Say the word psychopath to a movie lover and you’re going to get a host of deplorable characters. Some might point to Patrick Bateman’s blue-blooded killer from American Psycho while others will describe someone more mysterious like Michael Myers from Halloween. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: in Hollywood, psychopathy is closely tied with gruesome acts of violence and bizarre behaviors. There is some truth in this portrayal. Psychopathy is correlated with a tendency towards cruel and violent behavior, and many famous serial killers, like Ted Bundy, score extremely high in measures of the disorder.

And yet, while Hollywood loves to focus on the most sensational parts of psychopathy, it often fails to cover its more interesting aspects. It sticks to the trope of the psychopath as serial killer and wierdo without fleshing out what a psychopathic person is like in reality. In fact, it’s rare to find any movies that realistically portray people with psychopathic tendencies, but there are a few. None are better than Badlands and its portrayal of Kit [Martin Sheen] and Holly [Sissy Spacek]. While this movie, too, portrays serial murders, it takes more care in exploring its central characters. In fact, it serves as a great primer on the way that psychopathy might manifest itself in our everyday lives.

But What is a Psychopath?

Before we can explore psychopathy in Badlands, we need to talk about what it is. If psychopaths aren’t exemplified by the bizarre serial killer commonly seen on screen, then how is psychopathy defined? The disorder is fundamentally an emotional deficit characterized by a number of antisocial behaviors. In particular, these behavior revolve around a lack of understanding and concern for others’ feelings coupled with a lack of impulse control.

These traits can result in a series of behaviors such as a lack of personal responsibility, pathological lying, and, in more extreme cases, violence and cruelty without shame or guilt. In many cases, people with psychopathic tendencies may successfully mask their emotional deficits to a certain degree, but will ultimately simply be acting in ways they think they ought to act rather than expressing genuine feelings towards others. While psychopaths gain the most attention as perpetrators of violent crime, most of them never hit the headlines. It’s been estimated that up to 1% of the population [1] may, in fact, possess these traits. Armed with these facts, let’s take a look at both Kit and Holly through the frame of psychopathy.

Who’s the Real Psychopath?

Upon watching Badlands for the first time, most people, myself included, are going to come away thinking that Kit is a psychopath. He indiscriminately and remorselessly kills people. He clearly suffers from impulse control issues. Take for example, the scene where he shoots Cato. Rather than telling Cato to stop, he appears to make a spur of the moment decision to shoot an unarmed man in the back. He then proceeds to shoot at, and presumably kill, the two teenagers he’s just locked up for no discernible reason. Later Holly, in voice-over, says that Kit has told her that “as long as you’re playing for keeps and the law is coming at ya, it’s considered OK to shoot all witnesses.”

Additionally, Kit never shows any remorse for his multiple murders, and in fact, revels in the notoriety that they bring him. Towards the end of the film, after he’s been captured by law enforcement, Kit is not only enjoying himself, but shows the kind of superficial charm that’s commonly associated with psychopathy. Despite knowing that Kit is an unrepentant murderer, many of the law enforcement officers around him appear to be taken in by his charm.

There are more subtle behaviors that we start seeing at the beginning of the film. In particular, Kit’s behavior around dead animals hints at an underlying lack of emotional reaction. The first time we see Kit, he encounters a dead dog on his garbage route. Rather than feeling any sort of sadness or disgust, we see him hunching over it and offering a co-worker a dollar to eat it. Later, we see him jumping up and down on a dead cow at the stockyard.

Interestingly enough, despite these characteristics, Dr. Robert Hare, the inventor of the psychopathy checklist used by law enforcement to diagnose psychopaths, doesn’t see Kit as an authentic representation of the condition. In his book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Hare specifically talks about Badlands. When it comes to Kit, he says his “irresistible charm and slick patter is absolutely consistent with the psychopathic profile,” but that his “attachment to his girlfriend Holly runs too deep and strong to ring true.” [2] In short, Kit cares too deeply for Holly to be a true psychopath. Hare, instead comes to a surprising conclusion: Holly is the true psychopath in Badlands.

Holly as Psychopath

I was surprised upon hearing Robert Hare’s claim that Holly is the better representation of psychopathy. How is this teen, who never commits an act of violence and spends the entire film following the whims of her trigger-happy boyfriend, a psychopath? Is my view of psychopathy so skewed by its exposure to popular culture that my archetype of the psychopath is a mere cartoon? The only possible way I could understand Hare’s claim that Holly is a psychopath was if he saw her somehow manipulating Kit into his violent behavior, but I didn’t see this behavior anywhere.

After reading Hare’s explanation of his diagnosis, I’ve concluded that my impression of psychopathy was, indeed, a caricature born of too many slasher movies. Holly, he claims, is not a psychopath because she engages in bizarre or violent behavior. Instead, it’s her shallow emotions and the sense that she’s pretending to have appropriate emotions rather than having them. Hare points to Holly’s deadpan voice-over as an example. He says that her narration is “delivered in a monotone and embellished with phrases drawn straight from the glossies telling young girls what they should feel. Holly speaks of the love she and Kit share, but the actress manages somehow to convey the notion that Holly has no experiential knowledge of the feelings she reports.” [2]

Hare also points to a few examples of how this lack of normal social emotions leads to her odd behavior. Take, for example, the scene shortly after Kit kills Holly’s father. Immediately she slaps Kit, as though she’s angry, but almost immediately returns to her normal state before following Kit on his adventure. In another scene, as Kit, after already killing several people, is leading the teenage couple at Cato’s place to imprisonment, Holly strikes up a casual conversation with the teenage girl, as though she doesn’t comprehend that the girl must be terrified. And once you see Holly’s pattern, you see it everywhere. When she first has sex with Kit, for example, she comments that she doesn’t understand what the big deal is about.

Psychopathy in Real Life

I’m used to thinking of psychopaths as the inhabitants of horror movies and psychological thrillers. Considering a more realistic depiction of a psychopath, like Holly in Badlands, presents some disturbing food for thought. As I think back on my life through the lens of Holly’s behavior, I can think of at least two people that I’ve known that fit comfortably into that mold. That guy at work that took every opportunity to throw co-workers under the bus for personal gain? He might really be a psychopath. When I consider the fact that up to 1 in 100 people is a psychopath, that’s not surprising, but it’s disconcerting nonetheless. It means that I’m likely casually interacting with people that lack a conventional conscience all the time. Still, I can take comfort in the knowledge that psychopaths are largely contained by society. Despite what Hollywood tells us about them, psychopaths are largely not a public safety problem. Still, I hope I never meet anyone like Kit or Holly.

[1] Scott H. Bon, PhD, "How You Know You're Dealing with a Psychopath," Psychology Today, June 19, 2016
[2] Robert D. Hare, PhD, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among Us. Place of Publication Not Identified: Tantor Media, 2011. Print.