American Psycho: how violent is too violent?

I’m a huge fan of violent, darker, books and TV shows. For example, one of my all time favorite TV show is Dexter. I love Dexter. I love the questions of morality, philosophy, and psychology that Dexter constantly provokes; not to mention I’m just a lover of a good bloody mystery. I love The Black Dahlia, and stories of Jack the Ripper and the Ax Murderer of New Orleans. And it’s not that I love the gore of it; it’s that I love the social and moral aspects of it; it’s such a taboo subject and yet we as humans inherently find death/gore to be fascinating; from the beginning there have been gladiator battles in giant arenas, bull fights in Spain, bar fights in Tijuana. Now, just flip on any television or go to the theater and you’ll be instantly saturated in violence. And it’s that social fascination with the gritty and gruesome that fascinates me. In a creepy/interesting way, it makes me feel like we’ve all got a little bit of sociopath in us.

But let’s continue, shall we. Of course, most of us are not as familiar with Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho as we are with the movie that is based off the novel; starring the amazing Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman; a character forever remembered for his impeccable sense of style, his business cards, and his blood covered raincoat.

To be fair, the movie is pretty accurate as far as it’s reflection of the written narrative of Patrick; a man who starts out the book pretty normally (as normal as he can be, anyhow), with business dinners, shallow complaints about his shallower girlfriend, and an acute sense of style/the ability to  undress people, financially. At first, the subtle insertions of rather violent innuendos/suggestions are almost unnoticeable; if you’re reading quickly you’ll miss them completely. Then of course they become more obvious; they are no longer jokes.

And then of course, the infamous prostitutes scene that is filmed so horribly and thoroughly in the Christian Bale version; we are given irrevocable evidence that Patrick Bateman has a very messed up mind. And it was at this point that I began to feel surprised at myself. While I’m a pushover when it comes to romances, too many years of watching Law & Order, Cold Case, Dexter, and CSI:NY has generally enured me to hard-violence. But gradually, the graphic descriptions provided in American Psycho filled me with anxious, disgusted grief. I was surprised at myself; a little bit shocked.

I mean, of course, I wasn’t surprised by the violence itself; because obviously this is a book about a psycho serial killer who tortures and cuts up women. But I guess the difference between this, which sickens me, and Dexter, which fascinated me, is the purposefulness of it all. At least in Dexter, while he kills people, he follows a strict code of only killing those who truly deserve it; the bad guys, the villains. Here, we see Patrick Bateman killing for the fun of it, without rhyme nor reason, and he is just so damn cavalier about it. For example, here is the excerpt of his confession on the phone: “…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this—and I have countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing….”
Unlike the books we are so used to reading; there is no redemption here; no salvation. He ends with saying that all of his self-discovery and confession, which we generally take to be part of the climax of any other ordinary novel, means absolutely nothing. He has not changed; he will continue to kill people and cut them up until someone stops him. But as we see, no one does. He continues on this path without anyone believing him whatsoever. Even his confession gets laughed at, or his open statements, said with what is mistaken for sarcasm but is actually bitter truth. Like when he says, “I’m into, oh murders and executions mostly. It depends.” or “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” These confessions are utterly ignored by everyone around him.

So, in reality, is this really a story about a psycho serial killer that we read with sickness and disgust, or is it a story about how people are fascinated with violence; enough to pick up a book about a psycho serial killer? Is it a story about a man who is losing his mind? Or about the people around him who’ve lost theirs, to the point that they cannot see reality as it is, even when it stares them in the fact? To steal one more line from the novel: “Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?” Is he evil himself? Or is it killing people that makes him evil? And am I evil for reading it? Or am I evil all on my own? Are his ‘friends’ evil themselves? Or are they evil for the things they refuse to do?
You tell me.

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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