As a lecturer in forensic psychology, one of the most popular topics I often talk about is that of psychopathy. It is characterised by shallow emotions, deceitfulness, manipulativeness, and a lack of empathy, remorse, and guilt. Not surprisingly, given these characteristics, psychopathy is strongly correlated with criminal behaviour and violence. But psychopaths can also appear to be very charming, intelligent, and articulate, like the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy.
I’m going to make the assumption that at the very least, you’ve heard of Game of Thrones (GoT). It’s insanely popular, and while there are many reasons for its popularity, no doubt one of them is the complexity and diversity of its range of characters. So, I hope to bring together two of my greatest interests, forensic psychology and Game of Thrones, using a fictional character to illustrate real psychological concepts.
Ramsay Bolton (or Ramsay Snow, as we were initially introduced to him) is the protagonist of this piece, surely one of the show’s most infamous characters. So what psychopathic characteristics does Ramsey exhibit?
Violence and sadism
Ramsay is exceedingly violent, as we’ve seen on many occasions, and his House sigil is a flayed man… But he’s not just violent; he also really seems to enjoy inflicting pain and fear on other people. This is textbook sadism (sadism describes a person who derives pleasure from the control, domination, and suffering of others), and there is a strong relationship between sadism and psychopathy. There are many examples of Ramsay enjoying the suffering of others, such as his gleefully prolonged torture of Theon (S3), or his ‘hunting’ of a girl named Tansy with his hounds (S4 E2). There’s also the particularly grisly murder of his stepmother Walda and her infant son, as he locks them in the kennels with his starving hounds (S6 E2). There is also a relationship between psychopathy and sexual violence, which is characteristic of Ramsay, as he repeatedly rapes Sansa (S5 E6) and engages in violent sex with Myranda (S5 E5). In that same scene with Myranda, Ramsay tells her that: ‘Jealousy bores me. You remember what happens to people who bore me…’, incidentally proneness to boredom is also a characteristic of psychopathy.
Deceitfulness and manipulativeness
People with high levels of psychopathy can be deceptive an manipulative, and are often rather good at it. We can see these characteristics in Ramsay’s behaviour, such when he initially deceived Theon by pretending to be a servant sent to rescue him (S3 E2). But the ‘rescue’ is a set up, and after Theon tries to make his escape, Ramsay brings Theon back to the Dreadfort and imprisons him again. Ramsay then takes great pleasure in psychologically (and physically) torturing Theon (S3), to such an extent that Theon becomes ‘Reek’, a compliant and submissive servant and shadow of his former self. Ramsay also uses his master manipulator skills on Jon by sending him the ‘pink letter‘, which contained a direct threat to Jon’s younger brother Rickon. Presumably Ramsay hoped that Jon’s desire to protect his younger brother would serve as the catalyst for Jon to leave Castle Black (and we all know how that turns out… #BotB).
Some psychopaths are also incredibly good at hiding their true characteristics and intentions, it has been said that they wear the ‘mask of sanity’. This is why they can appear (superficially) charming, intelligent, and articulate. When we first met Ramsey (S3) it was in the very convincing guise of Theon’s heroic ‘rescuer’. And in Series, 5 Episode 3, he looks the picture of innocence when he tells Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish of his intentions towards Sansa: ‘I’ll never hurt her. You have my word’. He was also charismatic enough to woo Myranda (but then, he did feed her to his dogs after her death).
So let’s summarise: Ramsay is responsible for many gruesome deaths (three just in his own family); he has engaged in sadistic torture and violence like flaying people alive or feeding them to his dogs; he is deceptive and manipulative, but somehow oddly charming; and he has a record of sexual violence. And yet throughout all of his time on screen, Ramsay has rarely shown any signs of empathy, and any remorse or guilt over his actions. I think I’ll leave the last word to the man himself:
If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.
– Ramsay to Theon Greyjoy (S3 E6)
While this article is intended to be informative and research-based, it focuses on purely fictional characters.
Dr Jennifer Drabble is a Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, and a chartered psychologist (CPsychol) with the British Psychological Society. She has a BSc (Psychology), MSc (Forensic psychology), PhD, PGCert (LTHE), and is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her research interests focus on forensic mental health, with a particular focus on self-harm and personality disorders. She also has research interests in investigative psychology and cybercrime.In her spare time, she Twitters too much and is a massive fan of Game of Thrones.