25 Years After ‘Silence of the Lambs’, We're Still Figuring Out How To Portray Psychopaths


"Hello, Clarice." It's been 25 years since Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter said those words, and they're no less terrifying today.

On Saturday, two and a half decades will have passed since The Silence of the Lambs first shocked audiences by introducing them to pop culture's most notable cannibalistic serial killer. For playing a character so delightfully unsettling, Hopkins took home the Best Actor award at the 1992 Oscars — even though he clocked in only about 16 minutes of screen time. Lecter was later deemed the best movie villain of all time by the American Film Institute. 

There's no denying Hannibal's hypnotizing presence, sharing strong on-screen chemistry with FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). The film cleverly avoids Hannibal's brutality in front of Clarice: In her view, he's somewhat charming and establishes some affection for her. "He's not just a cardboard villain," Foster said in an interview with NPR. "You see his vulnerabilities; you see that he cares for her in the way that he can. That he has a kindness toward her ... and yes, we're seduced by that humanity, by his light touch with her — in the way that you would hope a great dad would be."

It's a fantasy, however. Real psychopaths would not demonstrate such empathy — something Hollywood has struggled to depict honestly for decades. Characters like Hannibal Lecter and, more recently, Dexter Morgan, pique fan interest because they're serial killers with personable personalities and soft spots. While they're fascinating, creative characters, they delude the notion of what a serial killer would actually be like. For that, we should turn to No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh.


No Country For Old Men's demented hitman Chigurh could be the most accurate sketch of a psychopath ever on film. In a 2014 study titled "Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction?," forensic psychiatrist Samuel Leistedt examined 400 movies featuring psychopaths to find the best on-screen portrayals. Chigurh came out on top.

In the film, Chigurh mercilessly hunts down Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) after he takes money from a drug deal gone awry. Along the way, Chigurh handily exterminates anyone in his path, in any way he can; whether it's using a bolt pistol attached to a tank of compressed air, a shotgun with a silencer or a pair of handcuffs. The closest thing Chigurh has to a moral compass is a coin, one he'll flip to determine certain people's fates. In his twisted mind, it's the only moral code needed.

He is cold, cunning, emotionless and harbors no guilt — all distinguishable psychopathic traits. "I've met people like that, who work for criminal organizations, and they were very coldblooded, very cold," Leistedt said, in an interview with the Boston Globe. "You look at this character, and he has no emotion in his face, it's just frozen. That was pretty scary."

Compare Chigurh to Hannibal, whose relationship with Clarice Starling stems from a deep fascination with her background. In seeking his help to catch the serial killer Buffalo Bill, she reveals tidbits of her life — notably, traumas of her childhood — and he takes them to heart. As a result, a bond forms between them, and she treats him with a touch of humanity. Through her eyes, the audience sees Hannibal behind a prison wall. It's only in his elaborate escape from the police that his true, sadistic nature is fully revealed.

After he escapes, he promises Clarice that he won't harm her, and hopes she'll do the same to him. Where the fantasy lies is this psychopath's ability to show any semblance of genuine affection. "In real life, he never would have become attached to her," psychiatrist Helen Morrison said in an interview with NPR. "I sit with these serial killers for eight, 10 hours at a time, and I come back day after day after day — and every time I walk in to them, it's as if I were starting all over again."

Similarly, in the Showtime series Dexter, the titular character Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) exhibits a strong familial bond with his adoptive sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) and fondness for eventual wife in the series, Rita (Julie Benz). While he explains that he's with Rita out of convenience in season one — he wants to seem "normal," so he dates women — it doesn't deter him from eventually marrying her and having a child together. What's more, when Rita is murdered at the end of season four, he compounds his emotions over her death until he inevitably snaps at a random person and brutally clubs him to death.

A true psychopath wouldn't demonstrate such humanity over a loss — again, because there's no sense of empathy. Furthermore, when Dexter kills the man, he breaks the "code" of killing that his adoptive father Harry (James Remar) taught him as a child. The code is there to train Dexter to only kill other serial killers, and only when he can definitively prove they are guilty. In the rare events where he breaks Harry's code, he's consumed with guilt. However, his Batmanesque vigilante method, coupled with the guilt, is unrealistic for a character deemed psychopathic. 

"What's unrealistic about Dexter is his selectivity about killing only bad people, his doubting himself and his empathy," Dr. Park Dietz, clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, said in an interview with UCLA Magazine. "If there has ever been a serial killer who only takes the lives of confirmed murderers, he's probably been killing rival gang members, not making the world a better place."

Broadly, Hollywood has a difficult task with serial killers, one where they must toe the line between realism and entertainment. Ideally, protagonists should be sympathetic, if not always likable, which makes Chigurh's portrayal slightly easier to swallow. He's an antagonist and thus can be devoid of likable traits. Dexter Morgan, the star of his eponymous show, cannot. 

Not every film or TV show requires a wholly accurate representation of a psychopath, just as every medical show need not be exactly correct on every bit of jargon. Yet the distinction should be clear: The likes of Dexter and Hannibal are fictional concepts. Someone like Chigurh is the stuff of nightmares, all the more because he's realistic. That, above all else, is what's truly scary.