Stories transform us. Literally. We know from brain imaging research that engaging with a story lights up the same sections of our brains that process sights, sounds, tastes, and movement in real life. We don’t just take in words. We live them alongside characters — even when the character is a psychopath.
“Psychopath” is a term only for those who score high on the Psychopathy Checklist, which was devised in the ’70s by psychologist Robert D. Hare, whose Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us is still the leading source on the topic. Hare described psychopaths as “social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets.” Psychopaths are highly represented in prison populations, but are perhaps even more disproportionately represented in crime fiction. Why the love for the character without conscience?
“There’s a certain morbid fascination in being a voyeur into the dark underbelly of human nature,” says Jen Waite, author of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, a memoir detailing her suspicions that she married a psychopath. “That fascination is compounded by the fact that, outwardly, psychopaths often appear quite normal, even charming and attractive. When we watch these characters in movies or read about them in books, we are on the one hand horrified and assured of our own humanity, and on the other hand secretly wondering, ‘Do I have any of that darkness in me?’”
Even more chilling, perhaps, is the closeness of the psychopath voice whispering in your ear. “When you’re listening to a story, it’s kind of a hostage situation,” says Dana Norris, a writer and the founder of Story Club, a monthly, multicity live storytelling event. ”People like hearing a story told to them … You feel connected to the teller in a very immediate way.”
When you think of psychos in literature, maybe the first to come to mind is American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman — but he wasn’t the first, the last, or the deadliest. Consider these psychopath-centric stories, which take listeners and readers to the darker side of humanity: