When thinking about the horror genre, we generally associate it with media that revolves around our fears. Whether that be a broad societal fear, a fear of the unknown, or a fear of our own subconscious, the fear that is represented in horror films is intended to resonate with the audience in order for the narrative to provoke the desired effect. Mary Harron’s psychological horror American Psycho (2000) depicts a paradoxical fear designed specifically for the quintessential white American man in the 1980s: the fear of being average while desperately needing to fit in.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is our American Psycho. A two-time Harvard grad who made it to Wall Street, Patrick is just another Valentino clad investment banker who dedicates his time to making himself feel special without standing out. In a packed nightclub full of anonymous bobbing heads and swaying shoulders, Patrick walks up to the bar and orders “two stolis on the rocks.” As the bartender prepares his drinks, he shouts at her: “a f*cking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, then play around with your blood.” The bartender remains unphased without a flinch, not even to look up at his angry reflection or smug face. He turns away and is swiftly replaced with yet another man. Nothing he can say can make him look any more outrageous than the next angry customer.
Taking us through his elaborate self-care routine (that would put any youtube influencer to absolute shame), Patrick explains that “there is this idea of Patrick Bateman” that is manifested through his physical form that is essentially an illusion, but in reality, he simply is “not there.” His conscious detachment from his ego, as in the reality of his personal identity, gives him the perspective he needs in order to assess his existence within the world – a world limited to other Wall Street investment bankers with the same resume.
Patrick is a man among many men just like him. One of his colleagues, Paul Allen (Jared Leto), mistakes Patrick for Marcus Halberstran, another investment banker at the same firm who also sports Valentino suits and the same Oliver People’s glasses. They even go to the same barber only Patrick’s haircut is “slightly better.” Paul is outspokenly confident, contrary to Patrick. He exhibits an air of arrogance and conceit. He condescends Patrick, or Marcus rather, on his “not great” account, belittling him in the shadow of the praise he receives from Baxter (Justin Theroux). To make matters worse, he announces that he has reservations at Dorsia, putting every man’s head in that conference room to shame. The cherry on top? Paul’s business card even has a watermark.
Paul Allen has everything that Patrick wants in terms of influence and status. He becomes the pinnacle of Patrick’s hatred, so much so that he decides to kill him. He takes Paul to a tacky restaurant, a major downgrade from places like Dorsia and other spots Paul might frequent. Patrick tries to shock Paul in the most matter-of-fact fashion. He tells him how he “likes to dissect girls” and that he’s “utterly insane.” As one narcissist sits in front of the other, drunk Paul doesn’t even bat an eye, he probably wasn’t even listening to this “dork” anyway.
As Patrick sets into the killing mood, he plays the song ‘Hip to be Square’ by Huey Lewis and the News. The song sets up Patrick’s entire argument for his relationship with the culture of being a young-urban-professional. He announces to Paul about the importance of the lyrics in addition to its catchy tune. “It’s not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of friends. It’s also a personal statement about the band itself.” Patrick is well aware of his assimilation into “yuppie” America, and he does find pleasure in it. But his evidently clear hatred towards Paul, for his seemingly more successful lifestyle, pushes him this far to contradict himself enough to kill in an effort to exceed his own mediocrity.
Patrick is a difficult character to assess. He’s hard to empathize with as we watch him humiliate the homeless, exploit the vulnerable, and kill small animals. He is in no way an anti-hero. He doesn’t do himself or the audience any favors through his obsessive self-indulgence, vanity, and pursuit of power while making sure to keep under the radar. However, his self-awareness is impressive. He understands his love to kill people violently, but most importantly, he loves knowing he’s being chased. We feel the eager tension between him and Detective Kimball (William Dafoe) as he’s pressed with questions of his whereabouts and gives rather vague and suspicious answers. Once the detective informs Patrick that he is essentially off his radar, the disappointment in Patrick is heavily palpable, enough to send him off on a killing rampage.
The final scenes of American Psycho bring every aspect of Patrick’s psyche together. In a dramatic pursuit, Patrick desperately runs away to his office to make a confessional phone call to his lawyer. Between sobs, he frantically lists everything he’s done, killing the innocent and his love for blood. When he confronts his lawyer in person, the lawyer believes it was a hilarious prank – “boring, spineless, lightweight” Bateman is too much of a dork to pull something like that off. We learn that the confession Patrick provides doesn’t add or take away anything to the already established idea of Patrick Bateman. The reality for Patrick is nothing. By the end of the film, there is no relief or resolution for Patrick or the audience. The entirety of the film and our experience of it becomes encased in a nihilistic sense of meaninglessness. We question the validity and credibility of our narrator’s psyche. The vulgar images of violence and violation are at most fantastical images projected onto the rather uneventful and banal life of Patrick Bateman. His anonymity ultimately renders him as non-existent, completely camouflaged deep within yuppie society.