Freddy Krueger. Jason Voorhees. Michael Myers. Cinema’s most famous killers stab and shoot and maim and murder their way through dozens of characters in every film, and we love to hate them for it. But just because they’re evil doesn’t mean they’re not people. They might leave trails of blood and gore wherever they go, but their psychologies and motivations are just as complex as anyone else’s.
We’ve decided that isn’t fair, so we asked forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland to help. Ramsland is pretty scary herself: she’s professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, with multiple degrees in psychology and philosophy. She’s published over sixty books, and has assisted former FBI profilers with writing their own. There is no-one better placed to analyse the minds and motivations of some of the most notorious murderers in movies.
No matter how scary a movie slasher is, Freddy Krueger will always be just that little bit worse. He can kill you in your dreams, meaning the only way to escape him is to stay awake. Even after multiple ridiculous sequels, Wes Craven’s creation is still horrifying.
“He’s not the typical human killer because he has supernatural powers, but he still has human motivations,” says Ramsland. And Krueger was human - a serial killer who burned to death, making a deal with a demon on his way out. According to Ramsland, Freddy is driven primarily by resentment: “A seething, simmering, unstoppable resentment that can never be assuaged by anything. He was caught in a fire, horribly disfigured. He’s really angry.”
One of Freddy’s most gruesome aspects is that he goes after children, stalking them through their dreams. “If [someone] goes after children, you’d look at their own childhood,” Ramsland says, highlighting Freddy’s traumatic early years when he was bullied and abused by his classmates. “Usually there’s something there. With a child, you’re going after someone exceedingly vulnerable, who wouldn’t know how to fight back. But I really think he’s fixated on his own childhood, which was horrible and worthy of going out and killing people over.”
Hockey mask? Machete? Penchant for dispatching sexually-active teens? Jason from the Friday the 13th series is the textbook movie slasher. In the original movie, Jason is a boy who is almost drowned by kids at a summer camp - and it’s his mother who turns out to be the subsequent killer. But in the sequels, Jason is very much alive, and mightily pissed off, which is bad news for the visitors at Camp Crystal Lake. Like Freddy, he’s been rendered dull and predictable by some very dumb sequels, but his character has a fascinating - and surprisingly sympathetic - psychology.
“He’s developed as a feral child - a kid with no resources except what he’s figured out how to do in the forest,” Ramsland says. “His mother, who has her own mental imbalances, is the only caretaker he knows. He sees someone kill his mother, in the first film, and that creates a whole vengeance thing for him.
“There’s the isolation, the lack of social resources, the survival instinct - and also, there’s the woods and the lake where he’s living, and he doesn’t like that being invaded by these loud, raucous teenagers.”
Myers - star of the Halloween films - was created by John Carpenter to be an unstoppable, almost supernatural force of nature. You can’t reason with him, can’t escape him, and it’s almost impossible to kill him. But just because he’s a supernatural force doesn’t mean he can escape the scalpel intellect of Katherine Ramsland.
“Michael is a schizopath. You don’t find it very often in the literature, but it describes a person who is a psychopath with schizophrenia. These are co-morbid conditions that are very, very dangerous. Someone with paranoid schizophrenia is going to have a sense of self-protection that can become violent.”
“But there is a little bit of a sympathetic element, because we are finding out that psychopathic brains are different in the way they process things like moral decision-making and emotions - they have very low emotional IQ, and can’t read other emotions or even their own. The fact that he’s been kept in an institution for so long means that he was recognized as being a danger to himself or others because of a mental illness. He killed his sister, so he was institutionalized, and he keeps revisiting that time of his life. We don’t hold people who are mentally ill accountable. From a clinical point of view, he still has a sympathetic edge, and I don’t think they succeeded in creating a supernatural force of evil.” Well, except for the fact that he was shot six times and fell off a balcony and didn’t die.
Jigsaw is an anomaly on this list, but as long as we’ve got Ramsland, we can’t ignore one of the most psychologically complex movie villains of recent times.
Thing is, Jigsaw doesn’t kill. Not really. The star of the Saw series locks his victims in lethal traps, always giving them a chance to escape (provided they’re able to mutilate themselves in hideous ways). Jigsaw, real name John Kramer, isn’t just a fiendish villain with a big budget and excellent construction skills - he’s also, according to Ramsland, an extreme existentialist.
“I used to teach existentialism, so I immediately recognized his philosophies. He’s been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he attempts suicide, fails, and that gives him a mission. He wants to use people’s idiocy against them to teach them the value of life. That’s out of [philosopher] Albert Camus’ philosophy, which is, why shouldn’t we kill ourselves? What is the ultimate value? For Jigsaw, it’s human life…he’s an intellectual who can’t abide human stupidity or deception.”
“He’s a mix of Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus. He has such a strong emphasis on valuing life that he punishes people who don’t know how to do that, and you do it with their own foibles. He always starts with ‘Do you want to play a game?’ and the rules are always based on what you’ve done as a person.”
“When someone dies, Jigsaw takes a puzzle piece out of their flesh. It’s saying that something’s missing. They weren’t able to value their life enough to do what needed to be done.
Ramsland is the kind of person who we think would be rather fun to watch horror movies with. Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers and Jigsaw aren’t the only villains who have made an impact - what would she make of Chucky from Child’s Play, or Candyman, or the ultra-creepy Pennywise from Stephen King’s It? And that’s before we start talking about the heroes of these movies, each of whom offers a psychological wonderland of neuroses. The ultimate point is this: either Hollywood screenwriters are deeply twisted, or they’re smarter than we ever could have imagined.
Katherine Ramsland is a forensic psychologist and the author of over 60 books which you can find on her website and on Amazon.
This article was originally posted in the Moviepilot Magazine – Fear Issue.
Words Rob Boffard