Director Mary Harron depicts an extraordinary criminal in American Psycho (2000). He is good-looking, charming, smart, delusional, sadistic, and a cannibal. Difficult as it may be to trace the genuine pathology of Patrick Bateman, who, in his own words, killed “20 people, maybe 40”, there are several strikingly exacerbated personality traits in the film that can be regarded as the immediate explanations for his murders. Chief among these is narcissism, as Bateman displays excessive and erotic interest in his own body. Moreover, belonging to a society that values appearance above all else, the tension between the two facets of Bateman’s personality – the charmer and the killer – is amplified. Analysing notable scenes from this capitalist classic, and considering them in light of sociological research into homicidal psychopaths, enables us to see that pathological narcissism, sexual sadism, and the influence of society interplay in relation to Bateman and push him ever further down the path to murder.

Early in the film, Bateman’s morning routine is exceptionally revealing of his personality and how it relies on his need to keep up the appearance of beauty and grooming. The camera presents images of his apartment, decorated in a crisp modern style, with black and white as its two main colours. Walking in his white underwear, Bateman appears to blend in perfectly with the furnishings and décor. In a voice-over narration, Bateman introduces himself only after mentioning the location of his apartment building: “I live in the American Gardens building, on West 81st street, on the eleventh floor. My name is Patrick Bateman. I am 27 years old. I believe in taking care of myself, in a balanced diet, in a rigorous exercise routine.” Because of the juxtaposition of his address, name, age, and the lifestyle he believes in, it is obvious that these notions are somehow connected: they are intrinsic to one another. The last part of Bateman’s introduction is as true in his mind as the first – without taking care of himself by keeping to a healthy diet and exercising rigorously, he would not be the same person. Bateman describes his body and lifestyle as his identity, which is clearly indicative of his narcissism.

After introducing himself, Bateman goes on to describe his morning routine in its entirety. The amount of beauty products and the clearly delineated order in which he applies them to his face, hair, and body are striking, and it is clear physical perfection is paramount to him. For Bateman, the routine is very important: he even wears an ice mask while doing his morning exercises because otherwise his face might be “too puffy”. The mask makes him look theatrical and caricatural, and can be construed as a metaphor for appearance, a mask that Bateman puts on for himself and for the benefit of anyone who sees him. The images taken by the camera contain cold materials and surfaces like tiles and glass, and a stark contrast between light and dark colours, while Bateman’s face is illuminated only on one side. These two artifices of cinematography are evocative of the two facets of Bateman’s personality – one for the world, one for himself and his victims. To illustrate this dichotomy even further, Bateman, in front of a mirror, peels off a hydrating mask he applied earlier, as part of his routine, and is left with a chilling expression of disgust and boredom on his face. As he is removing the mask, he says,

“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.”

Underneath all the complicated preparations and his intricate narcissism, Bateman informs us, there is nothing. Without his appearance and the narcissism that keeps it in line, Bateman would not matter, or even exist.

Louis B. Schlesinger, Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argues that narcissism can be traced to the psychology of serial killers. In an exploration of “the relationship between serial homicide and pathological narcissism through a review of the literature and an illustrative case report” he reports,

“the offender kills not because of a logical motive, or as an outgrowth of a psychotic disorder, but because of an internal pressure to commit the act (Revitch and Schlesinger, 1989). […] Liebert (1985), for example, believes that most cases of serial murder occur among the borderline/narcissistic personality disorders. […] The relationship between narcissism and murder in both the adult and the adolescent has been observed by several investigators. (Schlesinger, n.p.)”[1]

Serial homicide and pathological narcissism are usually connected in the sense that homicidal behaviour stems from narcissism and frustration when the individual’s notion of himself is attacked by external factors. American Psycho explores this connection by portraying Bateman committing murders against people who make him doubt his superiority and success, as will be made clear when analysing later scenes.

Although the film’s opening scene demonstrates Bateman’s narcissism, it does not portray him as violent, and another scene depicting non-violent narcissism – which is in fact part of a reoccurring motif – is the competition between the young men to decide who has the best business card. For the world of high finance, the appearance of success is key to actually being successful, and a token of that is the business card. In a conference room, Bateman starts off the competition by taking out his card, sliding it on the table until it fills up the camera’s entire frame, and asks with masked anticipation: “New card. What do you think?” Immediately, everyone enters the game and leans toward Bateman’s card to take a look at it. When he is congratulated, Bateman’s mask of collected disinterest disintegrates and he breaks out into a grin that shows how pleased he is with his choice of business card; he has been complimented on a part of his carefully contrived appearance, which means everything to him.

When Van Patten, another contender, throws his card into the ring and is preferred over Bateman, the latter’s demeanour suddenly changes from giddy boastfulness to frustration. When Bryce presents his business card, Bateman realises that he might have been outdone by his two colleagues, and so, in a desperate effort, with sweat running down his face and his body tense, he asks to see Paul Allen’s card, thinking he might at least be spared from finishing last in this competition. Unfortunately, the exact opposite occurs. Allen, who had left earlier after announcing that he had secured reservations to the exclusive restaurant Dorsia, and thereby provoking envy among the young men, has a business card that brings Bateman close to a nervous breakdown. He appears on the verge of blacking out from anger as he drops Allen’s business card on the table. Not answering Carruthers who wanted to know if he was well, Bateman is consumed by thoughts of rage and exasperation, which, later in the film, find a way out through murdering Paul Allen. Bateman’s reaction seems especially outsized given there is so little difference between the business cards, all of them having very similar fonts printed on slightly varying off-white stocks of paper – a fact that further illustrates the banality and conformity of the lives of Bateman and his colleagues.

This scene again shows how narcissism and societal pressures to succeed by avoiding outward displays of failure cause Bateman to lash out and kill the people he thinks have prevented him from fulfilling his dreams of self-aggrandisement. Bateman kills Paul Allen because, through winning the business card competition, Allen endangers Bateman’s entire construction of his sense of self through narcissism. Allen had garnered higher status than Bateman and thus had become his enemy; as he kills Paul Allen, Bateman even shouts “try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard!”

To present the connection between aggression and difference in status, a study conducted at the Department of Psychology of Arizona State University by Drs. Heather K. Terrell, Eric D. Hill, and Craig T. Nagoshi found that:

“a significant gender × aggression proneness × status interaction indicated that aggression-prone men were more likely to aggress against a high status competitor […] Interactions of narcissism and sensation seeking with gender and anticipated meeting indicated that men but not women high in these personality traits were more likely to aggress, but only towards competitors they anticipated meeting.”[2]

This purports that narcissistic men are more inclined to aggress against adversaries of higher status. Bateman fits the pattern discovered by these researchers – he acts aggressively towards Paul Allen, because Bateman perceives Allen to be of higher status due to his business card, his ability to obtain a reservation at a sought-after restaurant, and his recent assignment to the Fisher account, a lucrative and important account at Pierce & Pierce, the company where the young men all work.

When the confrontation of business cards repeats itself, Bateman loses to Luis Carruthers, someone he terms “the biggest dickweed in New York”. In this moment the upset in relative status is even greater – initially of much lower status, Carruthers now exceeds Bateman on account of winning the business card competition. This time Bateman does not wait and plan the murder of his opponent. His anger is unbearable as he follows Carruthers into the bathroom and reaches to strangle him. However, the response Bateman encounters is disarming, as Carruthers reveals his long-term infatuation with Bateman, and misinterprets the murderous hands on his neck as a sign of affection.

Society’s construction of an environment where to be successful one has to be narcissistic is meaningful: all the men participate in the competition of bland business cards, not only Bateman. Thus this is a phenomenon that happens at the societal level, and reinforces what goes on at the level of the individual, as pressure from society turns its members into narcissists. Allusions to these tensions from the world the film characters live in exist in many scenes – they refer to reservations at restaurants, Valentino suits, Oliver Peoples glasses, haircuts, and the possibility of always looking better and being thinner. Bateman mentions these labels while assessing the differences between himself and his peers and consequently makes them part of his identity.

An equally revealing personality trait that can be studied in its relevance to causing homicidal behaviour is sexual sadism. Drs. Keith Soothill and Brian Francis, in a comprehensive observational study, have found that:

“convicted sex offenders are much more likely than members of the general population to be convicted of homicide. […] Similarly, those convicted of violence as well as sexual offences are much more likely to be convicted of homicide compared with those where there is no evidence of violence beyond what is embodied in a sexual conviction.”[3]

Thus, individuals who are violent sexual deviants are more likely to commit homicide than non-violent sexual offenders, or members of the general population. Bateman exhibits both traits discussed in this study – twice during American Psycho, he is embroiled in sexual activities that incorporate sadism, violence, and gore. In the first scene, where Bateman shares his bed with a prostitute and a call-girl, the camera captures him flexing his muscles and looking at himself in a mirror during the act of sex. Rather than merely illustrating Bateman’s narcissism through his sexual attraction to himself, the scene is also relevant in pointing out the lack of real connections between the film’s protagonist and other people: instead of trying to attract women himself, Bateman resorts to hiring them and maintaining a personal detachment in sexual activity. The second notable sex scene in American Psycho, however, is of more consequence to study in relation to Bateman’s homicidal tendencies due to the fact that it contains a more violent and disturbing sequence of events.

In this scene, which takes place in Paul Allen’s apartment as the two women engage in foreplay, Bateman describes the Whitney Houston LP in terms that would be used not by a person who enjoys music, but instead by someone who wants to impress his interlocutors by appearing knowledgeable – much like with his extended description of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to be Square” before murdering Paul Allen, in which Bateman, in a more revealing glimpse into his mind, lauds the song’s espousal of “the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends”. It comes across as ironic when he says of the Whitney Houston LP that “its universal message crosses all boundaries and instils one with the hope that it’s not too late to better ourselves” because it is obvious that this message holds no true meaning for the self-indulgent Bateman. During this display of fake emotion, Bateman nonetheless manages to rouse one of the women as she looks at him with an expression of fearful admiration; this is evocative of the charmer aspect of Bateman’s personality superimposed on his killer inner self.

However, he does not keep a charming appearance on for long. In the middle of sex, the prostitute, Christie (named so by Bateman himself), tries to leave the room quietly, without Bateman and the other girl noticing. She is stopped in her tracks and realises she has to run for her life. What follows is one of the most graphic sequences of American Psycho: Bateman pulls his head from under the covers, blood running down his chin, in the manner of a wild animal that has been interrupted while feasting on the body of recently-killed prey. As Christie tries to escape from Paul Allen’s apartment while being chased by a chainsaw-wielding Bateman, she finds the bodies of previous victims that he keeps as trophies. When she slips on blood on the bathroom floor and Bateman bites her on the leg, she defends herself by kicking him in the face. This action stirs a powerful response from her narcissistic attacker, as he furiously protests “Not the fucking face, you piece of bitch trash!” Bateman runs naked through the building, wearing only a pair of sneakers and with blood dripping from his body. Halting, he carefully aims the chainsaw to land on Christie as she frantically runs down a flight of stairs. While doing so his mouth opens and closes and his face is grimaced into a countenance of insanity like an animal that can feel the nearness of his prey and its impending slaughter. Driven by his maniacal compulsion to kill and the need to conceal his crimes from the world, he chases Christie and kills her by dropping the chainsaw on her from above.

Bateman’s selection of weapons in this scene and in all other instances of murder is not accidental, but, rather, is indicative of how society and its representations in the mass media change individual conceptions about crime and especially murder. In a descriptive study conducted on undergraduate students by asking them to describe their recent homicidal fantasies, Dr. Peter B. Crabb found that:

“Most fantasies were elicited by frustrating or threatening interpersonal events and involved material-cultural weapons (e.g., firearms, knives, clubs) as opposed to organismic weapons (e.g., hands, feet). Material-cultural weapons were rated as easier to use and more lethal than organismic weapons, and participants reported higher self-efficacy beliefs for using material-cultural weapons. Most participants reported that they had been exposed to mass media models using their weapons of choice and that they had access to these weapons. The findings are interpreted as evidence for evolved psychological machinery that can associate material-cultural implements with aggressive behavior and rehearse this association through fantasy.”[4]

Bateman’s personality and his persona in the film can be argued as not far off from the workings of the minds of real individuals – the participants in the study confirmed that their fantasies involved weapons they had seen in representations of violence as part of the mass media. This is made relevant to Bateman as, in a previous scene, images of a man wielding a chainsaw to attack people play on a TV set in the background, while Bateman carries out a normal activity – making reservations for dinner. He seems unperturbed by this gruesome display of violence, which has nonetheless found its way to his psyche. At a different time in the movie, a pornographic film is playing on the TV, showing that Bateman objectifies women and possibly explaining his preference for prostitutes and for intercourse involving multiple partners. Therefore, the two scenes reveal how society shapes Bateman’s mentality through popular culture.

What’s more, the confession Bateman makes to his lawyer toward the end of American Psycho is indicative of his true psychopathy. He mentions the people he killed, the weapons he used, and where their bodies can be found:

“I’ve killed a lot of people. Some girls in the apartment uptown, uh, some homeless people, maybe five or ten, um, an NYU girl I met in Central Park. I left her in a parking lot behind some donut shop. I killed Bethany, my old girlfriend, with a nail gun, and some man, uh, some old faggot with a dog last week. I killed another girl with a chainsaw, I had to, she almost got away and, uh, someone else there, I can’t remember, maybe a model, but she’s dead too. […] I don’t want to leave anything out here. I guess I’ve killed maybe twenty people, maybe forty.”

He does not recount the exact number of victims he has had, but can only estimate and remember certain aspects of killing them. Bateman sees people as objects and has no remorse for killing and committing so many wrongs. Sitting on the ground, next to his desk, crying and sweating, Bateman is afraid he might get caught; that is the sole aspect of his murders he regrets. His inherent narcissism comes through in his attitude to criminality as it does with his career: he cares only for himself and disregards other people, unless they pose a threat to him by challenging his status and image of himself.

When all is said and done, the film makes it unclear whether Bateman actually commits the crimes or just imagines them. When he talks to his lawyer in person, their conversation casts doubt on the existence of the serial killer Patrick Bateman anywhere except in Davis’ mind; Davis is Bateman’s alleged alter ego and the name by which his lawyer calls him. Of course, it could be the case that the lawyer and Davis are fictitious, and that Bateman is real. Whichever might be true, the murders constitute a narrative of the ego of Patrick Bateman.

In his 2007 article, psychologist David Winter suggests “that narratives provide not only a means of better understanding the violent offender’s view of the world and the choices he or she has made but also a potentially useful therapeutic option with such individuals”.[5] The converse of this statement referring to the therapeutic effect of narratives on serial killers can be applied to the case of Patrick Bateman. To clarify, Winter argues that “writing is not necessarily a therapeutic activity. Indeed, if it merely produces a catalogue of acts of violence, recounted with barely disguised relish, it may only serve to elaborate further the violent way of life and to glorify it to others.”[6] This is exactly what happens to Bateman who, at the end of American Psycho, notes with disappointment:

“There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone, in fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape, but even after admitting this there is no catharsis, my punishment continues to elude me and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself; no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”

Using a narrative has not helped Bateman placate his urge to kill. He is stuck in a state of pain, with no relief in sight, no end to his misery through punishment and no firmer grasp of his psychology in order to overcome his inhumanity. The only thing he sees as relevant is his pain and his desire to cause others to feel it. Driven by narcissism and sexual deviance he has committed murders; maybe these murders were real, or just in his mind. But now, with the acknowledgement that these crimes have meant nothing, there is no escaping the traits that force him to hurt. He will always remain a psychopath and continue to see the world only in terms of himself and what he needs.

The mass-media’s casual depictions of violence, the pressures of Bateman’s working environment, and his inherent narcissism and psychopathy interacted and led to unconscionable acts; perhaps the only escape would have through mitigating all three in unison.

 

[1] Louis B. Schlesinger, “Pathological narcissism and serial homicide: Review and case study”, Current Psychology, Vol. 17, No. 2-3 (1998): 212-221

[2] Heather K. Terrell, Eric D. Hill, and Craig T. Nagoshi, “Gender differences in aggression: The role of status and personality in competitive interactions”, Sex Roles, Vol. 59, No. 11-12 (2008): 814-826: 814

[3] Brian Francis and Keith Soothill, “Does sex offending lead to homicide?”, Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2000). 49-61: 58

[4] Peter B. Crabb, “The material culture of homicidal fantasies”, Aggressive Behavior, Vol. 26, No. 3 (2000). 225-234: 225

[5] David Winter at al, “Construing the Construction Processes of Serial Killers and Other Violent Offenders: 1. The Analysis of Narratives”, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2007). 1-22: 1

[6] Ibid. 19