Five Movies About Psychos

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
January 25th, 2014

The term "psycho" is short for psychopath. This is someone who suffers from a serious mental disorder and often shows violent or destructive behavior. In the real world, people suffering from psychopathic disorders are often much more of a danger to themselves than others and sometimes receive treatment for their problems. However, in the world of movies, few villains exist who are more feared than the psychotic killer. He often appears normal, but he harbors the deranged mentality that turns him into a remorseless murderer on a moment's notice.

Naming every single cinematic villain who could be classified as a psycho could fill encyclopedia volumes. Instead, here are five movie psychos who left a very strong impression on modern culture.

psycho.jpgPhoto Credit: Paramount Pictures


This classic Alfred Hitchcock film from 1960 features visitors to the Bates Motel running afoul of Norman Bates and his less than ideal mother figure. Norman is a creepy loner, but he also proves strangely sympathetic as he copes with the homicidal chaos wreaked by "mother." This is the film that proved horror films did not need to feature bad acting, rubbery monsters and supernatural trappings. The film closely examines what creates a murderer with disturbing detail and in a way that had not been shown before in a major motion picture. It walks the audience down the dark convolutions of the killer's mind while never giving away its now-infamous twist until the very end.


the-shining-movie.jpgPhoto Credit: Warner Bros.

"The Shining"

Alcohol, anger issues and preternatural forces slowly eat away at a writer's stressed psyche in this 1980 release. Secluded with his family at an abandoned hotel in the dead of winter, Jack Torrance becomes tortured by the perceived failings of both his professional and family life. He retreats into realistic mirages of the sprawling hotel in its Jazz Age heyday. These may be a product of his tortured mind or may be psychic visions induced by demonic ghosts. Unlike the other films listed here, in "The Shining" viewers actually follow Jack throughout the process of his psychotic break, making his final fall into murderous madness all the more terrifying.


clockwork-orange.jpgPhoto Credit: Warner Bros.

"A Clockwork Orange"

This is the story of a society making, and then unmaking, a psycho killer. Set in a dystopian future where crime and youth violence run out of control, rapist and street thug Alex DeLarge is arrested and forced to undergo an experimental behavior modification treatment. He is "cured" of his violent tendencies but in turn becomes a victim himself, both by the society that spurns him and old acquaintances who now see him as weak. "A Clockwork Orange" examines the consequences of punishment, rehabilitation and how far a society should go in stopping crime, all the while using a murderous psychopath as its main character.


the-silence-of-the-lambs.jpgPhoto Credit: Orion Pictures Corporation

"The Silence of the Lambs"

The conceit of the 1991 film lies in using one murderous psychopath to catch another. Played with chilling brilliance by Anthony Hopkins, imprisoned Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector helps a young FBI agent get into the mind of a killer on the loose who skins his victims alive. Lector reveals a great deal of his own twisted mind in subtle but compelling ways while lending aide to the naive agent played by Jodi Foster. In the course of the film, viewers see the most dangerous killer is not the one running free but the one behind bars pulling all the strings. Hannibal's escape remains one of the most suspenseful and shocking sequences in film.


the-dark-knight.jpgPhoto Credit: Warner Bros.

"The Dark Knight"

Heath Ledger created one of the most widely known portrayals of a psycho in the modern movie era with his version of the comic book super villain the Joker. The film displays the zenith of Christopher Nolan's gritty vision of Batman, but the film's true center and star is most definitely that of the master terrorist who causes so much pain and suffering for the film's brooding hero and his beloved city. The Joker's motivations are simple. He wants to watch the world burn. Whatever he can do to throw fuel on that fire, whether it be killing, theft, extortion, terror or general destruction, he does with glee and panache.

The psycho is not only one of the most common character types in movies but is also one of the most charismatic. Most audiences are repulsed by random killers, but the ones with twisted mentalities are as compelling to watch as any hero. The fascination lies not only in figuring out the mysterious mind of the psychotic killer but in knowing that the only thing separating him from the movie viewer may just be randomness.