Nature vs nurture: Psychos on film

My post about Elijah Wood’s creepy turn as Frank Zito in Maniac sparked a nice little discussion over on Blogcatalog about the depiction of psychotic, homicidal maniacs in cinema — and how they are so often portrayed as having a tragic start to life, which often triggers their psychosis. The whole thing got me thinking about the old Nature vs. Nurture debate and how it’s frequently used in horror films, especially.

We all know Norman Bates had mommy issues, as did Jason Voorhees, and Se7en’s John Doe was physically abused and suffered electric shock treatment as a child. But, is it more terrifying when on screen psychos have ‘normal’ lives?n

This started me off on one of my personal gripes. The remake. And, in this particular case, Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween. I’ve got two things to say about that: One, I hated it. Two, it wasn’t necessary. And my reason for both is Michael Myers was totally misrepresented in the remake.Yes, that mask-wearing, knife-wielding unstoppable creep who in  John Carpenter’s original 1978 movie starts his killing streak by murdering his sister when he’s just a young child.

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What is so sinister and unnerving about this is that Michael appears to live in, what seems like, a great neighbourhood in a nice house with wealthy, loving parents. There’s absolutely no sign or suggestion that he suffered any type of trauma or mistreatment that could lead to his homicidal behaviour. Making it shocking and all the more blood-curdling to think evil can be simply born — and there’s nothing we can do about it. From a writer’s point of view, it was a refreshing twist on the well-worn road of serial killers having flashbacks of childhood trauma as a way of ‘triggering’ their behaviour.

Compare this to the remake where Michael is living in squalid conditions and regularly exposed to drug paraphernalia and abuse as well as his mom being mistreated by her clients — so, watching a kid live with such depravity and absolutely no moral compass, it doesn’t seem as shocking when he lashes out with violent behaviour and displays a complete lack of morals himself.

And, as a viewer, this portrayal of his character becomes immediately less interesting and therefore less frightening. In this instance it seemed almost reasonable, and understandable, for a child like that to grow up with a skewed view of the world and a warped idea of right and wrong. And from a writer’s point of view, this is the easy way out. Plain and simple.

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So, when it comes to psychopaths with absolutely no apparent rhyme or reason to behave the way they do Alex Delarge step right up. He is, without question, as depraved as they come. And why? Purely because he wants to be. He is a boy whose primary interests involve ‘Beethoven, rape and ultra-violence’ and we can all agree that two out of three of those are not things you’d list on your resume in a hurry.

Alex is a character I have been fascinated by and obsessed with for the past eight years. It’s a testament to Anthony Burgess’ incredible skill as a writer that he could create a character so devoid of empathy, or compassion and yet charming and endearing . Especially in Kubrick’s controversial big screen adaptation where there’s something sexy and alluring about Malcolm MCdowell’s portrayal of Alex, you become increasingly spellbound by his actions and the motives he gives. There’s never an excuse offered up as to why Alex is the way he is, and isn’t that more unnerving?

This ability to dazzle and blind you from his abhorrent actions is what I find most terrifying about his character. It’s a lot harder to pull this off, and perhaps this is why we are so often presented with characters with tragic backstories as a way of explaining why they are so maniacal. Maybe it’s an attempt to create some amount of sympathy, or a desperation to explain why because there must be a reason for everything right? Right? Does it make us, the viewer, more comfortable knowing that a human behaving with monstrous qualities is only that way because he was treated so monstrously too?

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And at this point it feels only right to mention Kevin Khatchadourian who, via the pages of Lionel Shriver’s exquisite novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, kept me awake at night for weeks.

In both the book and the on screen adaptation we are given the chance to get right inside the mind of a killer from a young age — but what makes this so interesting is it’s primary focus is on a mom trying to work out whether her son’s fatal attack on his high school had anything to do with the way she raised him or whether it’s just in his DNA. Think about that for a second. The thought that we might have no way of stopping evil in its tracks. Blood curdling.

There’s nothing here to suggest that Kevin is anything other than a cold, hard psychopath and the story of his life is engrossing — and spine chilling. Not to mention, an incredible contraceptive as the thought of having children becomes less and less appealing with each frame of the movie. Ha!

And this sense of mystery doesn’t just go for serial killers — I also feel the same about all characters if I’m honest. Like Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Detective Loki in Prisoners. He was a tortured soul but we were never given a reason why — and that’s definitely a risky move on a writer’s part, but it pays off big time in my book. It keeps you thinking, and leaves you waiting for more.

Like Walt Disney said, Always leave ’em wanting more

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8 comments

  1. I think it can be both nature and nurture. I believe some people are born as a bad seed. I believe they do know right from wrong, but don’t give a damn. I have friends who were raised in homes so brutal that you wouldn’t believe it, but they didn’t grow into homicidal maniacs. They were troubled and needed therapy, but weren’t out seeking blood.

    While I believe that maniacs can be freaks of nature, I do believe being raised in a less ideal environment can exacerbate the problem, but not cause it.

    1. I totally agree, from a completely non-expert point of view mind!

      It’s one of those things that might never be proven conclusively, but it is the representation of it on film that I find particularly interesting.

  2. We need to talk about Kevin was a book/film that particularly haunted me too, obviously heightened by the fact that it is written from the perspective of the killer’s mother.

    Psychological studies have discovered a genetic difference that occurs in a very high percentage of all serial killer’s brains, yet this alone is not what makes a killer, it only provides the potential. What does trigger these appalling crimes to be committed by an individual is a concoction of both genes and external environment; nature and nurture together.

    I believe that Kevin’s mother had in either instance influenced her son’s character. Something which wasn’t transposed particularly well from book to film, is the undeniable similarities between mother and son’s personalities which is probably what spurred Kevin’s mother to recognise these qualities in her son and unconsciously communicate them to him, resulting in Kevin’s actions as being a sort of self fulfilling prophecy. Kevin’s ultimate statement that ‘you don’t want to kill your audience’ reinforces this exceptionally well.

    For me, I’m not sure that the idea of a monstrous character committing horrendous crimes for no apparent reason is that much more scary than one who has previously endured a psychologically damaging experience. Whilst you say it is somewhat lazy looking from a writing perspective, I find there is probably a lot more scope in imagining how horrific an act has to be in order to turn an otherwise moral human being against their natural empathetic state. This to me is much more terrifying when examined on a less superficial level than say, having a defective psychological state that determines one’s ability to perceive right and wrong.

    Really great post though! I think instead of that route, it’s possible that the Mike Myers type plot lines are just a little too cliche, which is where I have issues with finding them scary too!

    1. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Film version of We Need to talk about Kevin — it left out far too many poignant and important moments from the book. But I completely agree with what you said about Kevin’s mom and the self-fulfilling prophecy. I loved that story so much, it was so layered and haunting.

      I get where you’re coming from in that it is certainly unnerving to think about the sort of things people may have experienced to make them grow up to be so twisted and morally bankrupt — I just wish it wasn’t used as an excuse or as a simple way of explaining away a behaviour.

      Thank you, glad you enjoyed it! I love your blog, it’s great B-)

  3. I think Burgess’ point in Clockwork Orange is that when people can’t find a creative outlet for their passions, they turn to violence and destruction. That’s the case with Alex. He’s using all his intelligence and imagination to lash out at people and the world.

    1. I find Alex such a fascinating character, because like you said although Burgess does make a point about not having a creative outlet it’s still quite a leap for him to move onto ‘ultra-violence’. It’s pretty fascinating!

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