Sexy Psychos: The Evolution of American Psycho

By Linus Coersmeier

The 1991 novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis follows the incredibly suave and successful Patrick Bateman through about two years of his life on Wall Street as it revels in the economic boom of the 1980s. The name may have given a bit of insight on this fact already, but the novel and its subsequent film (if you didn’t already know), released in 2000 are incredibly violent and paint a bleak picture of investment bankers like Bateman. Ellis portrays him as a man who though seemingly successful in almost every monetary and traditional measure, is deeply unhappy. He attended the best schools, always got the prettiest girls, got the best job at his Dad’s company, but even with his great intellect and abilities he can’t seem to see the faults in his own hollow values. The author spends page after page describing the psychotic thought process of the elitist murderer, from his intense daily self-care routine to his torture of innocent homeless people, colleagues, prostitutes, and other helpless victims.

The film adaptation with a budget of  $7,000,000 grossed a respectable $34,000,000. Not to downplay the economic success of this film, but the critical and popular reactions to it are more notable. Christian Bale, starring as Patrick Bateman was widely celebrated for the way he exemplified his theatrical abilities in the hour and a half long movie. He does an amazing job of showing the meticulous insanity of Bateman, rather than purely portray him as an incapable, out of touch mad-man, he does Ellis a great justice by demonstrating the character’s complexity. Complex in the duality of the lives he leads, one as a regular-seeming businessman prospering and one as a cold-blooded killer whose only solace is found in the trail of lifeless victims he leaves behind him. These two sides of the man are brought together by the consistent yearning for social approval, an approval he tells himself is merely necessary in order to maintain secrecy in his life of extreme gore and abuse. 

Furthermore, whether you believe that we are born immoral, saints or a blank slate it’s no secret that we, as humans are prone to violence. Whether it a sibling, a friend or something as conceptual as laws, there’s something in us that wants to fight, wants to challenge and wants to conquer. This is one of the primal instincts that has seemed to manifest itself throughout the millennia. Of course, there are natural incentives to fight: food, mates, territory, the list goes on, my point is that no matter how much we love to claim that we’re above the bloodshed of the animal kingdom, we remain beasts at heart. It’s clear to see in our culture, we play first-person shooters, we watch people get beaten to a pulp in the UFC, and we echo the violent sentiments of our favorite rappers. Violence is not only in our blood, but it is also glorified by the entertainment and performers we idolize. Moreover, there is something inherently powerful about fighting, the tangible and easily comprehensible dominance that is achieved when one is victorious over another. Death as well, the finality and consequence that proceeds a fight ending in the most extreme of all, the end of the very earthly essence of someone. Lastly, not only is violence eye-catching and interesting considering the potential effects, but it is also intertwined, as aforementioned with what we are drawn to, what we admire and most primitively-what we find attractive, or sexy.

Finally, when I began to read this book I was excited for the violence, I wanted Bateman to claim victims and to spread terror around New York, it’s what I expected from the book. Ellis knew exactly what I and the other readers who have bought the whopping million copies of the book in the United States alone were thinking when going into American Psycho. He gave us what we wanted, but he made sure that we didn’t get to revel in it in the same ignorant and blameless fashion that we do with so many other forms of violence, or seemingly pro-violence media. What I mean is that the author made his readers wait for the murders, he makes us wait for what we came for and then when he did write about the horrid acts of his main character, he didn’t make it enjoyable. In fact, the deeds of Bateman are so repulsive in the novel that we are forced into the retrospective mindset we seem to so adamantly fight by consuming so much bloodshed without acknowledging the repercussions and aftermath of it all. After the killings start, they never seem to end in American Psycho, pages and pages of a banker with a deep hatred for his fellow man, doing things that could only be done by someone who has never known genuine love. He is the embodiment of the critical awareness we lack in what we take in, the personification of every hideous reality that we turn a blind eye to for the excitement of watching fights and violence. Patrick Bateman is the epitome of the successful womanizer that our capitalist society loves and the fact that we embrace his violent tendencies until we are forced to acknowledge their true gore shows what a toxic culture we feed into with this mindset. All in all, instead, let us be more critical of what we accept as a society and embrace art that invokes passion without poison.

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