A sociopath suffers from an anti-social personality disorder. A psychopath is a conscienceless individual. According to a longer definition of the latter, the psychopath is “a person with a personality disorder indicated by a pattern of lying, exploitiveness, heedlessness, arrogance, sexual promiscuity, low self-control, and lack of empathy and remorse. Such an individual may be especially prone to violent and criminal offenses” (“Definition of Psychopath”).
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the anti-social personality disorder’s “essential feature. . . is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”
The public tends to use these terms pretty much interchangeably to denote a seriously disturbed, dangerous person who is prone to mindless acts of rage and violence.
I know a psychopath. Fortunately, I haven’t seen him for many years. His name is Herbert, and, during our respective childhoods, he and the rest of his rather large family lived in the same neighborhood as the one in which I resided. His family was poor. Their father didn’t seem to be home much. Their grandmother lived with them and helped their mother rear the children. They lived upon a triangular, weed-choked lot in a two-story frame house. Inside, the furnishings and décor were minimal. Without carpeting, the wood floors were worn almost to sawdust. Their yard contained a collection of machine parts and rusted junk, and there was an outbuilding. A bare path led through what grass there was; there wasn’t a lawn in the proper sense of the word and no attempt at landscaping.
Herbert got into trouble on a few occasions. Once, when the school bus stopped, he jumped off and climbed a tree, refusing to come down. On another occasion, the local minister caught him holding a cat by the tail over an open fire “to see what it would do.” It was rumored that he stabbed a Boy Scout in the foot during a camping trip because the boy's foot “was sticking out of the tent.” Shortly before adolescence, Herbert moved with his family into the mountains, and we never saw him again until he’d become a young man. (According to psychologists, the anti-social personality disorder is often indicated by the so-called MacDonald triad, which consists of animal cruelty, arson, and bedwetting.)
Herbert returned in a late-model car with a friend. They stopped by our house and asked whether I’d like to go for a ride with them. Herbert said he’d bought the car for fifty dollars. Although I suspected he and his friend had stolen the vehicle, I agreed, against my better judgment, to go with them. As we left the driveway, I said, “So, what have you been up to, Herbert?”
NASA Photograph of Mars
Herbert told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he’d just returned from Mars, describing the planet’s flora and fauna. Since he has limited intelligence and an inadequate imagination, it was obvious that he believed, on some level, that he had, in fact, just arrived home from the red planet. Maybe he’d read a science fiction magazine story or, more likely, had seen a science fiction movie about an expedition to Mars and had come to believe that he had been among those who’d visited the planet. I decided that the wisest course of action was to go along with him, and I said something on the order of “that’s nice.” He also told me that he’d tried to enlist in the army but had been refused admission on the grounds that he lacks a conscience. “They said I don’t know right from wrong,” was the way, I think, Herbert put it. He said, since, his ambition had changed, and he now aspired to end his days in prison.
As we pulled up to a tank at a filling station, Herbert, indicating his need for gasoline, asked me whether I had any money on me. “No,” I told him, “I’m broke.” It was after I’d replied that I saw Herbert’s friend nod toward a bank of nearby vending machines. Suspecting that they planned to rob the machines, I told Herbert I had to get home. Fortunately for me, he took me home without robbing the machines--or me--first.
I never saw Herbert again after that, but, occasionally, I wonder whether he’d ever realized his ambition, entering a prison somewhere.
At the time, Herbert hadn’t seemed especially scary, although I was wary around him. He’d always been strange, after all, and I’d known him, casually, most of my life. Mountaineering had built his body, and just his appearance showed that he’d become as strong as a bull. He could be dangerous, even deadly, if he wanted to be, I thought, and who knew what it would take to make him want to hurt, to maim, or to kill? It could have been nothing more than the desire to fill his gas tank or to secure enough money to buy a sandwich and a soda. I shouldn’t have gotten into his car, I shouldn’t have gone for a drive with him, and I am fortunate not to have incited him to anger by asserting my indigence. In retrospect, Herbert had been very scary, indeed.
From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of the Amontillado” to Psycho and its sequels and The Silence of the Lambs and its sequel Red Dragon, the sociopath and the psychopath have been stock characters in horror fiction. Other horror stories in which madmen are the antagonists include:
- Brimstone, Dance of Death, The Book of the Dead (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child trilogy novels): Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast investigates a series of bizarre deaths in which Lucifer himself seems to be the killer (Brimstone); Pendergast’s brother, the evil genius Diogenes, rescues him from certain death so that the FBI agent can stop him from committing the perfect crime--if Pendergast is able to do so (Dance of Death); and Diogenes implements his plan to commit the perfect crime (The Book of the Dead).
- Good Guy, The (Dean Koontz novel): A stone mason mistaken for a mob hit man seeks to rescue the intended target from the real killers.
- Husband (Dean Koontz novel): A husband’s wife is kidnapped; the husband must save her.
- Icebound (Dean Koontz): An iceberg is the scene of this killer's horrific crimes.
- Intensity (Dean Koontz novel): A sadistic killer chases his prey across country before the woman he’s chasing, to save herself and the child she’s protecting, sets him afire.
- Misery (Stephen King novel): A romance novelist’s greatest fan is a nurse, but she has second thoughts about nursing him back to health after he wrecks his car in a blizzard when he kills off the woman’s favorite protagonist.
- Psycho (Robert Bloch novel): A mommy’s boy becomes his mother, murdering young women to whom her son takes a shine.
- Rose Madder (Stephen King novel): An abused wife escapes through a painting into the land of the minotaur (really).
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hunter film series): He’s armed and dangerous!
- Velocity (Dean Koontz novel): A bartender has to rescue a targeted victim before she’s killed by the psychopath who hunts her (if this plot seems familiar, maybe you read Koontz’s The Good Guy).
- Wheel of Darkness, The (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child): a sequel to the trilogy that pits the FBI’s Special Agent Pendergast against his evil genius brother Diogenes.