With the success of HBO’s “The Jinx" and Robert Durst’s impending extradition to Los Angeles for trial on a murder charge, I’ve found myself incessantly wondering: Why are audiences (myself included) so powerfully drawn to -- and entertained by -- stories about apparent psychopaths?
I posed this question to prominent writers, producers, entertainers, clinicians and academics who’ve had experience with the subject, and their responses were varied and fascinating. I’ve compiled the best of those responses, and ultimately formulated a hypothesis of my own.
Martha De Laurentiis, executive producer, “Hannibal”:
“The most interesting psychopaths exhibit some unfettered id, some brilliantly manipulative side of our personalities we keep in check from the world. Yet, most of us don’t really want to hurt people, we don’t truly understand the needs that drive killers, and that tension between seduction and repulsion ends up being endlessly fascinating.”
Wendy West, executive producer, “Dexter” and “The Blacklist”:
“Maybe being a psychopath has the same function in a narrative as a superhero power. It gives the doer the ability to do what normal people do not — in this case, kill and get away with it. I do think that narratives like ‘Jinx’ and ‘Serial’ are perhaps much more about justice than they are the psychopaths at the center — or at least why we get so passionate about them. The desire for justice is almost primal, it seems."
J. Reid Meloy, forensic psychologist, clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, author of “The Psychopathic Mind," technical consultant for “CSI”:
“Psychopaths are intra-species predators. Their behaviors touch our primal fears of being hunted, as well as our deeper, and largely unconscious, desires to be the hunter. Their stories immerse us in the drama of others’ misfortunes, often random, sometimes deadly. We remain safe, or at least think that we are.”
Matt Nix, creator and executive producer, “Burn Notice” and “Complications”:
“The thing about psychopathy, at least as we usually represent it in fiction, is that a character without conscience is both an effective monster and a form of wish fulfillment. We all have a sense for what would be possible if we were freed from the constraints of guilt, fear and shame. I think that explains the fact that it’s not just the villains in popular entertainment that are psychopaths -- the heroes are often what I’d term pro-social psychopaths. They may have aims we appreciate or identify with, but they still kill without guilt or remorse, they lie easily to get what they want, and they experience no fear. Those are classic psychopathic traits. Everybody knows that in fiction, the villain is a psychopath who wants to kill innocent people. It’s rarely discussed that the hero is often just a psychopath who wants (for whatever reason) to save innocent people.”
David Dean Bottrell, actor, “Boston Legal,” “CSI,” “Criminal Minds”:
“When I took my first job playing a psychopath, I didn’t realize it was going to turn into a career path. I was stunned by how much mail I got. Some people thought my character Lincoln was hilarious. Others found him disturbing. But there were also letters from people who felt an odd kinship with him. Some even hinted that they’d done a few questionable things themselves. They were mostly writing to thank me because they felt like they were finally being genuinely represented on network TV. I was suddenly the poster boy for a disenfranchised and very odd community.”
Ron Schouten, clinical psychiatrist, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, author of “Almost a Psychopath”:
“For some people, the draw is the same as it is for horror movies: We like to be frightened. Why? At a very basic level, it’s the rush of neurotransmitters that is provoked by, and generates the sensation of, fear. One of those neurotransmitters, dopamine, is also the main neurotransmitter involved in pleasure, e.g. sex, gambling. In entertainment settings, as opposed to real life situations that can lead to PTSD and other problems, the frightening situation resolves and we feel a decrease in the stimulation as fear is replaced by a sense of well-being, safety and, in some cases, justice.”
Brett Martin, author of “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution”:
“To me, it’s the queasy sense of recognition. That’s the game television has been playing for the last 15 years or so, and film for longer that. We like figuring out the ways psychopaths and sociopaths resemble normal people -- the closeness of normal behavior to psychopathic behavior, and the elusiveness of that line. It’s the normalcy, rather than the psychopathy, that fascinates us. I think that’s what happened with fictional characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White, and “The Jinx” is absolutely in that tradition -- but it’s even more chilling because Durst is real.”
Robin Rosenberg, clinical psychologist, assistant clinical professor at UC San Francisco, author of “What’s the Matter With Batman?”:
“Psychopaths can be terrifying because they manipulate and lie (and more) in unpredictable ways, and because of this unpredictably, we can’t really prepare for what they’ll do or when they’ll do it. So we’re drawn to stories of psychopaths ... in order to ‘understand’ them and thus make us feel as if they are at least somewhat predictable. To give us an illusion of control."
Michael Weithorn, creator and executive producer, “Weird Loners” and “The King of Queens”:
“I’ve always felt that our fascination with psychopaths is envy-based. On some unconscious level we fantasize about being freed from the shackles of our superegos and going full-on id. When we see someone act in their own interest to an extreme degree, unconcerned about laws, rules and social mores, deep down we wish we could do that too: ‘That’s horrible! Lucky bastard....’"
Each of these responses reflect insightful truths, but I’d add one observation to the mix: Psychopaths can, under the right circumstances, make us feel great about ourselves.
It’s no coincidence, for example, that Walter White on “Breaking Bad” resonated so deeply for so many right when Americans and others the world over were struggling during the Great Recession. Walt found a way to rise above the same kinds of painful economic hardship that so many of us experienced, but he did it at a cost which most non-psychopaths would consider too high.
Numerous studies indicate that in the real world, Walter White is not an aberration, that people who succeed in cutthroat arenas like politics and business -- including Robert Durst -- are more likely to be on the psychopathic spectrum. When we watch stories about successful psychopaths, then, we not only get to vicariously enjoy the experience of their successes, but we can comfortably excuse our own inevitable failings, assuring ourselves that the thing holding us back -- our humanity -- is worth preserving.
We get the comfort of knowing that, at the very least, we’re not psychopaths.