Empty Inside: Sociopaths and Psychopaths in the Media

Song of the moment: In Too Deep Genesis (Why Genesis? I’d suggest skipping to 2:28 of this for the answer)

Galleons, why are sociopaths on television so goddamn attractive? What is it about them that manages to completely turn me (and, for that matter, a large number of people) on?

We’re going to talk about psychopaths/sociopaths today for two reasons. First, I promised you this post a month ago. Second… well, I don’t have anything pressing to talk about, but I didn’t want to cop out of an actual post by throwing up lyrics or something. Again.

Also, I’m actively avoiding finishing up the corrections on Stauff’s paper. Why did I agree to do this again? Oh right… because I’m a masochist.

***

A lot of people would be quick to say that’s a major part of it- that masochists are attracted to sociopaths because of the potential to be hurt. It makes a sort of sense, I suppose. Masochists do, for all intents and purposes, derive pleasure from being hurt. It would make sense for them to seek out particularly sadistic individuals in order to satisfy their desires.

Of course, there are many facets to masochism. And most people don’t take that into account when laying down their blanket judgments of people. Masochism can be a simple desire to have pain inflicted upon one’s person, but this can take many forms. Maybe you like inflicting it on yourself. Maybe you only enjoy receiving pain in a sexual setting. And, then again, maybe it’s not as much about physical pain as it is about humiliation. Maybe you want to be treated poorly- emotional/psychological pain. And, for some emotional masochists, maybe it’s less about deriving pleasure from the pain but an uncontrollable need for it that drives you into bad situation after bad situation, whether you enjoy it or not. You thrive on it, but it doesn’t mean you like it.

Masochism is confusing. And it’s not enough to drive people into frenzies of lust over sociopaths. There’s more at play here. Much more.

***

Let’s start by defining sociopaths and psychopaths. What are they, really?

Well, it might (or might not) surprise you to learn that the difference between sociopathy and psychopathy is blurry, to say the least. To be honest, many psychologists use the terms interchangeably, and even the ones who believe there is a difference can’t agree on what the specific differences are. Hell, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classes both sociopathy and psychopathy under the heading of “Antisocial Personalities” because they share such similar traits.

For all intents and purposes here (since the psychological community can’t seem to figure their shit out… goddamn soft sciences), we’ll assume the terms are interchangeable.

Psychopathy is mainly concerned with a lack of empathy and emotional base. As Patrick Bateman says in the phenomenal American Psycho, “I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust.” This is what distinguishes a psychopath- a lack of remorse/guilt. They rationalize everything or foist the blame on someone else. They’re tactless and egocentric. Because of their lack of discernable emotion, they are impulsive, reckless, and often violent. They have no “inner compass” telling them what is morally reprehensible.

That’s how morality really works- it gets tied into the emotive parts of the brain. Thus, when contemplating committing what would be a moral crime, a person feels shame, disgust, guilt, and horror. All manner of deterrent emotions. But psychopaths don’t feel that. At all. Therefore, the only thing keeping them from committing such acts is the need to keep up a “human” façade… or to prevent jail time.

So, that’s a psychopath. Note that it doesn’t immediately translate to “serial killer.” However, most serial killers are psychopaths (you know, a square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not a square). In the media, the two terms tend to be interchangeable. Oh look, the media is being misleading again. There’s a fucking surprise.

Actually, sociopaths constitute 4% of the population. Yes, the percentage is that high. We’re not only talking violent psychopaths here, remember. So, we’ve all encountered at least one sociopath in our lives. Most of us… more than one.

***

I’ve always found empathy to be a… distinctly selfish thing. I’m not very good with empathy. I can never “put myself in someone else’s shoes”- I can only relate their experiences to my own life and draw conclusions based on my own emotions or experiences. In the end, any time I practice “empathy,” all I’m doing is logically analyzing someone else’s problem, comparing it to my life, and attempting to find a correlation. I am rubbish if I’ve never experienced what the other person is going through. I can’t even feign understanding.

No, I’m not a psychopath. Trust me, I used to be intensely worried about that as a child (despite the fact that I have extremely prevalent emotional states…). In high school, during my sociology course, I tested myself with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist- Revised. I exhibit some of the traits, but not enough to be classed as a full-on psychopath. Have no fear.

As Sheldon would say, “I’m not crazy- my mother had me tested.”

But back to empathy… I know it’s supposedly very important and all to determining whether a person is a normal functioning human, but I maintain it’s bullshit. In the case of psychopaths, it’s a word we slap half-assedly onto a concept we can’t define- an idea/definition of “humanness” that is lacking in a psychopath.

In his book, The Mask of Sanity, Dr. Hervey Cleckley describes the prototypical psychopath as “a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly… so perfect is his reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him in a clinical setting can point out in scientific or objective terms why, or how, he is not real.”

We can’t say why or how he is not real. We just say that he lacks “empathy.” I feel like we’re using the term empathy as a substitute for the word “soul” because we’re uncomfortable slapping the term “soul” on anything remotely scientific. It’s a problem that crops up time and again (frequently in the discussion of human consciousness)- “soul” has become a spiritual term, thus making it a ludicrous term to be used in scientific discourse.

I’m not arguing that we should incorporate the mystic within the realm of science (in fact, I shudder at the concept). There’s a reason science and religion are constantly at odds- they don’t mesh well. But, I don’t really consider psychology much of a science, and I think the study of human motivation almost requires spiritual discussion. After all, religion and belief guide our morality and shape our goals in life. I think it’s important to look at them when discussing psychology.

You know, maybe I dislike the term “empathy” because I don’t believe in a soul…

***

But, I’m straying from the point of this post. We’re talking about the portrayal of psychopaths in the media. And why they are so damn attractive. Let’s look at some of them:

Patrick Bateman from "American Psycho"

Sylar (Gabriel Gray) from "Heroes"

Dexter Morgan from "Dexter"

They crop up in movies and television shows alike. Hell, I’m forgetting a big one that’s been around for ages– the fucking Joker from Batman.

We even recently saw a psychopath (a woman this time!) on House:

Every single one of these psychopathic characters are physically very attractive (even the makeup couldn’t hide Heath Ledger’s boyish good looks). Dammit, Hollywoodland, stop it! I don’t want to lust after psychopaths!

Well, the casting actually makes a lot of sense. True psychopaths can be exceptionally charming and charismatic- they are glib and confident. We all respect confidence and flock to confident people. It’s the way of the world. These people are capable of commanding a room or a group of people, of entertaining and charming them. Psychopaths are quite capable of this. They are the world’s greatest mimics (even better than Ditto). An easy way for filmmakers to translate that charm to the big screen is to cast someone who immediately draws the eye.

A pretty person.

It immediately gives the actor a leg-up on the whole charisma thing. If you manage to find an actor who’s both attractive and able to be charming, you’re fucking golden. Christian Bale does that really well. Zachary Quinto has the eyes that just bore into you and manage to scare you. His early stuff as Sylar was great (throwing the character into tons of emotional crises and giving him “mommy issues” really destroyed him as a villain- mostly because they stripped him of his psychopathy). And Michael C. Hall is abso-fucking-lutely perfect- from the often blank eyes to the disaffected voice-overs and the chillingly “off” facial expressions that break through his human mask… sheer brilliance.

So yes, the casting directors selected sexy people on purpose. Because it helps establish the character.

***

But, even when we’re just watching the television, we’re not that superficial. After we see what these people do, what they are, we should be properly horrified and repulsed.

And yet the attraction stands. Or, more often than not, grows. How do we explain that? Well, there are a number of factors.

We touched on the idea of the tantalizing taboo when we talked about the mafia not too long ago. That concept translates to our current discussion. The psychopath (remember, usually a serial killer in modern media) gets away with all the things we suppress in the name of morality and civilization and ethics and all that. We wouldn’t kill a person… but it doesn’t mean we haven’t entertained the notion. Briefly. Of course, we immediately shove it from our minds (and feel extremely guilty about even having thought about it in a half-assed manner), because it’s wrong. Very, very wrong. But a psychopath… they don’t have that filter, now do they? We hold our comments to people around us in check, for fear of insulting them. Psychopaths don’t. We get overloaded by messy, complicated, often rubbish emotions. Psychopaths aren’t burdened with all that rot.

Like with the mafia, it’s a healthy way for us to live out those dark fantasies we all have. We’d never do this in reality (and we wouldn’t date a psychopath, either), but it’s perfectly okay to watch it (and have a bit of a crush on a television psychopath). After all, that’s all it is- a fantasy.

I, for one, know that the “lack of emotions” thing is what really draws me to psychopathic characters. I hate emotions. I prefer logic. Here are examples of humans without emotion- naturally, I find them attractive on some level. I also found Spock attractive, mind you (Zachary Quinto, you are just sexy… period). Using logic over emotional reactions is incredibly appealing to me.

You know, I’d venture to state that this obsession with psychopathic villains and antiheroes is more prevalent now than at any point in the past because of our society’s reliance on computers. Roll with me on this, for a second. In The Devil in the White City, psychopath H.H. Holmes is described in the following manner: “Events and people captured his attention the way moving objects caught the notice of an amphibian: first a machinelike registration of proximity, next a calculation of worth, and last a decision to act or remain motionless.”

Because psychopaths lack emotion, they lack that undefinable “something” that separates man and machine. Boolean logic has no emotional component. We are fascinated by technology, by computers, by their power to do things the human mind can. We create stories of robots and the uprising of machines, because we see the logical power in the removal of the emotional component from the human machine. It would allow us to become so… ruthless. Of course, after the robots take over, we always have some rag-tag group of humans defeat them with emotions and shit, because we need to feel good about ourselves.

Okay, and because emotions (while usually complete rubbish) can actually be powerful tools in their own right.

Psychopaths are like those robots of science fiction. They are intelligent, functioning machines. They scare us, but they excite us. Even under the warnings and the danger (echoed in science fiction again and again), we see the potential such a system holds. In this age of computers, it’s easier for us to find a way to relate a psychopath to something we know. Therefore, it’s easier for us to handle them.

And, as tech is sexy, so are machines that look like scrumptious men.

Of course, there’s the whole “damaged people being drawn to superficial charm and confidence” bit. Emotionally compromised individuals are often victimized by social predators and sociopaths because they are easy targets. It’s easy to net them, easy to keep them… and easy to use them as an outlet to feed some of your darker tendencies. So, we’ll mention it here, even though we aren’t all damaged to such an extent.

And there are probably plenty of other reasons (and at least one big one that I’m blanking on… it’s gonna drive me crazy), but that’s all I have time to discuss right now. I should really finish Stauff’s paper. He’s taken to IMing me today to ascertain my progress…

I really need to start going out more. It’s a Friday night, and I’ve spent it talking about psychopaths and avoiding homework that’s not even mine…

***

As a complete aside, I am very happy right now, galleons. And no, I can’t tell you why. That could, potentially, spoil the surprise. I’ve been planning this for two months now, and today, the major part of my plan came to fruition. Or came into my possession. However you want to phrase it.

Anyway, I still have some time before I can reveal to you what this is all about. Suffice to say…

The war is not over. *wicked grin*

3 responses to “Empty Inside: Sociopaths and Psychopaths in the Media

  1. Sorry but I respectfully disagree with your take on empaty. Just because you have never been homeless, raped, or abused you should still be able to feel sorry for people who have. Only being able to relate to others emotional states if you yourself have experienced the exact same emotion smacks of socipathy.

  2. Reading this felt like listening to myself talk and after I noticed you were also female, a gamer and a year younger my intellectual intrigue spiked. Seem like someone fun to chat back and forth with. Feel free to friend request/ MSG me if you need to deem me as someone whom isn’t a threat.

  3. *chuckles* I like your subtle indication there at the end that you are not a cyber threat. And I would greatly enjoy chatting with you, I’m sure.

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