American Psycho: A Post Modern Horror
In the cult horror film American Psycho directed by Mary Harron, and originally a novel written by Bret Easton Ellis, we can see a post modern rendering of a classic ‘slasher’ horror film. Through elements in the film such as having it narrated and shown from the point of view of the main character, serial killer Patrick Bateman, we are given a psychological analysis of him that blurs the line between the human and the monstrous. Through its historical settings and anxieties as well as references to other works of art in music and film we see its critique of the 1980s young urban professional culture.
With this blurring of fiction and history we can see the consumerism that created such a character through an excess of wealth, greed and jealousy. Through its ambiguous ending we are given a story that blurs the lines between reality and fiction and with an inconclusive ending it shows the insanity of one who lives out his horrific repressed desires but still cannot distinguish fantasy from reality. Each of these aspects along with its many references to past serial killers, fictional and historical, elements of the yuppie culture and ambiguous twists shows this film to be a post modern portrayal of a serial killer and a monster that would look normal to any human eye.
Patrick Bateman’s Disguise
The majority of post modern aspects in American Psycho can be seen through the main character Patrick Bateman played by Christian Bale. This character, though completely human, can be seen almost as a modern day vampire. There is nothing supernatural about him and though he is human the way he thinks makes him anything but as he states, “I have all the characteristics of a human being: flesh, blood, skin, hair, but not a single clear identifiable emotion except for greed and disgust.” Patrick works out and sculpts his body rigorously every morning as well as taking overly good care of his skin. This is “Because I want to fit in,” he says and this in some ways makes him more horrifying than most stereotypical serial killers. This is because his image is an illusion and an appealing one which can draw in his victims, as Jaap Kooijman and Tarja Laine write in their essay “Bateman embodies both the well-groomed image of the Wall Street yuppie and the gruesome image of a serial killer” (46).
As most post modern horror films such as the 1980s film Psycho suggest, there can be monsters among us even within our own homes or in Bateman’s case where we work, even ones with normal appearances. A scene which effectively links these two aspects together is when he is taking off his herb mint facial mask which looks as though he is removing his skin to reveal his true identity. During this scene he states,
“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 sense our lifestyles are probably comparable. I simply am not there.”
From this quote and the very fact that the film is seen from this character’s point of view, as well as being narrated from his own thoughts, the film gives a somewhat post modern psychological analysis of his character as he slowly undergoes his transition into a serial killer. This is expressed as he states, “Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly blood lust has over flown into my days. I feel lethal on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.”
We also see this disguise as he goes from picking out suits for camouflages, skin creams in his bathroom, to picking out murder weapons, knives from his pantry. However we are not fully aware whether he has been killing this whole time or that it has just now started to slip up into his real life; his repression coming out into the open. This is shown in the film as he starts bringing in quotes from past serial killers into his everyday conversations. He references murderers such as Ted Bundy and Ed Gein who inspired characters for the Hannibal films, as well as admitting his actions to his co-workers which they take only as jokes or simply mishear what he is saying; an example being him saying “murders and executions” which is mistaken for “mergers and acquisitions.”
The many references to other works of art in American Psycho are another element of post modernism. This is also connected with Patrick’s mask of sanity and his need to fit in. In order to seem normal or have anything ordinary to talk about with his co-workers, as well the escort girls he tries to entertain before killing, he listens to and reads about many different music albums and musicians. References are given to Witney Huston, Phil Collins and he even kills his co-worker Paul Allan with an axe to the song by Hewey Lewis and the News; Hip to be Square. These songs and artists, as well as always mentioning famous rich people, show how hollow his mask of sanity really is. This music also tells something of the materialistic times which the film is set in, as Brian Lavery states when mentioning the origin of Ellis’s character in an interview, “Robert Martin Ellis (Bred’s father) may have died a year after he served as the inspiration for Patrick Bateman, American Psycho’s yuppie serial killer” (1).
The blurring of history and fiction is a common sign of a post modern narrative and in American Psycho there are many references given to the times of the American yuppie culture. Yuppie stands for young urban professional and was a common lifestyle of the young, rich and powerful in and around the 1980s. The fact that Patrick is one of these, almost destined to be one by his upbringing and his “father practically owning the company” that he works for shows the entrapment of his true nature. This is stated as the author Bret Easton Ellis says, “The murders are fantasies, ways of escaping the culture he’s trapped in.” He even says himself that his only reason to keep his job is to fit in. It is also his freedom of having money and jealousy of his co-workers that leads him to most of his self corruption, many of his murders being prostitutes and the poor, which shows a simple critique of this time.
By the scene when he is chasing one of his escort girls, which he names Christie, she runs into a room where there is “die yuppie die” smeared in blood on the wall. Through this we can see the extent of his self loathing. It is this scene in particular that also makes an important reference in the film and at the same the time expresses a very important critique. Earlier in the film we see him doing stomach crunches while watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the scene with Christie running away from him he runs after her with a chainsaw as though inspired by this. This shows Patrick’s inability to distinguish fantasy from reality and it is this element which goes on to show how truly psychotic and insane he has become. The fact that the yuppie culture and this historical blurring takes place also shows the anxieties of this time. However unlike most horror films where the fears and anxieties come from a place unknown, with the main character being the serial killer himself the anxieties behind American Psycho come instead from the viewer’s own urges within, mainly the repression of their horrific fantasies.
We are Patrick Bateman
The anxieties behind American Psycho are of giving in to ones desires and fantasies no matter how horrific they may be. The ‘slasher’ genre of horror fiction as Adam Rockoff Jefferson states, “is not taken very seriously among film historians; film critics and many horror film fans hold it in disdain. Considered the bastard child of the horror film, no other type of film has the bad reputation that the slasher film does.” (450). However in this genre where the killer’s identity is usually unknown until the end, American Psycho gives a post modern approach to this where not only is he revealed from the very beginning to be the killer but that the film is seen from his point of view.
Because we are seeing it through his eyes, unlike the fear of being murdered the main fear the audience experiences is not the thrill of a threat for ones life but instead a thrill of the threat of getting caught. This gives the viewer the feeling that they themselves have committed these crimes. The following is same with the drug culture of the time as it shows Patrick and his co-worker sniffing cocaine in the men’s bathroom at a night club, a line behind them ready to do the same as though it is nothing out of the ordinary. Because of writing this even Bret Easton Ellis had been under suspicion as in an interview Richard Ousounian states, “Bret Easton Ellis began this interview with a visit to the men’s room. On his return, there were no telltale sniffles or traces of white powder, but it raised the issue of how he felt about the world keeping him under constant surveillance.”
The fact that Patrick Bateman pretends to be normal as a cover for his true motives brings out the fear that our own personal fantasies and secrets maybe discovered. Many times in the film Patrick’s face is blurred by a screen, a bad reflection or even by having it partly smeared with blood which expresses the idea that we can not truly understand his desires let alone our own. Patrick Bateman is not a normal human with moments of insanity; Patrick is insane with moments of normal humanness. This can be seen when he represses his urges and decides not to kill his secretary, Jean, but it is at this moment in the film where he starts committing more and more murders.
The fact that Patrick’s desires are so grotesque shows how monstrous he is; from playing with people’s body parts to eating parts of their brains as Martin Rogers states,
“Aside from its own “formal” expressions of the monster-function, one would expect a monstrous body (or perhaps a figure of embodied monstrosity) to appear in the text – some locus of horror to be identified, in Carroll’s words, “in terms of threat and disgust” The source of the novel’s repulsive overkill is ostensibly Patrick himself, though he is a handsome and financially successful yuppie. Describing Patrick as a monster is a solely moral-critical act based on his homicidal behavior” (231).
This can show the possibility of how far someone can fall because of repression as he states, “I need to engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale. It cannot be corrected but I have no other ways to fulfill my needs.” The effects of Patrick’s repression finally comes to a climax when he cannot distinguish fantasy from reality; the main twist at the end of film revealing that he may not have even taken part in these murders at all.
Product of the Times
In many respects this film shows a critique of materialism and consumerism as well as, to a further extent, sexism. Patrick is always trying to own expensive things and eat at expensive places, in particular the restaurant Dorsia which he can never get a reservation at. Even right after killing Paul Allan he is shocked to find out that his apartment is more expensive than his own as he states in his narration, “There is a moment of sheer panic when I realized that Paul’s apartment overlooks the park and is obviously more expensive than mine.” However it is this consumerism which connects with his fetishes, even at the beginning what we assume to be blood is actually some kind of sauce going on some exquisite dish. This links in at the end where instead of consuming foods, furniture or music CDs he instead resorts to be consuming people for the rush of killing them and going so far as to try and cook and eat one of his victims brains.
It could be seen that consumption is the only thing that excites him now that everything he may need in the lines of money is simply at the tips of his fingers, killing people giving him excitement money cannot buy. This consumerism is also shown in his need to buy escort girls to fulfill his sick desires as many of his murders, like many serial killers in the past, are prostitutes. Martin Rogers states,
“Many critics who note the influence of horror-video on American Psycho use slasher films to emphasize Patrick Bateman’s empty consumerism, misogyny, and narcissism to express Patrick’s exploitation of/violence against otherness or to indicate the consuming/hegemonic nature of finance capitalism/ corporate yuppiedom” (231).
Feminist Response to the Film
This film also garnered criticism from feminist perspectives; many women believing the film and even the original book to be sexist because of its graphic violence towards women. Ironically one of the feminist activists for the books release was Gloria Steinem who is the stepmother of Christian Bale, the man who played Patrick Bateman in the film. However, there were also female supporters of the book as Alison Kelly states, “critics rave about it, academics revel in its transgressive and postmodern qualities, and for all the angry charges of misogyny, it has prominent female defenders, including Fay Weldon, who called it “beautiful, careful, important” and (no arguing with this one) “seminal”.”
An entire scene from the film is dedicated to Patrick and his friends talking down on women as they say in unison such things as “There are no girls with good personalities” before high-fiving each other. This shows the hypocrisy of Patrick’s mask as earlier on in the film Patrick delivers a speech on values and equal rights for woman. It is this change along with Patrick’s mutilated drawings of woman in his date book which shows the critique of the sexist culture in this time.
Post Modern Ambiguity
Not being able to distinguish fantasy or dream from reality is another aspect of a post modern film. Throughout the film the identities of the main characters are constantly being swapped around and mistaken for other people as critic Tony Rayns states in his review, “identikit personalities lead to recurrent cases of mistaken identity, intense emotional crises are triggered only by fears of losing status in the food chain.” An example is the fact that the first co-worker we see him kill, Paul Allan, mistakes him for another co-worker and constantly calls him by the name Marcus, even going so far as to insult Bateman right in front of him because of it.
This swapping of identities can be seen primarily through the passing around of business cards in which they all take pride in; Patrick in particular is driven to kill a homeless man after he realizes that Paul Allan’s card is better than his own. In the climax of the film where he kills multiple people and a few policemen, he rings up and confesses all his crimes to his lawyer. The next day when he goes to the apartment where he had hidden all the bodies, they had all been cleared out, the apartment had been painted and it smelt strongly of flowers as though to hide the smell. When he asks about it he is told strangely to leave, leaving him questioning if the events had even happened.
This ambiguity in film grows when he tries talking to the lawyer he had left a message on the phone to who states that it was a joke, that he had talked to Paul Allan a few days ago and constantly calls him Davis, even stating in front of him that, “Your story had one fatal flaw, Bateman is such a dork.” Parallel to this scene it shows his secretary, Jean, finding his date book with the drawings of his many different murders and mutilations. This raises the question for both the audience and himself on whether he actually committed these murders or if they were all in his head. This shows the blurring of reality in this post modern film to the point that he says, “my punishment continues to elude me and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession had meant nothing.”
We are not told whether he committed these crimes and they were covered up or if they had all been in his head and his note book to begin with as Ellis himself states when talking in an interview, “Whether or not he actually killed all those girls is left open in the book.” Being left without the knowledge of if he did or did not commit these crimes, if they were reality or fantasy, leaves the ending intentionally open showing the post modern element through its ambiguity.
Despite its controversial nature and horrific content, American Psycho is a near perfect example of a post modern horror. Not only does it break common treads in horror archetypes and structure but its critique of consumerism and materialism gives the film a post modern complexity as an analysis of both an insane character and a time in American history. This complexity can be seen dominantly through the ambiguity of its ending which questions the line between fantasy and reality in the film.
Its references to works of art in and around the time of its setting as well as the style of the film itself shows a critique of the 1980s yuppie consumer culture while blurring the line between history and fiction. Its references to other serial killers, whether it be fictional in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or in reality with the people who inspired them such as Ed Gein and Ted Bundy, shows a blend in the genre of fiction and real life.
Most importantly is the fact that this character gets away with it. Because of the inconclusive ending, not understanding whether he committed these murders or not due to his manipulated view of reality we are given a complex ending not for entertainment but to open up levels of thought on whether these fantasies make him guilty or not, and in turn, ourselves for our own fantasies.
Adam Rockoff Jefferson, Going to Pieces: Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, Weiner, Robert G, Journal of Popular Culture, November 2004; 38, 2; Proquest, Pg450
Alison Kelly, Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easten Ellis, The Observer, Sunday 27 June 2010
Brian Lavery, Psycho therapy;Literature, The Sunday Times, 6 November 2005-Jaap Kooijman and Tarja Laine, American Psycho: A double portrait of serial yuppie Patrick Bateman, University of Massachusetts Lowell, 20 Feb. 2008, Pg. 46
Martin Rogers, Video Nasties and the Monstrous Bodies of American Psycho, Literature/Film Quarterly 39.3, (2011); 231-244
Richard Ouzounian, My dad, Patrick Bateman; Author’s issues propel oddly personal new work, Toronto Star, 18 September 2005
Tony Rayns, Tony Rayns is the editor of Wong Kar-Wai, Copyright British Film Institute, May 2000-Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, Vintage Books, New York, 1991
Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Journal of Film and Video: Women in Film, Princeton, University of Illinois Press; 1992, Pg260
Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1989), (http://people.virginia.edu/~jrw3k/enwr/1067/readings/Jameson_Postmodernism_and_Consumer_Society.pdf)
Graham, Elaine L., Representations of the Post/Human Monster, Aliens and Others in popular Culture, Rutgers University, March 2002 ,Pg. 288
American Psycho directed by Mary Harron (Lion’s Gate Films 2000)
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