The Actors Playing Psychopaths Should Stop Acting Autistic
The new Netflix series Dahmer is a great hit for turning the story of a serial killer into a strong social critique of social injustices. It is able to direct the audience’s attention to the cracks in the system that has in turn nurtured behavioral issues Jeffrey Dahmer was dealing with towards turning into a serial killer - who also, thanks to the same cracks, continues getting away with a number of murders.
Despite the series being written with a strong sense of social critique, something I find quite valuable -as opposed to simply focusing on the gruesome details simply for a good show, I would like to point out a recurring mistake I observe with the way characters such as Dahmer was portrayed on the screen.
When we are watching the Netflix series, we observe the character Dahmer played by Evan Peters be somewhat robotic, with a series of difficulties in connecting to other individuals, with an asocial vibe around him. His smile is controlled, his face is flat, his eye contact is frozen -if not nonexistent. In fact, the actor seems to be acting more like an autistic person than a person without any conscience or remorse.
What signifies a person without conscience would not be the frozen dead look in their eyes, as often portrayed on TV. What signifies a person without conscience would be the childish positive vibe around them, which is also why they often have a luring effect on other people. It is almost as if they would look hopeful and innocent, rather than ‘creepy’. They are a lot more relatable than assumed. Which is why individuals without conscience can gain trust a lot faster than we might assume.
Why would anyone who is (or about to be) doing something wrong have such a positive vibe otherwise?
However, in fact, a wrongdoer without any conscience would always appear more confident and trustworthy than a rightdoer with strong self-critique.
Hollywood often misses this crucial distinction. Most of the time, the actors and actresses depict sociopathic and psychopathic characters more like individuals with autistic traits. That was also the case with the way Benedict Cumberbatch has carved his character Sherlock, who is presented to the audience as a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ yet the character seems to be processing data more like an autistic individual. That information, combined with a flat face and blunt expressions, has resulted in a number of people discussing the character Sherlock to be autistic as well.
One excellent exception to such a series of acting errors would be Jodie Comer’s acting of Villanelle in Killing Eve. Comer was excellently carrying the luring positive vibe of innocence (when the character wants to).
I am less concerned with Dahmer’s diagnostic traits and more with how he was depicted by Peters with a flat and somewhat creepy face. His resting face curated into a distant and cold one, and not positive and acceptable, as we see in photos of the actual Dahmer. He can easily lie (kudos to the script-writing team) yet we are left unconvinced how he could so easily lure so many partners to his home with a resting face that cold and distant. That is because the actual killer would have a trust-inducing vibe with a positive light on his face, something we easily observe in the various photos before and during his trials.
One of the issues with poor depictions of such characters is that we are left clueless about how such characters can pursue their acts for so long. We do know that sociopathic individuals are also charismatic. They have entertaining, comforting, and even trust-inducing abilities. That also makes us accomplices. Every time we let a problematic act carried by a charismatic individual, we do become accomplices. In contrast, every time we object to a suggestion or act carried by a person with tension on their face (be it due to stress, autistic traits, or a simple bitch face), we again become part of a culture that prioritizes or privileges care-free behaviour, aka poor conscience (or lack thereof).
It is in this culture of socialisation that the serial killer Dahmer is (mis)depicted, as a character with facial expressions a lot closer to an autistic individual, than an individual who lacks a conscience.
Any autistic individual would be able to tell you the challenges they face when trying to socialise, and how they do mirroring to not be misjudged or misunderstood. Often, they are bullied for looking awkward and that is the very awkwardness that was depicted in the new Netflix series.