“Psycho” Killers Are People Too

Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley: Who wouldn’t trust him?
From Edward Hyde to Hannibal Lecter, to the serial killer in practically every James Patterson novel, what would the world of mystery thrillers be without the psychopathic, criminally disturbed villain?  It’s practically a sub-genre in itself.

Yet, as a therapist as well as a mystery writer, I can’t tell you how often I’ve read thrillers in which the author’s depiction of a “psycho” killer is pure boilerplate: unconvincing, unmotivated, without psychological depth or realism. But why is this? Especially when the writer’s other characters seem much more rounded, realistic, subject to the usual panoply of feelings and motives?   

I think it’s because some crime writers see their monstrous, unstoppable killer as being “out there” somewhere, beyond the realm of normal human behavior. A caricature of evil out of a child’s nightmare. Or, even worse, they often conjure a conveniently “crazy” killer who commits the crime merely because he’s crazy. Merely to horrify the reader. Merely as an excuse for gratuitous and graphic depictions of unspeakable acts. Merely as a bad guy heinous enough to have us rooting for the hero to finally stop him. In other words, the boogie-man.

Not that this is always the case. In Michael Connelly’s The Poet, serial child molester and murderer William Gladden is terrifyingly real because, in many ways, he seems so ordinary, so matter-of-fact. In Patricia Highsmith’s novels about Ripley, her antihero is so chillingly clear-headed that his atavism seems purely natural. And in Robert Bloch’s Psycho, Norman Bates is the veritable Poster Child for the dangers inherent in severe mother-son enmeshment. Though, on the surface, he seems like such a nice, thoughtful young man…   

Here’s my point: In my twenty-five years in private practice, I’ve come to realize that people—common, everyday people—have operatic passions. That stoic guy bagging groceries at your local supermarket, that helpful lady at the pharmacy, the janitor at your kid’s school—all of them, if given the opportunity to relate their life stories, would stun you with the personal dramas each has endured. The heartbreaks and triumphs, the yearnings and dashed hopes. The hurts and shame and missed opportunities they’ve obsessed about since high school. The deaths and financial losses and mental illnesses with which their families have struggled.

As I say, operatic passions. Great loves and hates. Maybe buried now beneath years of quiet, conventional living. Beneath years of daily toil, paying the bills, driving the kids to school. But those passions are undeniably there. Otherwise soap operas wouldn’t be a staple of broadcasting in every corner of the world, in every culture. Otherwise viewers wouldn’t be transfixed (often as a guilty secret) with reality TV, with true crime series on cable networks, with gossip in all its forms.

Which is why I believe that deep inside each mystery writer lies the seeds of every kind of human. From a nun to a serial killer, a corporate tycoon to a migrant worker, a life-giver to a life-taker. All the writer has to do is look within.

And the best of them do. Here’s an example, crude but illustrative. Let’s say your favorite mystery writer (call him Bob) has always had a secret yearning to be respected, admired. Perhaps this yearning began in childhood, when his siblings or classmates got all the glory in school or on the athletic field, and he felt ignored. Discounted. Invisible.

Now, as an adult and seasoned crime writer, Bob creates a villain—a terrifying serial killer, a sociopath who murders without remorse—who’s felt similarly discounted and invisible all his life. Rejected. Ignored. And who intends to do something about it.

Well, if you’re this particular bad guy, one thing that definitely gets you some attention is leaving a swath of mutilated bodies in your wake. And if you’re clever enough to continually elude the police, you probably feel a sense of pride. Of gratification. Of vindication. Now the world’s respecting you, even if it’s a respect based on fear. You’re certainly not invisible any more. At long last, you’re getting the attention you deserve!

(And, if Bob is any good at his craft, so is he…)

Upstanding citizen on the outside; psycho within.
Luckily, regardless of how we were treated in childhood, most of us still grow up to be sane, rational citizens. Maybe our feelings are easily hurt, or we succumb too easily to envy or jealousy, but we’re probably not going to do much about it. Certainly nothing violent or criminal.

But in the fiction we read, we get to see these feelings acted out. We get to follow villainous characters who do all sorts of bad things—and, I submit, the more relatable their motives, the more terrifying we’re apt to find them. Because the cold fact is, in real life, even a psychopath has his or her reasons. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, believed his neighbor was a demon, ordering him to kill through communicating via his pet dog. Mary Martin Speck, a nurse who killed twenty-three patients, claimed to be doing the Lord’s work. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, felt a need to prove his superiority over those lesser beings trying to catch him.

As I say, the reasons may be irrational, based on delusional beliefs or unfounded grandiosity, but they’re reasons nonetheless. At least in the killer’s mind.

Which means the brave writer has to visit that mind occasionally. Has to figure out some way to relate to that mind’s desires, fears, beliefs, pain, ego. So that we, his readers, can, too.

I recall a group therapy session years ago, when I was an intern in clinical training, in which one of the members got furious at another. Over some real or imagined slight.

Regardless, she got to her feet and verbally attacked this second person.

After ten minutes of vituperative rage and name-calling, the woman finally calmed herself. Then, turning to the therapist leading the group, she said, sheepishly, “Wow, all that anger and rage…all that ugly hate…I’m so sorry. That wasn’t me.”

To which the therapist responded, “Yes it was. It isn’t the whole truth of who you are, of course, but those dark feelings are in there. They’re in everybody. They’re as real in you as are your other feelings—your compassion, your generosity, your joy.”

And he was right. As John Fowles once wrote, in his novel, Daniel Martin, “Whole sight…or all the rest is desolation.”

By which he meant that the totality of the human condition, the entire truth of our experience as people, has to be acknowledged if we’re to live authentically. Just as, I believe, the totality of the human condition has to be explored and utilized by any crime writer seeking to create vivid, compelling, seriously terrifying villains.

At least if he or she wants us to believe in them…

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year, Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author of Writing from the Inside Out . He also blogs regularly for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime. His Daniel Rinaldi thrillers include Mirror Image, Fever Dream, and the latest, Night Terrors. For more info, please visit www.dennispalumbo.com

Read all posts by Dennis Palumbo for Criminal Element.


  1. warren Easley

    Damn nice piece, Dennis. I have tended to stay away from the serial killer types in my fiction because, now that I think about it, exploring their motives would not be a pleasant task. Just give a nice killer, who only does in two or three and for reasons I can comprehend. After reading your piece, I’m having a good laugh about that!

  2. barry knister

    Dennis Palumbo– I am new to Criminal Element, and yours is the first piece I’ve read here. It will be a hard act for others to follow. There are many points worthy of comment, but I’ll pick two: “I can’t tell you how often I’ve read thrillers in which the author’s depiction of a ‘psycho’ killer is pure boilerplate….” You are so right–and the observation applies, really, to all category fiction. Far too many writers seem to be far too easy on themselves. They are happy to duplicate cliche versions of “bad guys.” Or, for that matter, positive types. When I read the “look inside” sample for an Amazon book, this is the criterion I use to make a buy/pass decision. The second point of interest is your reference to “operatic passions.” I like that a lot. The point I would add is that in actual opera, the stories are always ludicrous, obvious, even silly. But people go for the music, the soaring emotions transmitted when feelings become sound. As for how this relates to crime fiction and serial killers, the “music” reside in both the plot, and in the unique details given to the characters, the degree of authentic life they convey to the reader. Sorry for going on, but you pushed my own operatic button.

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