One of my biggest pet peeves–and I have a virtual herd of pet peeves and should probably just let some of that shit go, anyway–is when people, including those who should damn well know better, refer to a horror movie character as a “psychotic killer” when they mean “psychopathic killer”.
No. NO. Goddamnit, NO. NO, even.
Once and for all, let’s get this straight: Psychotics are those who have lost touch with reality i.e. they are literally insane; psychopaths are completely sane. Psychotics lack reason; psychopaths lack conscience. Psychotics kill because if they don’t, the clowns in their head will scream forever; psychopaths kill because there’s something in it for them–money, power, kink, it’s Arbor Day, fun, why not, etc.. Admittedly, those are gross simplifications of complicated psychological conditions, but it’s an easy way to remember the difference.
Classic, obvious example of a psychopathic killer: Ted Bundy. If you’re a horror fan–and if you aren’t, you need to check your gps, because you’ve drifted onto the wrong blog–then you probably know as much about Ted Bundy as I do, which is probably too much. Either way, I’m going to operate under the assumption that you know exactly who he was and what he did and all of the other relevant, fucked-up details. Suffice to say, he killed anywhere between 30 to 100 women in horrific, depraved, inarguably fucked-up ways…but he was stone-cold sane. If anything, the fact that he was so terrifyingly successful over such a long period of time proves it.
Bundy practically had a formula for successful murder–typically (but not always), he would feign some sort of injury–even going as far to wear an actual plaster cast–and ask a woman to help him load something into his VW (and yes…in Silence of the Lamb, Buffalo Bill did the same thing and yes, that is where author Thomas Harris got the idea), just parked around the corner (in an incidentally semi-secluded location), then he would hit them with a tire iron, drag them into his VW with the missing front passenger seat, handcuff them, take them to another definitely secluded location and do horrible things to them, both alive and dead.
So, let’s take inventory: Bundy was capable of not only planning the attacks, but it was a goddamn well thought-out plan–he made himself appear vulnerable by feigning an injury, because he knew that a helpless, handsome guy with a broken wing is practically catnip for your average empath. He even bought plaster-of-Paris to make an honest-to-god cast for authenticity. He knew to park in an area just far enough to avoid being seen, but not far enough to unnerve a potential victim. He had a crow bar ready to subdue the victim, had the front seat removed completely so she could easily be restrained and not visible to other drivers, along with a prepacked handy-dandy abduction kit: handcuffs, duct tape, and lots of other creepy accoutrements, e.g. a hacksaw…and he knew exactly where to take his victim where he could do fucked-up things without any interference from pesky witnesses.
Not only does that required organized thought, it requires highly complex thought to formulate a plan as meticulous, detail-oriented and borderline ingenious as that. And by god, it worked. For a long time. And yet Bundy appeared to be apple-pie normal, the guy your mother considers “marriage material”–law student, rising star in the local republican party–was actually encouraged to run for office–had a nice, girl-next-door girlfriend, was a surprisingly good father figure for her young daughter and even volunteered for a suicide hotline…never mind being damn good-looking.
Yeah, I’m going to call out that elephant in the room: Ted Bundy was fucking hot. And no, I’m not one of those pathetic serial killer groupies. But the truth is that humans are biologically programmed to have positive associations with pretty strangers…and we are more likely to trust them. Which is why of all the serial killers I’ve read about, Bundy scares me the most–because I probably would’ve haplessly followed that superficially charming, normal-looking handsome guy, who needed a hand and besides, everybody knows that serial killers have fangs and look like Henry Lee Lucas…right?
Which he knew. Of course. He cultivated the image, knew which mask to don for every person and every occasion…just like all psychopaths. To be fair, most psychopaths are not killers…but whether they are a brilliant neurosurgeon or Jim Jones, they know exactly what they are doing and are in complete control of their actions.
Unlike psychotic killers.
First of all, very few psychotics–typically schizophrenics–are violent; if anything, they are more likely to become victims of violence. It’s a lot harder to defend yourself when you’re not completely sure whether the threat even exists. Psychotic killers are uncommon and psychotic serial killers are damn rare…because it usually doesn’t take long to find them. They are incapable of organized thought, which makes it virtually impossible to even plan a successful murder, much less conceal the evidence.
But Richard Chase AKA the Vampire of Sacramento is one of those rare examples of a psychotic serial killer. If anybody deserved to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, it was Chase, because he was completely deranged. As in, one bug-eyed, bug-shit, brain-stirred, stark raving, demented motherfucker. Crazy, how? Let me count the ways–he held oranges to his head to suck up the vitamin C. He shaved his head because the plates in his skull kept moving around and he wanted to make sure they didn’t go too far. He mixed the organs of the small animals he gnawed on–raw–into a blender with coke into a grisly concoction because it kept his heart from shrinking. At one point, he got pulled over by the cops because he was driving shirtless and they couldn’t help but notice that he was completely covered in blood, most of which came from the full bucket in back of the truck. But, hey–no worries. It was just cow’s blood, so…vaya con Dios, dude. You’re free to go.
That is psychotic. No longer in touch with reality. Seeing things. Hearing things. Smelling and feeling things that just aren’t there. Delusional. Feet not quite touching terra firma. Tripping balls…organically. In most cases, the worst thing that would happen to a psychotic is that they might hurt themselves or be victimized by others. Richard Chase, alas, was the exception. Because, along with all of his other…quirks…he believed that his blood was turning into powder. I’m sure you can see where this is going.
Basically, within a month’s time, Chase sought relief by completely obliterating six human beings, including a baby. He raised the ante on every fucked up thing that Bundy ever did and went all in. No, I’m not going to elaborate; you’ll have no probably finding out the details yourself, I’m sure. Chase was a monster, yes…but he literally was not in touch with reality. Bundy had a well-laid plan for murder; Chase believed unlocked doors were literal invitations–if the door wasn’t locked, then the people inside were offering themselves. Chase’s method for finding a victim was about as organized as singing eenie meenie minie mo.
Anyway, as horrifying as this spree was, it didn’t last long because Chase didn’t have the wherewithal to hide evidence or even truly understand why he should. It was nothing personal; when a man’s blood is turning into sand, well, he just did what any boggle-headed maniac would do. And more. Afterwards, he would drift back home, completely, obliviously, drenched in blood and leave a blood trail from the murder site all the way back to whatever dank hole he called home.
Again, technically, Chase should’ve been found not guilty by reason of insanity, but he scared the shit out of everybody in that courtroom–including the judge–so they weren’t going to take a chance, not even on a Lecter dungeon suite for the criminally insane. They made damn sure that he’d go to the gas chamber, so those traumatized jurors would eventually be able to sleep at night. Not that it mattered; Chase didn’t live long enough to be executed. Besides the judge and jury, Chase also scared the shit out of his fellow hardcore prisoners, who all got together and basically staged a “Jesus god, please kill yourself” intervention…so he did.
Obviously, we’re worlds apart from Bundy at this point. And yet, I still regularly see Bundy described as a “psychotic” killer and vice-versa. Maybe it seems like I’m nitpicking here, but I don’t think this is just a quibble; it’s too wrong to be just a quibble.
Okay, so forget real life. Back to horror movies, where reviewers, fans and other rabble-rousers constantly get this wrong. I just looked through my fledgling indie horror DVD collection. Out of 65 DVDs, there were 28 movies in which there was a PSYCHOPATHIC killer…and only two with genuinely psychotic killers: one is Black Christmas, the other, The Devil’s Candy…and even that is debatable, because it is possible that the devil is speaking to Ray Smilie. A couple of others came close, like Isabelle Adjani’s character in Possession (1981) and Kiernan Shipka’s character in The Blackcoat’s Daughter…but even those are iffy–every fucking sneeze in Possession is a goddamn metaphor or allegory and, just as with The Devil’s Candy, you’re never really sure if the killer is psychotic or has fallen prey to some malignant paranormal happenings.
But here are a couple of compare and contrasts from upcoming DVDs:
So, there ya go. Psychotics are insane; psychopaths are only morally insane. It’s really that easy. Lecture over. I just realized that I haven’t checked to make sure the doors are locked and I really don’t want some head-fucked maniac thinking he should RSVP an invitation I didn’t mean to send…so this is probably a good place to stop.
Next time: the first segment on Heroes of Horror!