Film & TV

The Psychology of ‘American Psycho’

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Horror has long been a tentpole genre in entertainment, ranging from psychological thrillers to monster mashes and even slasher flicks. Why are humans so enamored by horror? On April 19 behavioral scientist Coltan Scrivner and Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center aimed to provide an answer.

Directed by Marry Harron and based on the Bret Easton Ellis book by the same name, “American Psycho” tells the tale of a wealthy young man caving into his predatory urges, following Wall Street elite Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) as his narcissistic worldview grows into a vicious need for violence.

Released in 2000, the immediate reception of the film polarized both audiences and critics for its graphic scenes of depravity. Nearly 22 years later, “American Psycho” has gained a cult following for its commentary on elitism, dark sense of humor and Bale’s (“The Prestige,” “The Machinist”) hypnotically manic performance.

As part of their “Science on Screen” series, the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State St.) has chosen to examine why audiences have started to gravitate toward a feature with such levels of sadism. 

Courtesy of Lionsgate Films The Gene Siskel Film Center showed “American Psycho” April 20 during the “Science on Screen Series” and broke down the film’s psychological nuances.

After screening the feature, behavioral scientist Coltan Scrivner delivered a presentation on why people find interest watching evil men on screen.

Using the specific example of zebras assessing potential risks by watching lions, Scrivner said through viewing mediums of horror, audiences derive information necessary to spot potential dangers in the real world.

Similar to when zebras stalk lions, humans have devised a way to complete such risk assessments comfortably from home, with the added advantage of being safely away from any predators, according to Scrivner. 

Observing a murder through entertainment allows audiences to witness how one might think or act. This information could then be utilized to help identify potential threats in the real world.

The morbid curiosity present in horror fans clues into a more subconscious need for self-preservation — and no other threat is as identifiable as the cinematic psychopath.

Drawing comparisons to Patrick Bateman’s actions to other notorious movie monsters, such as Joker (“The Dark Knight”), Hannibal Lecter (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and Anton Chigurh (“No Country for Old Men”), Scrivener said these characters exhibit the same signs seen in real people with psychosis.

High levels of narcissism, means-to-an-end thinking and an extreme lack of empathy represent the dark triad of psychology. Most people a little bit of everything but to have high amounts in each three breeds the type of personalities seen in both film psychopaths, like Patrick Bateman, and real world ones, such as Ted Bundy.

Scrivner’s theories, though, state that even the more subdued psychopaths of the real world share similar wants and desires of those on the silver screen.

As for the intentions behind Harron’s film and Ellis’s novel, they both seem to exhibit the idea that positions of power lead to abuse. The ambiguous ending of “American Psycho” lends to this interpretation that wealth and status are enough to erase horrific actions.

These themes coupled with the animalistic urges of Bateman, with his hollow monologues and apathetic resolve, suggest that insanity may be a real harm, but only as harmful as the world it’s allowed in.

“American Psycho,” rated R, is available now on HBO Max.

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