Why Do We Find On-Screen Psychos So Loveable?
Film & TV|Dec 22, 2021

Why Do We Find On-Screen Psychos So Loveable?

Having Feels For A Screen Psycho Doesn't Make You A Psycho, Writes Paul Dalgarno.
Paul Dalgarno

Smooth talking, violent and devoid of humanity: who doesn’t love a psycho? Psychos are good for the chills (Fatal Attraction, if nothing else, put a whole generation off rabbit stew) but they’re also lots of fun to be around.

It’s hard not to enjoy the babyishly brutal Peter III of Russia as played by Nicholas Hoult in the SBS series The Great. (The fact Hoult’s most memorable performance before that involved him singing Killing Me Softly as a kid without friends in 2002’s About A Boy was a clear warning). It’s equally hard not to cheer for the Joker as he repeatedly tries to end boring-as-batshit Batman. Likewise Moriarty (possible psycho) as he torments goody-two-shoes coke fiend Sherlock Holmes, and Wile E. Coyote (definite psycho) as he tries to flatten Road Runner.

Tim Roth’s character in the new film Sundown was described in The Guardian as a ‘wonderfully relaxed sociopath’, and the movie as the ‘funniest’ and ‘nastiest’ at this year’s Venice Film Festival – a classic blend of right-on and revolting. Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in Killing Eve is a ‘living, breathing, shopping, killing psychopath’ – not to mention babe – whose attractiveness to Eva Polastri (Sandra Oh) is perfectly believable; Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) in Dexter is a square-jawed cop-come-psycho who kills for, um, good; Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in American Psycho makes us laugh while cleaving heads; Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery is a loveable homebody who hobbles writers with a mallet; and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho wears his mum’s clothes – lol. The stylised brutality of the screen sociopath is a salve for society’s chafing manacles – unlike us, they’re given free rein to do whatever they want, which usually involves sticking it to the man, literally. 

If you're conflicted about having feels for screen psychos, take heart from the fact that you're not a psycho

If you’re conflicted about having feels for screen psychos, take heart from the fact that you’re not a psycho. Real psychos lack empathy and wouldn’t feel conflicted (or any other emotion) about cheering for the bad guys in A Clockwork Orange. They probably don’t even Netflix and chill because they reportedly have no creativity or inner life. 

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in Silence of the Lambs, with his love of art and literature, not to mention his appetite – in a good way – for Jodie Foster’s Clarice? Killer, please! A 2014 Belgian study by forensic psychiatrists looked at 126 fictional psychopaths and concluded that Anton Chigurgh of the Cohen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men was the most clinically accurate portrayal. Which is to say: if a dude with a terrifying haircut and air-powered bolt gun asks you for a quick game of heads or tails, keep walking. The same study found that – as in real life – there were far fewer female screen psychos than male. The majority of those that exist – just think Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct – tend to be sexy killer nymphs, which again is sadly unrealistic, unless you’re a spider. 

I mean, I say ‘sadly’ but I don’t really mean it. What do you think I am – a psycho?