate with somebody you trust and work well with can really help. Chatting through a problem with a wise mentor, or getting an enthusiastic junior or intern on board can show you different perspectives and make you think outside of your own bubble.

Collaborating with people from different disciplines can also provide surprising results. If you’re working on a radio brief, talk to a designer about how they’d create a visual for it. Their visual ideas could get you thinking of ways to spark an image in the listeners imagination.

Talk to the target audience too. Really get under the skin of the people you’re trying to talk to. Understand their language, their needs and motivations – ask them what would make them take the action you want. In his book “We, Me, Them & It” John Simmons goes into great detail about the power of language, and about writing in a way that people speak and relate to, in order to drive action and brand loyalty. So if you’re not sure what your target audience will respond to, or how they talk about a subject, ask them!

These are my 5 tips to get out of a creative rut, what are yours?

Standard