By Cortney Connolly
As the second decade of the twenty-first century opens, there is a recurring theme in the tracking of mental illness. Series and films such as You, Making a Murderer, and Joker are to name just a few of the most successful and top-grossing bodies of works that have been put out in the past few years. However, psychopaths and ruthless individuals have held a fascination in American culture. Throughout time, the understanding of these characters has developed with the progression of modern medicine. As a society, the fixation poses the question of why are we so obsessed with finding humanity in those where light seems to cease to exist? Is it searching for humanity? Or a metaphor for a generation where all seek a diagnosis to varying issues that are a result from the culture’s need for a diagnosis. In an era of social media’s emphasis on the individual, and their interaction within society there has been an emphasis on understanding how one operates in reflection and because of the lack of room for due to perception of disorders, what allows for tragedies take place? Are the external struggles in society reasoning to why the audience is so obsessed with understanding the monster?
Before the twentieth century, there wasn’t an exact term to root a character’s personality disorder, however, erratic and inhumane behavior still occurred in art. The idea of moral insanity became prevalent in the crossover of psychiatry and art within the 19th century. Moral insanity was “a case study of the efforts to medicalize human ethical conduct, an effort starkly resisted by both the courts and the public” (Hanganu-Bresch). Much of this idea was rooted in the assimilation of the developing understanding in psychiatry and its correlation to the justice system. The label ‘moral insanity’ was the loose term that embodied psychopathic activities and crimes. As modern diagnoses covered a general guideline of traits, moral insanity according to Eigen, paraphrased by Cristina Hanganu-Bresch in her essay ‘Public Perceptions of Moral Insanity in the 19th century’, was rooted in “Victorian cultural anxiety about propriety and impulse control. Thus, Victorian preoccupation with taming unruly passions and ‘fostering self-governing, responsible citizens who were capable of exercising inner behavioral control’” (Hanganu-Bresch). Unlike other bodily diseases and genetic disorders, mental health and disorders seem to be only justified and prescribed by the moral standings of the time. This leads to a construct which only viewed a portrayed psychopathic character only through the lens of the moral standings of the time, through which justice and empathy can only be determined by how society views morals.
As psychiatry in the twentieth century became more of a standardized medical practice there was an emergence of labeled psychopaths in art. Iconic bodies of work such as Macbeth (16th century) that featured characters with psychopathic tendencies were brought under the lens for analysis. Shakespeare was able to build a catharsis towards the Macbeths’ sins, the main characters’ ruthless drive to achieve and contain power could be associated with psychopathic tendencies.
Although psychopaths have always existed through art and time, the pinpointed representation seemed to skyrocket towards the end of the twentieth and through the twenty-first century. Before the second half of the 1900s modern medicine had just begun to scratch the surface of psychiatry, it seems to be as soon as we could label, the more psychopaths appeared in major bodies of work. Horror movies were produced like Silence of the Lambs and thrillers such as American Psycho in an exploitative attempt to try and explain the sudden rise of ruthless serial killers that plagued mass media. The American culture was forced to face the repercussions of the rapid increase of serial killers and wanted to understand why there was a sudden rise in these situations. These films which emerged in a morally looser and more marketable society than the previous Victorian period showed in a twenty-first-century perspective- a more one-dimensional version of a serial killer. In contrast, the culture of the late twentieth century was more concerned with the action of the character rather than focusing on the controversy that surrounded it. Due to the perceived lack of emotional availability of these people with psychopathic tendencies, the character display and research was more one dimensional in the perception of the twenty-first century’s standard. It shows how culture in the late twentieth didn’t have the scientific means to view the monster as a multidimensional entity. For example, Patrick Bateman adheres perfectly to the one-dimensional list that organizes the traits of a psychopath: “individuals high on psychopathy and sexual sadism have been characterized by the callous, unemotional, and manipulative manner with which they approach interpersonal situations, but little is known about the biochemical processes that underlie their interpersonal approach” (Robertson). Bateman’s interest in killing sprees correlates with the internal emotional and empathetic detachment that categorizes a psychopath in a black and white manner. Psychiatry at the time was a new industry, it seemed to create a list of traits that categorized what made psychopathic personality disorders- as if all psychopaths were the same. The late twentieth century’s outline of what made a psychopath was less complex than today, making the perception and creation of Bateman more aligned with the one dimensional understanding of his disorder.
As the twenty-first century ensues there emergence of famed, more dynamic psychopathic characters. In the late 2000s, tv shows like Dexter portrayed the recent developments in the understandings behind the personality disorder. Around the same time as the TV show’s airing, an article titled “The Minds of Psychopaths: The Suffering Souls” (2008) written by John Seabrook showed the latest research on a topic that previously had lacked concrete medical data. The previous methodology in understanding a psychopath was only in the event of a psychotic break and was only evaluated with the cultural perception of morality. It created a narrative that showed a multidimensional human approach in understanding the personality disorder, “Psychopaths don’t exhibit the manias, hysterias, and neuroses that are present in other types of mental illness. Their main defect, what psychologists call “severe emotional detachment”—a total lack of empathy and remorse—is concealed, and harder to describe than the symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder” (Seabrook). As more attention was paid towards the subject the approach to the characterization of a monster became more emotional and three dimensional, as if a psychopath was no longer archetype but a three-dimensional human.
Now, at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century 2019 film Joker claimed the best actor title in the 2020 Academy Awards. The movie targeted how a monster is not just genetic predispositions to mental instability, but how an individual is raised and treated throughout the span of the immediate community and on a larger scale, society’s perspective. Arthur Fleck (Joker) played by Joaquin Phoenix never explicitly comes out with a diagnosis- the film “merely invites us to watch his wrongness grow out of control and swell into violence, and proposes a vague connection between that private swelling and a wider social malady. ‘Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks. Guess what: it’s both!” (No laughing Matter). Joker suggests that the label which is shown through the card he is forced to give out in his fits of inappropriate laughter and mental hospital records matters less than the lack of research being invested along with how society seems to solely view the disorder by a checklist of normalized cultural morals.
In an era of mass shootings, and the increased importance of self (due to social media), Joker seemed to target an empathetic vein towards debunking the taboo behind mental health and disorders, and creating an urgency to no longer categorize, but view the individual in a 3D human lens. For Fleck’s murderous tendencies the audience blames the neglect of attention paid to mental health in Gotham, a system that is known but marginalized. In a character analysis by Chris Lambert in the Forbes article ‘Joker as Diagnosis: Explaining The End, Themes, And Meaning Of Arthur Fleck’s Journey’ the author goes to understand why Joker snapped in murderous psychopathic ways, “A stagnant environment, media that focuses on negative stories, policy that abandons citizenry, and unchecked mental illness—these are your ingredients. These are the conditions that, when they mix, culminating in a hurricane of unimaginable consequence” (Lambert). The film seemed to vocalize and symbolize that the twenty-first-century society needs to end the stigma behind mental and personality disorders, that research and further understanding is well within reach, and it is up for the culture to decide how to push through this dilemma.
In this twenty-first century, there has been an extraordinary increase in consciousness towards monitoring one’s mental health. However, into the larger society as a whole, the subject is rather stigmatized. In response to the many mass shootings, the standing president has claimed the root of these issues is mental health, however, no attention is directed toward fixing the problem. To destigmatize the issue there needs to be furtherment of research in understanding how this one percent of the population (The Washington Post) is inclined toward these tendencies.By recognizing and furthering the understanding of ‘monsters’ there is a larger space of knowledge to evaluate a person’s actions in the contexts of justice systems and the individual’s integration within society. In opening up the dialogue to dispel the stigma of psychopaths in society the progression of internal reflection will expand as a culture will have less fear diving into these difficult conversations.
Audiences have been watching villains since the beginning of storytelling. However, as time and knowledge progressed, the source to contextualize these characters has become deeper in the creation of the character. As an audience, we view what we want to know, these are fascinations rooted in what might linger beneath the surface hidden by societal barriers. While it is inconclusive as to why the audience has been obsessed with monsters, the question might transition to why we watch. Is it because watching allows us to find an extreme degree of ourselves that medicine has yet to uncover? As if the audience finds pleasure in following a narrative in which we explore what would happen if we functioned as portrayed psychopaths do with ease: unbridled. In a sense, taking part in a story allows the viewer to find a piece of themself in the monster as if deep down we all have the capability within ourselves. One day with further research one might be able to revisit this question with an answer, however until then our characters will only become more of an accurate interpretation of reality.