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.