In the 2014 thriller “Nightcrawler”, Jake Gyllenhaal again proves to be a multifaceted actor. Directed by Dan Gilroy, who is known for writing “The Bourne Legacy” and directing “Roman J.Israel, Esq.”, the Nightcrawler serves as an excellent example for exploring the human condition called psychopathy, without diving into the abyss of serial killers. The latter are, compared to their non-homicidal counterparts, relatively rare. It is estimated that among the normal population, less than 1% check enough points on the list to be diagnosed with psychopathy.
Matthew McKnight has made a video on the protagonist’s diagnosis. He explained how Louis Bloom most likely fulfills the DSM-V criteria of antisocial personality disorder. In this article, however, I will use a different theorem for what we call “Psychopathy” that goes into more detail.
The knowledge provided here is based on the book by German forensic psychologist and writer Lydia Benecke: “Auf dünnem Eis-Psychologie des Bösen”. If you speak German and are interested in forensic psychology, this book is a must.
What is a Psychopath?
Psychopathy, like many psychiatric diagnoses, is a theoretical construct that has been backed up scientifically for almost four decades now. Developed by forensic psychologist Robert Hare and his team in 1980, the well-researched construct has spread throughout forensic psychology around the world. Today, the most important diagnostic tool is the revised Hare Psychopathy Checklist. It consists of the following points:
- Superficial Charm
- Grandiose Self-Worth
- Seek Stimulation or prone to boredom
- Pathological Lying
- Conning and Manipulativeness
- Lack of guilt or remorse
- Shallow feelings
- Lack of Empathy and Callousness
- Parasitic Lifestyle
- Lack of behavioral control
- Promiscuous sexual behavior
- Early behavioral problems
- Lack of realistic, long-term goals
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
- Many short-term marital relationships
- Juvenile Delinquency
- Revocation of conditional release
- Criminal versatility
Nightcrawler: A Case Study on Louis Bloom
The Nightcrawler introduces its protagonist, Louis Bloom, as a thief who just escapes the police (20). We then see him trying to get a job by listing his abilities in a very polite and sympathetic though somehow robotic way (1). That charm is what gets Louis his intern whom he does not pay adequately, explaining that this job of driving Louis through town at night will be the gig of his life (4, 5, possibly 9).
Being a criminal journalist (pun intended) is stressful. Louis drives through town rather recklessly (15). On the scene, he seems to be thrilled with what he sees, which is usually dead bodies(8). However, all of his emotions seem shallow, as he changes in affect whenever he sees fit (7). The whole job counts for point 3.
Thus, without having to watch the whole movie, we soon learn that Louis is a man who lacks empathy, might suffer from constant boredom and manipulates people through charm and manipulation.
However, there is one thing Louis seems to have that is described to be absent in many psychopaths: Control over his own behavior. Sure, sometimes Louis cannot hide that he is a real dick. But he calculates all of his actions, even his outbursts of anger consist of words well-chosen. His intelligence and control are what keep him from going to jail.
Roots in Childhood
Most of us are not in jail. Yet, many of us have known a person who fits some of the above criteria of psychopathy.
The whole construct of psychopathy revolves around the following factors:
- a lack of empathy
- an inability to feel guilt
- the suppression of fear
- the need to wield power over others
Current scientific findings claim that a certain mix of genetic factors and childhood experiences are causal to the inability of empathizing with other living beings. However, psychologists cannot clearly draw a line between nature and nurture.
Adults who show a high number of points on the Hare Checklist often have shown signs of reduced empathy in childhood. Some have stolen on a regular basis. Others have tortured animals. Many regularly turned violent on their peers. The psychiatric diagnosis of conduct disorder includes these behaviors and, paired with a lack of remorse, is a red flag for child development. In those cases, you have to look at the child‘s direct surroundings, which is their home and their family. Often, their parents meet the criteria for mental disorders like addictions, trauma disorders, or personality disorders. Most of the time, the parents abuse their children either in physical or emotional ways.
The predator in the next cubicle
Psychopathy is a continuum. Having a few of these traits does not make you a bad person. Having many of these might bring you in trouble without you understanding why. If a psychopath is of normal to high intelligence and has good control over his behavior, it will take you a while to find out that he or she is just wearing a mask of normality. There are colleagues who are out for their own advantage regardless of everyone else. Sooner or later, you might have a boss who manipulates you into working overtime without adequate compensation or who regularly belittles his employees in front of the others.
The Nightcrawler breaks with the cliché and paints a much more realistic picture of a psychopath. We may well meet someone like Louis Bloom in our daily lives at work, in a café or go on a date with them (don’t do it, even if they look like Jake Gyllenhaal).
Prevalence and correlates of psychopathic traits in the household population of Great Britain.