Ever since we filmed our episode on The Psychopath Code, I’ve found myself watching films and TV in a different way. It turns out media makers are pretty bad at depicting psychopaths. Further, they sometimes depict psychopaths inadvertently, without even trying.
I’m going to go over Pieter Hintjens’ definition of a psychopath as he lays it out in The Psychopath Code, then I’ll examine two pieces of media that fall into the aforementioned categories: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and Mean Girls.
Hintjens has an idiosyncratic view of psychopathy: he sees it as an adaptive strategy used by 5–10% of the human population. Further, he doesn’t distinguish between psychopathy, sociopathy and narcissism; in his view these distinctions confuse more than clarify.
According to Hintjens, psychopaths are human beings who feel only a narrow subset of human emotion. Specifically, they feel the emotions of predation:
There’s nothing evil about these emotions. We all have the capacity to feel them, but what makes psychopaths unique is that they feel nothing beyond these. When they appear to feel other emotions—fear, love, nervousness or affection—they’re faking it.
Why does nature produce people with such limited emotional ranges? From a certain perspective, a limited emotional range can be a massive advantage. Freedom from social anxiety tends to leave psychopaths highly charismatic. Freedom from fear leaves psychopaths free to take high-stakes risks. And freedom from love leaves psychopaths free to look out for number one.
In The Psychopath Code, Hintjens details the evolutionary “arms race” between psychopaths looking to blend in, and regular humans looking to identify them. It’s important to note that there are other views of psychopathy, with many experts skeptical that psychopaths even exist. For more info, check out the book, or our latest podcast on the topic.
After recording our Psychopath Code episode, I watched the new Ted Bundy film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. While I enjoyed the film, and was impressed by Efron’s performance, the depiction of Bundy seemed off.
Ted Bundy was a serial killer active in the 1970s. He killed over 30 women and is suspected of killing many more. He’s a textbook psychopath if there ever was one: as a kid, he expressed confusion as to why anyone would want friends, but was able to mimic friendly behavior well enough to become popular.
In the film, Efron portrays Bundy mostly as a man on the run. He displays some predatory emotions, but his emotional arc is defined by defensive emotions: surprise, suspense, terror, flight, rage, shock, triumph, and defeat. Efron’s Bundy also displays family emotions: love, longing, loss, happiness, sadness, fear, distress.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has been criticized for casting one of the handsomest actors in Hollywood to play him, and by emphasizing his good looks and charm.
I’d argue that these choices aren’t where the film went wrong: Bundy was indeed handsome, and there’s a lesson to be learned in the contrast between his beauty and his terrible crimes. The film failed, rather, in that it misrepresented Bundy’s emotional reality. The film positions Bundy as a hunted family man, who happens to have been a serial murderer. It goes out of its way to portray Bundy’s defensive and family emotions as genuine: even when alone he cries over lost love and acts fearful of capture.
This isn’t an accurate portrayal of psychopathy. A true psychopath wouldn’t feel these emotions: he’d pretend to feel them when others were watching, and when he was alone, the mask would melt away. I suspect that if the film that explored these elements of psychopathy, Efron’s Bundy wouldn’t have gotten the fangirl/Stanish reception that so many commentators are concerned about.
By contrast, let’s take a look at a film which portrays the psychopathic personality with a high degree of accuracy: I’m talking about Mean Girls.
Teen comedy Mean Girls was released in 2004, and its humor and heartwarming story defined a generation. One of its most iconic characters is Regina George, queen of the Plastics, brilliantly portrayed by Rachel McAdams, whose devious machinations drive the story and catalyze heroine Cady’s journey into teen life.
According to Hintjens’ framework, Regina George is a textbook psychopath. She genuinely feels predatory emotions, and fakes all others.
We first meet Regina George when she invites Cady to sit with her at lunch. Regina smiles and acts friendly, projecting warmth, kindness and affection. Cady is taken in, but later in the film, as she sees Regina play out this exact script on someone else, realizes the whole thing was an act.
Mean Girls is many things: among them, a cautionary tale against using psychopathic techniques against a psychopath. The plot centers around Cady’s attempt to ruin Regina George’s life, and shows how in doing so, she causes harm to many others, and almost gets lost to psychopathy herself.
Watching the film after reading The Psychopath Code is a trip. Even Regina’s micro-expressions match Hintjens’ descriptions. Her eyes widen as she stalks her prey, as at the party when she seduces love interest Aaron, and narrow as she closes in for the kill, as when she sets in motion her devious plans. At times, her eyes project a false warmth, and at others, they’re empty and calculating.
At the film’s conclusion, Regina is given a redemption arc, but it’s of a particular kind: she doesn’t suddenly become a compassionate person, but instead, takes up aggressive athletics. She doesn’t stop being a psychopath, but learns to channel her nature in a constructive direction.
Media does a lot to shape how we experience the world, and it’s important that it be true to the human experience. Psychopathy is shrouded in confusion and mystery, but with resources like The Psychopath Code, well-made films should have no problem portraying the psychopathic mind convincingly and insightfully.