A Quick Look At Fiction’s Psychopath

Spoiler Alerts for the movies Primal Fear and Gone Girl as well! I’m also going to be talking about BBC’s Sherlock.

I know I haven’t posted in a while. I haven’t had much to say. Nothing I’ve read or watched lately has piqued my interest. I went through a reading slump where I simply could not find the right book for me, and I kept leaving things halfway. But then I borrowed The Woman In The Window by A.J Finn from the local library, and that give me something to think about.

I’m just going to tell you what this book is about. Because this post is not a review. It’s a rant.

The protagonist, Anna Fox, has agoraphobia: she cannot step outside her house. She has panic attacks and passes out. Anna has this condition because she is the survivor of a traumatic car crash. She was once a child psychologist, but for ten long months, she’s been confined to her massive brownstone, all alone, drinking too much, messing around with her prescription medication, and secretly photographing her neighbours just for something to do.

One day, this sweet family, the Russells, move into the neighbourhood. Anna befriends (who she believes to be) Jane Russell, the mom of the family. She also meets the woman’s sweet son, Ethan. Then one night, she sees this woman being murdered through the window. She calls the police, et cetera, but nobody believes her, because to her shock, Jane has been replaced by some random lady, who is her imposter.

The whole thing can be summarised beautifully in this movie trailer featuring Amy Adams.

I’m just going to tell you what happened, so once again: SPOILER ALERT.

The woman Anna had met was not Jane Russell, but Ethan’s biological mom, Katie. And guess who kills her? Guess! Just guess!

Ethan kills her. He kills his biological mom.

Wanna guess why? What’s his complex motive?

He’s a teenage psychopath.

The whole thing felt like SUCH. A COP-OUT.

Dipping My Toes Into Thrillers

Let me first say that I am new to the psychological thriller/mystery thriller genre. A few months ago (at the start of the pandemic, actually), I enjoyed Red Leaves by Thomas H. Cook. I believe that was my entry into this side of the bookstore. So I don’t know if psychopaths are a widely-accepted and lauded trope.

A few weeks ago, I watched the 1996 Richard Gere movie, Primal Fear. The premise was really good. This sugar-faced altar boy is accused of the gruesome murder of a Catholic bishop. However, the audience is led to believe that he didn’t do it, which begs the question: who did?

Then, halfway through the movie, it is revealed that the altar boy has multiple personality disorder and it was his evil alter go that killed the bishop. That’s pretty problematic by today’s standards, but I gave it the benefit of doubt and kept watching. There was yet another twist! The altar boy did NOT have multiple personality disorder! He was NOT actually a sweet-natured and fundamentally good kid. He was a psychopath all along! Wooo!!

So What’s the deal with psychopaths?

I am not a psychologist so I’m not going to pretend to be an expert. I just did a quick search on WebMD about this. Apparently, “psychopath” isn’t even an actual medical term. Scientifically speaking, it’s called “antisocial personality disorder”.

While reading, it was this that stood out to me the most:

In movies and TV shows, psychopaths and sociopaths are usually the villains who kill or torture innocent people. In real life, some people with antisocial personality disorder can be violent, but most are not. Instead they use manipulation and reckless behavior to get what they want.

Sociopath Vs. Psychopath – What’s the Difference?

The article further goes on to state that psychopaths may be “cold, calculating killers” at worst, whereas others are good in corporate roles and climbing the corporate ladder. Which means that it’s more likely that the VP in your company is a “psychopath” than some doe-eyed teenage boy in your neighbourhood.

But, you know what, it’s fiction, and fiction is all about suspending that disbelief. Not that I needed a pseudo-scientific term to tell me that a person who can stab their biological mom in cold blood isn’t, you know, mentally stable, but okay. Ethan is a psychopath. I believe it.

I just don’t LIKE it.

Are Psychopaths Lazy Writing?

No. Like most things in writing, the psychopath trope isn’t automatically bad. But to quote my friend Margherita with whom I was discussing this, “Maybe the problem is, people don’t always write interesting psychopaths.”

As she rightly pointed out, an example of this is Professor Moriarty. And I will refer to the BBC Sherlock version of him, because I have not actually read all the original Sherlock Holmes stories, because I am trash.

But BBC Moriarty is FUN to watch. And not just because he’s played by the extraordinarily gifted Andrew Scott, who truly made the character come to life in the most chilling way.

Jim Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock

For me, I think what worked here is that right from the start, we know Moriarty is the bad guy. This is largely due the fact that most people are at least somewhat aware of the Sherlock Holmes canon, so Jim Moriarty needs no introduction or shock reveal. As soon as we hear his name, we know what he’s capable of.

But the key is, right off the bat, he is positioned as Sherlock’s foil. A large part of the show is just them facing off, wit against wit, and the thrill of watching them lies in their cat-and-mouse.

Another example I can think of is Gone Girl. I’ve only seen the movie, but about halfway through, we find out that Amy, the titular “gone girl”, has actually staged her own disappearance in an attempt to frame her husband. It’s scripted so artfully that by the end of it, I was actually sympathising with her! A woman who acts in absolutely terrifying, violent, and manipulative ways to get revenge on the man she married.

This wasn’t what I experienced while watching Primal Fear or reading The Woman in the Window. I can still, to some extent, forgive Primal Fear because it’s a legal thriller, not a crime thriller, and the tension lies not in solving the murder but in getting the guy acquitted. But Woman in the Window is a straight up mystery. And it’s a unique mystery because for 90% of the book, Anna Fox is confined to her house, using only the tools available to her: a camera, a laptop, and a phone connection. She isn’t going sleuthing around with a magnifying glass and a gun. She is a severely traumatised woman trying to find out what happened to her friend.

The story has some incredible twists, and some truly chilling moments. It’s engrossing; I kept forgetting where the time went as I read. The build-up was incredible and I kept trying to guess who the killer was, and guess the story behind the two Jane Russells. And I was so pleased with the way it was going, right up till the point where Ethan turns out to be a deranged little murderer.

I won’t say it wasn’t foreshadowed; the book is really well written. It was just disappointing. Because out of all the options the writer could have taken, he took the easiest one. Unless you’re giving your psychopath killer’s character a lot of serious thought, they just tend to come off as tropes. They are always the same person: maniacal, violent, sometimes with weird r*pey undertones, murdering whoever they want without a compelling reason to.

And this can be scary, sure. But beyond a point, it also rings hollow. It makes me wonder if we knew Ethan’s perspective from the beginning, would the book have taken a different turn? He would be a far more solid character. I did get the sense that he had parental issues (obviously) but it just didn’t convince me towards the end. Because of course! When you spend the whole book depicting him as a sweet and scared kid in a difficult home, suddenly switching his whole personality into a murderous, manipulative person will just be jarring. I get that. There’s a huge shock factor involved, which makes this kind of thing exciting. But at the expense of meaningful character insights.

Like all things, this is not absolute. I’m sure there’s a way to write psychopaths in an interesting and insightful way and still keep their reveal a shock. But like I said, I’m new to this genre. So if there’s a book or movie that has successfully done this, let me know.

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