Are psychopaths born or made? Psychologist analyzes the film ‘The Black Telephone’

‘Blackphone’the new horror film by Scott Derrickson (‘Doctor Strange’, ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’) in which Ethan Hawke gives life to a serial killer of children, has arrived on the big screen´.

A terrible but methodical criminal who is reminiscent of so many psychopaths portrayed in film and television and ranging from Norman Bates (‘Psycho’) to Hannibal Lecter (‘The Silence of the Lambs) passing John Doe (‘Seven’), Anton Chigurh (‘No Country for Old Men’), Patrick Bateman (‘American Psycho’) and now also the murderer of Black Phone, a masked criminal known as The Grabber (El Captor).

A figure, that of the psychopath and his reflection on the big screen, which he analyzed Juan Enrique SotoPhD in Psychology and creator of the National Police Behavior Analysis Section, which he has directed since 2010, and where he developed the VERA method (criminal profiling) that is used in solving cases internationally.

At an event held in Madrid, Soto shelled the different typology of these delinquentsthe phenomena (both physiological and social) that could explain their terrible acts, the working mechanisms of their twisted and dysfunctional minds, and the methods used to investigate crimes similar to those reported in the film.

And, curiously, Soto begins his presentation by ensuring that, from a strictly scientific point of view, the concept of a psychopath is discussed and debatable.

Trying to answer what psychopathy is is quite complicated, because it is a more popular concept than a scientific one”, explains the expert, who points out as a curious fact that all the studies on these profiles have been carried out on the male prison population, not the female one.

Television series, films or documentaries about serial killers have shaped an image of the psychopath that is “very deeply rooted” in the collective imagination despite the fact that, underlines this doctor in Psychology, in the scientific field “psychopathy is not considered as a mental health disorder”. Even at the judicial level, he remembers, it is not a term that is formally used in the processes either.

Psychopathy doesn’t exist as such, as a mental health disorder, and that’s largely because we don’t know exactly what it is. We know there’s something… but it’s hard to define and there is no consensus about it”, points out the expert who, as a character, exposes his very forceful and accurate definition of the psychopath: “An egoist without scruples”.


Concepts such as innate aggressiveness in human nature inhibited by fear of punishment, remorse and conscience or social norms are elements that help to understand how the mind of these individuals classified as psychopaths works.

And to the eternal question of whether the psychopath is born or made, the answer is not clear either.

If it is a biological or social question… It is a mixture. Both genetic issues and the environment in which personality develops have an influence,” says Soto, who, when listing the criteria that have traditionally been associated with psychopaths, and that have popularized their image (he does not have hallucinations, does not empathize , does not get nervous, has an external charm, pathological egocentrism, impersonal sexual life or antisocial behavior), stresses that his years of experience and the study of many cases, cast doubt on these supposedly distinctive notes. are the singularities that present the brains of psychopaths, whose nucleus accumbens, responsible for dopamine, is activated by the suffering of others. With situations or images that would give us fear or horror, in psychopaths it produces pleasure. Their brains work different”, affirms Solo, who insists that the great mystery is still to know if these singularities in their morphology and brain function are the because of their psychopathy… or if precisely because they are psychopaths their brain works differently. “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” he wonders.

Another of the most interesting questions is why the incidence of this type of cases is higher in some countries than in others. In this sense, Soto recalls how figures such as “the murderer of the Deck” or “the murderer of the Katana” go down in the history of the black chronicle of Spain for their uniqueness, while in other countries such as the United States the reality is very different… and chilling: “Here they are so few, that statistically they hardly count. But when you talk to an FBI agent, he tells you that they estimate that there will be about 50 serial killers operating in the country at any one time.”


Regarding the types of psychopaths, Soto distinguishes between primary and secondary.

“They are different in their way of being, in the functioning of their biology and in their behavior,” says Soto, who states that the primaries are those who act in a cold, calculating way and “without fear of punishment.”

This last and definitive feature has a biological explanation, since in their brains the amygdala responsible for experiencing fear is less developed than in other people. Therefore, the expert explains, if they are incapable of developing fear of punishment, their behaviors are not inhibited and they do what they want without being conditioned by experience.

His hippocampus is also very small, significantly smaller than that of other people and, therefore, they do not learn. Their fear quotient is very low. What we still don’t know is if they have a small amygdala and hippocampus because they are psychopaths, or they are psychopaths because they have a small amygdala and hippocampus,” Soto insists again, stressing that this primary psychopath would be “the model of murderers that would fit more with the movies” in figures like Hannibal Lecter or the murderer of ‘Black Phone’.

In the case of the secondary ones, they are psychopaths who act on impulse and, although they do learn from their experience and do feel fear of punishment, the problem here is that they have “low tolerance for boredom” and that “their desire is so powerful that they cannot be controlled.”

They have an amygdala and a hippocampus just like other people. That is, they experience fear and learn. But in this case, their desire is so powerful that nothing stops them”, points out El Soto, who emphasizes that this type of murderer is usually more violent and more “sloppy” since, by acting on impulse and without planning their crimes, they tend to leave more tests, they make more mistakes and are therefore easier to catch.

But as in the case of the primary ones, this brain dysfunction that secondary psychopaths present in that “older and more emotional” part of our mind does not fully explain their behavior either. And, the expert points out, “not all extremely impulsive people end up being serial killers.” “It can give them for other things, for risky sports, for example (…) We still have a lot to learn and we have to analyze it on a case-by-case basis,” he concludes.

Director scott derrickson Return to terror with this Blumhouse-produced film, starring four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke and based on Joe Hill’s award-winning story included in the book ‘Ghosts: The Past Isn’t Dead, It’s Not Even Past…’ .

A sadistic killer kidnaps Finney Shaw, a shy and intelligent 13-year-old boy, and locks him in a soundproof basement where his screams are useless. When a broken and disconnected phone begins to ring, Finney discovers that through it he can hear the voices of the previous victims, who are determined to prevent Finney from ending up the same as they did, “says the official synopsis of Black Phone.


Are psychopaths born or made? Psychologist analyzes the film ‘The Black Telephone’