So I’d been reading a little about psychopathy when I saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off again. It turns out, that the true hero of the film is one Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students. Only Rooney recognizes Bueller as a pernicious force that will certainly create great suffering and perhaps death later in life. A lone crusader, Rooney goes well beyond the duties of his job in an attempt to hunt down and destroy a budding monster. He is the Van Helsing to Ferris Bueller’s Dracula, the Dr. Loomis to his Michael Meyers. That’s because Bueller is a textbook psychopath. Let’s use the esteemed criteria of Robert D. Hare, the man who largely fathered the modern diagnosis and study of psychopathy.
The PCL-R is a clinical rating scale (rated by a psychologist or other professional) of 20 items. Each of the items in the PCL-R is scored on a three-point scale according to specific criteria through file information and a semi-structured interview. A value of 0 is assigned if the item does not apply, 1 if it applies somewhat, and 2 if it fully applies. In addition to lifestyle and criminal behavior the checklist assesses glib and superficial charm, grandiosity, need for stimulation, pathological lying, cunning and manipulating, lack of remorse, callousness, poor behavioral controls, impulsivity, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions and so forth. The scores are used to predict risk for criminal re-offence and probability of rehabilitation.
So far, Bueller fits the criteria better than John Wayne Gacy. Let’s move onto the actual checklist.
Factor 1: Personality “Aggressive narcissism”
* Glibness/superficial charm
Here’s a slam dunk. Bueller charms everyone, save his sister and Rooney, who can see through him. Though charming, his interactions with others are almost exclusively glib and superficial and rarely based on engaging with someone sincerely. What he understands about the people in his life, he uses only to manipulate them for his own benefit.
* Grandiose sense of self-worth
“Bueller. Ferris, Bueller.”
* Pathological lying
While Bueller constantly lies to get his own way, he also lies just to toy with people, another example of his need to demonstrate his superiority. For example he tells nameless classmates over the school pay phone that he might be dying and needs a kidney, prompting a massive fundraiser for his phony illness, diverting charity away from people who might need it and towards satisfying his narcissism.
Look at Bueller’s relationship to his own parents. He doesn’t feel a bit of emotion towards them, but uses them as pawns to get what he wants (except a car). He mercilessly toys with and manipulates the tenacious but outmatched Ed Rooney, one example being the George Peterson call he makes with Cameron.
* Lack of remorse or guilt
At one point in the film, after crashing Cameron’s dad’s car, Ferris offers to “take the heat” because he feels it’s too much for Cameron. This is just a manipulation, though. What better tactic to escape free and clear? He tells Cameron he is too weak to handle the heat, thus cajoling him into taking it, while offering to sacrifice himself, thus demonstrating what a good guy he is. No other ploy offers Bueller any chance to both pin all of the blame on Cameron, yet keep him as a stooge. Moments later, he has moved past any feelings of guilt he might have had and is busy convincing Sloane that they’ve done Cameron a favor by exposing him to an increased level of child abuse.
* Shallow affect
While he is good at mimicking and mocking emotion, we rarely see any authentic emotional reactions, even in serious situations. When feigning illness or emotional injury, as when Cameron makes to leave for home after Bueller kicks him, Bueller’s speech and affect usually have an underlying sarcasm.
* Callous/lack of empathy
Perhaps Ferris’ worst moment comes when he manipulates his best friend, Cameron into allowing the theft of his father’s rare Ferrari, with the justification that they need a nice car for a particular ruse. Cameron points out that his dad knows the odometer reading. Ferris doesn’t care and suggests running the car in reverse when they get back, knowing full well that this wouldn’t work (he even says so later). Cameron suggests renting a town car or limo, which, by the way, would have the added benefit of allowing Cameron to ride comfortably rather than being wedged into the backseat of a small sports car. Ferris has no concern at all for the welfare of his best friend and, in fact would prefer to seem him in an emasculating position. So, he refuses, due to a slight preference for the Ferrari to a Limo. Later, Bueller convinces Cameron to leave the car in a cheap, unsafe parking garage rather than with a safer service, merely because he values saving some time and a few bucks over the interests of his friend.
* Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Because the film is a psychopathic fantasy, Bueller is rarely put in a position to accept responsibility. The closest case is the destruction of the Ferrari, already discussed. Though Bueller is almost entirely responsible, he dupes Cameron into taking responsibility and forgets about it. If he won’t accept responsibility for seriously harming his best friend, it’s obvious Bueller would not accept responsibility if he were caught hacking the school computer, or tricking other students into having a fundraiser for his non-existent, terminal illness.
* Promiscuous sexual behavior
There are suggestions that Ferris is widely admired by the school vagine pool. However, all indications are that he is loyal to Sloane. Bueller lacks the sexual deviance and promiscuity often linked to psychopathy, unless he has a mad fetish for bad actresses. His ridiculous marriage proposal is interesting though. It doesn’t seem to be meant as a joke, but he’s not serious either. She points out the reasons they are too young to marry, which hadn’t seemed to have occurred to him, and he just kind of moves on to the next thing.
The fact that Bueller scores so highly on the first factor, aggressive narcissism, tells us that he is probably a case of primary psychopathy, meaning psychopathy is his root condition and probably biological, as opposed to being caused by other disorders or a poor environment.
Factor2: Case history “Socially deviant lifestyle”
* Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
Bueller is obviously a classic case here. He ditches school chronically; and when that gets too boring, does so in a stolen Ferrari. Researchers estimate that 80% of Ferrari owners are psychopaths, which helps to explain Bueller’s obsession with the car.
* Parasitic lifestyle
Well, he’s a high school kid so, to some measure this is inevitable. He clearly manipulates his parents for favors beyond what is normal. His primary reason for calling his best friend in the beginning of the film is the need for a car. The tendencies and habits are there, but this is not yet a lifestyle.
* Poor behavioral control
Clearly. Even in the tightest of situations, when he is caught posing as “The Sausage King of Chicago” in a restaurant and has the chance to bolt, Bueller will persist. A more elaborate explanation of this trait is that the downfall of psychopaths is often either that they simply don’t consider getting caught, if they are stupid, or that they overly brazen due to their belief in their own superiority, if they are smart, like Bueller. This is why Bueller has the audacity to pick up Sloane in front of the school, with Rooney present, and then jam his tongue down her throat in full view even though he is posing as her father. If only Rooney weren’t as hapless as he is heroic, Bueller would have been undone before second period.
* Lack of realistic, long-term goals
Let’s go back to the marriage proposal. It’s based on nothing, having not planned at all for the future, or how they would sustain themselves as a family. He’s clearly a guy who thinks in the short term. Bueller does, however, plan to go to college where he will no doubt major in business. And isn’t having realistic, long-term goals in high school abnormal? It’s simply too early to tell on this one.
Again, take your pick. Proposing marriage because the thought popped into his head. Stealing Cameron’s dad’s car. And would even the BTK killer have the stones to take over a parade in downtown Chicago?
This is another tough one, because Ferris seems to have his shit together. It would be easy to give him a 1 and just assume he looks after his school work just enough and does his chores around the house or whatever. But the question is “is he somewhat irresponsible or strongly irresponsible?” Not, “is he completely negligent?” Clearly, the answer is that he is strongly irresponsible.
* Juvenile delinquency
Well, I’ll go hard on Bueller on this one and easy on the next. The kid isn’t knocking over liquor stores, but he’s a white collar criminal in the making if ever there was one. It’s 1986 and he’s already hacking. He’s habitually truant, steals a car, drives like a maniac (which I say as someone who got nabbed doing 103 in 55 as a kid), commits fraud and seems to be years ahead of the curve on identity theft and every form of technological deception available. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty, but that’s just because he’s smart and exists in a wealthy, suburban environment. Disagreeing with me would make you a racist.
* Early behavior problems
I might be mistaken in giving Bueller only a one here. My reasoning is that there are kids with worse behavioral problems and he isn’t out torturing animals and starting fires. However, many psychopaths never directly inflict physical harm on anyone. Business and politics are two of the fields in which many researchers say psychopaths can thrive, and harm thousands and occasionally millions without so much as throwing a punch. Intelligent psychopaths usually only turn to serial killing and such when they are denied the positions of power they think they deserve. That’s why Rooney could turn Bueller into a serial killer by ruining his life. But better a serial killer than a Senator. So I’m not sure his chronic manipulation, cheating and lying are less of an indication of psychopathy than some dumb kid who sticks fire crackers up cats’ asses. Still…
* Revocation of conditional release
This is only somewhat applicable. Among other things, Bueller is never caught. But when he is in an analogous situation–he has 99% of what he wants and could get away free and clear, he will take on huge risks to get the remaining 1%. At the film’s climax he is bolting home to a clean get away with only seconds to spare, yet he stops to chat with some tail. His every desire must be completely satisfied and he will never allow the fear of negative consequences to factor into his decision making.
Traits not correlated with either factor
* Many short-term marital relationships
Again, there is indication that Ferris could sleep with every girl in his school if he chose to, and perhaps some past promiscuity. But he seems to take far less advantage of that than the average high school boy would. On the other hand his arbitrary proposal to Sloane and his casual attitude about her reluctance portend some poorly thought out and short term marriages. As with the parasitic lifestyle, Bueller is too early in life to have earned a two.
* Criminal versatility
Ferris seems to be primarily a con man and a thief. No sex crimes, no violence, but a range of hacking, cons, thievery and fraud.
Total Score: 31/40
Bueller’s score is impressive. A score of 30 is considered clearly psychopathic and, from what I can gather, is pretty uncommon. Erase the ease and privilege of his environment, and his young age, and he might score even higher in categories like “parasitic lifestyle” and “criminal versatility.” Rooney might be kind of an authoritarian prick himself, but then so was his doppelganger, Dirty Harry. Only Rooney can see the danger Bueller poses, especially as he has established a strong influence over other students. I’ve already mentioned it, but Ferris seems like a natural for politics (especially in Illinois) and the idea of him holding a powerful position is terrifying.
While Bueller cavalierly risks life, limb and jail for his own gratification, Rooney does the same in order to thwart and stifle a young psychopath. He would have succeeded too, if only Bueller’s dingbat sister hadn’t caved in at the end. Now Ferris will continue unimpeded and, by 2014, he will be voting to escalate drone attacks because of campaign contributions from Lockheed Martin. And he won’t lose a wink of sleep over it.