Extreme personality disorders on screen: why are people attracted?

Many modern films portray characters with a perturbingly sadistic or psychopathic side; but strangely, these characters are the most admired by the audience. Viewers tend to disregard the fact that the on-screen characters manifest obvious signs of dangerous personality disorders, and rather idolise or glorify them. While this sounds absurd, after watching many Netflix shows like ‘Vampire Diaries’ myself, I began to realise why people are attracted to the inexplicable characters; they are always interesting, and the films often attempt to depict the characters’ good side, or reflect on their saddening past to stimulate the viewers’ empathy. But what is the best explanation for the popularity of these characters? Is it due to how the show/ movie portrayed them? Or is it because of a certain feature or personality of the character?

Personal Disorders: definition and types

A personality disorder is a type of mental disorder in which you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving. A person with a personality disorder has trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people.


In reality, personality disorders are not as diabolical as TV shows and movies depict them to be. They are formed by people’s emotions and behaviours, and are mainly influenced by genetics or environment. Personality disorders range from subtle characteristics to more intense disorders like psychopathy and sociopathy. Traits can come in clusters of Cluster A, Cluster B, and Cluster C, that categorise varied types of personality traits into one group. For example, Cluster B includes antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders; this cluster is known to be the catalyst for serial killers. While personality disorders can lead to extreme cases like psychopathy, an average person that possesses a disorder can easily be treated and live a normal life. But that is not the principal case for characters on screen; many films portray characters with personality disorders as impulsive killers, sociopaths, or psychopaths that bring the viewers’ attention.

Research and its possible explanation

Many research has been done throughout the years regarding the question, ‘are women more attracted to psychopaths?’. Kristopher Brazil of Brock University and Adelle Forth of Carleton University found in their study that men who scored higher on their psychopathy and personality disorder questionnaire were rated more desirable by women. Additionally, Brazil and Forth claimed that psychopathic men are able to control their appearance and identity to others, which makes them attractive. Brazil stated, “Psychopathic men have a personality style that makes them appear attractive to women… this may be because they are extra confident or feel at ease or know exactly what to say to get the attention of women.” This usually applies in films that have characters with personality disorders, since they also display a charismatic or a kind side of them to the audience. For example, Joe Goldberg in ‘You’ is a creepy bibliophile serial killer who embodies an obsessive personality disorder, but fans of the show continue to romanticise Goldberg and are rather attracted to the character’s vile personality. Penn Badgley, the actor who played Goldberg, stated in an interview with InStyle, that the reason why the audience may be attracted to his character is his powerful, confident personality and appearance.

First of all, we’re not yet at the stage collectively where we’re able to watch anything and not ultimately glorify it. And then you cast people like Christian Bale (who portrays Patrick Bateman in American Psycho), who’s this tall, gorgeous talented young man, and he gives a great performance. The way we capture things on camera is a bit surreal. It’s made to be compelling in a way that may not be exactly like real life. In a way, everyone is always being toyed with.

Penn Badgley (Joe Goldberg in Tv show ‘you’)

As Badgley responds, fictional characters with severe personality disorders like Joe Goldberg in ‘You’, are captured on screen in an unrealistic manner to lure in the audience. He gives Christian Bale in American Psycho as an example, as the character became popular for his charismatic appearance and the actor’s performance; the fact that he was a psychopath and a murderer in the film was completely disregarded. The reason why this may be a problem is that the audience could gradually normalise personality disorders and dangerous behaviours based on what they see on-screen. What films show us, like Badgely says, are basically made to compel the audience rather than capturing reality.

What do students think?

Students at Singapore American School constantly indulge themselves in Netflix shows and movies, and presumably come across characters with extreme personality disorders. Thus, I sent a survey regarding these characters’ popularity to 14 students.

Out of the 14 survey respondents, 71.4 percent of them answered that they were once attracted to an on-screen character with severe personality disorders. When those respondents were asked to answer who the character was, many responded the same: ‘Tate from American Horror Story’, ‘Damon Salvatore from Vampire Diaries’, and ‘Ted Bundy’. Viewers may know that these listed characters have killer instincts and inexplicably intense personality disorders.

I know the horrible history of Ted Bundy, but I was still attracted to his character in the movie ‘Extremely Wicked’. I believe it was because Zac Efron played his character.

Anonymous respondent 1

Ted Bundy was a real life murderer in the 1900s that killed almost 30 women in gruesome ways; that did not stop the audience from calling him ‘attractive’, ‘charismatic’, or ‘handsome’ in his documentaries and movies. His physical appearance was highly commented on social media; similarly, most of the reasons justifying the answers in my survey were: “he is very attractive” or “the character has a soft side”.

I chose Tate from American Horror Story because he wasn’t fully an evil character. While he was a murderer and a sociopath in the show, he truly loved and cared about one of the characters and often showed his more affectionate and humane side. I also think it is because the show made him seem as an unfortunate character.

Anonymous Respondent 2

Overall, most of the respondents’ answers revolved around the attractiveness or the good-natured side of a character. In fact, 57.1 percent of the respondents answered that a character’s physical appearance is the biggest reason why they are attractive, and 28.6 percent of the respondents answered that it is due to the character’s display of an affectionate side.

What best explains the reason why the audience may be attracted to characters with personality disorders?

A potential answer and its problems

There are many factors that contribute to why characters with severe personality disorders attract a wider audience. It is often due to the characters’ physical appearance or their more relatable emotions; however, these are all factors that the films themselves are accountable for.

71.4 percent of the survey’s respondents said that they believe shows and movies often misrepresent personality disorders for entertainment purposes. In fact, personality disorders are one of the most misrepresented mental illnesses on screen, apart from depression and bipolar disorder. One of the largest misconceptions towards personality disorders come from insidious portrayals in films; while personality disorders vary according to the person, films mostly capture their dangerousness, unpredictability, and criminality. Even worse, personality disorders are sometimes manipulated for viewers to romanticise the characters possessing them for popularity, which is increasingly becoming common today.

As the film industry rapidly grows, it is inevitable that more shows and movies will continue to portray personality disorders in characters. Shows and movies are extremely powerful and capable of influencing the audience; this is more of a reason why they should lessen the misrepresentation and aspects that lead to the characters’ popularity, and rather focus on the reality behind personality disorders. Personality disorders should no longer be romanticised due to films, and neither should they be dramatised to its extremities.

Author: Yoony Kim

Yoony Kim is currently a junior and this is her first year working for The Eye. She was born in South Korea, but has been living in Singapore since she was 4 years old. Yoony has been rewatching Brooklyn 99 on Netflix for years now, and doesn't think she will be stopping anytime soon. Yoony's favorite thing in Singapore is bubble tea from Koi!! She can be reached at kim35528@sas.edu.sg.

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