Elizabeth Bathory is special in that she is the only known female sexual sadistic serial killer without a dominant male partner – to this day, more than four hundred years later.
She started on her own with her husband away at war, learned additional battlefield torture techniques from him when he was home visiting, and (after his death) commanded a troop of servant accomplices to carry out her tortuous deeds.
The descriptions of the alleged tortures she inflicted on her victims pathologically fits a sadistic power-control or sexual lust murderer, particularly in her choice of young female victims and her desire to bite them on the shoulders and breasts.
PSYCHOPATHY: a developmental disorder marked by emotional deficits and an increased risk for antisocial behavior.
Most of us have heard the terms ‘psychopath’ or ‘sociopath’ used when describing an individual’s abnormal behavior; however, these terms are not present in the DSM. Instead, the mental health’s official handbook uses the term antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).
Antisocial personality disorder, often referred to as sociopathy, is a mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. To formally diagnose ASPD, signs and symptoms must be present before 15 years of age (although the diagnosis can’t be made until the individual is at least 18 years old).
Contrary to popular belief, psychopaths and sociopaths are not necessarily violent.
While it’s true that some with ASPD can be violent, the vast majority of sociopaths use manipulation to get what they want. Psychopathy is a scale. Just like many disorders – there’s a range from mild to moderate to severe. Coldblooded killers are at the very end of the spectrum.
SOCIOPATHY: refers to a pattern of antisocial behaviors and attitudes, often arising from environmental factors.
Sociopaths are characterized by dramatic and volatile behavioral patterns. These individuals often have emotional outbursts and a lack of self-control. They demonstrate no regard for societal rules but can form attachments to other individuals and typically enjoy being around other like-minded people. Aspects of nature (the person’s biology and genetic make-up) influence the development of sociopathy, but environmental causes (like early life experiences or trauma) are the trigger for the disorder.
This means that someone can’t just suddenly become a sociopath later in life (except in the rare case where an individual receives a traumatic brain injury to the paralimbic system). Instead, they are born – one – containing the makings of the condition with the people and events in their life determining whether it develops.
Psychopathy can be thought of as a more severe form of sociopathy with more symptoms. Therefore, all psychopaths are sociopaths, but not all sociopaths are psychopaths.
While sociopaths are often made by their environment, psychology researchers believe that psychopaths are just simply born (though a chaotic or violent upbringing may tip the scale for those already predisposed to behave psychopathically). The brain of a psychopath differs from the brain of a normal person, and of a sociopath, suggesting that psychopathy might be related to physiological brain differences. Research has shown that the component of the brain commonly thought to be responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control is underdeveloped in a psychopath’s brain.
However, Craig Neumann, a professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Texas (whose singular research focus has been on the psychopathic personality and its traits) states, “just because the amygdala shows hypoactivation does not make you a psychopath.” Professor Neuman furthers his statement by saying “biology is not destiny”. In fact, according to Neumann, the true definition of a psychopath is actually fairly narrow: “Broadly speaking, psychopathy refers to a pathological personality style that is interpersonally deceptive, affectively cold, behaviorally reckless and often overtly antisocial.”
Neumann says an individual must possess traits to each of the following four ‘domains’ to qualify:
- Interpersonal: They’re manipulative, deceitful and/or narcissistic
- Affective: They lack remorse, are callous and may take pleasure in hurting others.
- Lifestyle: They’re impulsive, may use illegal substances, and may have disregard for the consequences of their actions
- Antisocial: They are physically aggressive and may have a history of or tendency toward criminal behavior.
The main difference between psychopathy and sociopathy is whether the individual has a conscience. Because, while it may be weak, sociopaths do still have a conscience. Psychopaths do not.
ELIZABETH BATHORY: SOCIOPATH OR PSYCHOPATH
It’s likely that Elizabeth had antisocial personality disorder, a diagnosis that only focuses on the behaviors of an individual. Yet to understand the psychopathology of an extreme version of this disorder, it’s important to examine the mechanics behind the behaviors; thus, bringing up the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture.
Elizabeth Bathory is a great (time-specific) example of the potential manifestations of genetic, biological, psychological and social factors; and how they specifically develop and influence a particular disorder.
Was Elizabeth Bathory born evil or is she a product of a medieval world?
Elizabeth stands at the halfway point in the medieval world of aristocratic serial killers. She lived in an entirely different civilization: the ancient agrarian world where most people were illiterate and isolated in the countryside. Royalty separated themselves from the commoners to such extremes, that they inadvertently passed heredity diseases through their bloodlines while trying to ensure no “common” blood sullied pure, aristocratic lineages. This caused birth defects and mental illnesses to run rampant in royal families from Russia to Portugal, leading to some very odd royal behavior throughout the centuries.
The Bathory family was no exception to this. For instance, Elizabeth is not the only ‘Transylvania vampire’ in her family. She is remotely related, through marriage, to Vlad III (also known as Vlad Tepes or “Vlad the Impaler”), whose nickname is based on his favorite method of execution and is the inspiration behind Dracula. Her brother was alleged to be just as evil, and her uncle and father were known for subjecting the commoners to various forms of terror. Additionally, there are multiple sources alleging that Elizabeth may have witnessed the rape and hanging of her two sisters during an especially vicious riot; and then watched as their murderer was put on a hot iron throne and burned to death.
Due to this, an assumption can be made suggesting that Elizabeth may have had a predisposition for developing a mental disorder; and her family’s violent history exacerbated it, causing the onset of antisocial personality disorder.
Additionally, her ability to maintain friendships and connections with like-minded individuals support the assertion that Elizabeth is a sociopath. However, her complete lack of conscience hints at another pathology.
While we can’t say for sure what the exact biology of Elizabeth’s brain was, we do know that she had a severe form of epilepsy; most likely from a result of her genetics. Epilepsy is a central nervous system disorder in which neurological activity becomes abnormal, causing seizures to occur within the brain. While they can occur anywhere in the brain, in children, specifically, they frequently occur in the temporal and frontal lobes [which is involved in vision, memory, judgment, emotional expression, sensory input, language, problem-solving, comprehension and sexual behaviors].
Seizures taking place in these specific areas can produce strong emotions. So, Elizabeth’s outbursts of anger and fits could have been in response to the constant misfiring happening in her brain (during a time when medicine was not as evolved). This, in combination with her social environment, could be the underlying catalyst for her development of the disorder. Additionally, recent research has demonstrated that certain forms of emotional stimuli can provoke seizures in susceptible individuals with epilepsy. Also, Video-EEG and MRIs have found the amygdala to be enlarged in some patients with TLE (Tokyo 2018).
Elizabeth’s recurring seizures may have permanently affected her ability to process emotion, inhibiting her ability to learn the appropriate responses to trauma or develop empathy towards others.
Additionally, Elizabeth Bathory displayed behaviors associated with each of the four domains confirming the classification of her as a psychopath, whose environment only influenced the presentation of the disorder.
- Blair, R. James. Psychopathy: cognitive and neural dysfunction. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. 2013 Jun; 15(2): 181–190
- Dugre, Peter. Royals Who Suffered From Heredity Mutations And Defects Caused By Inbreeding. Ranker.
- Fuller MD, Kristen. The Difference Between Sociopathy and Psychopathy. Psychology Today. 2019.
- Peterson, T. Sociopath Causes: the Making of a Sociopath, HealthyPlace. 2015.
- Tracy, Natasha. Psychopath vs. Sociopath: What’s the Difference? HealthyPlace. 2015.
- Blakenship, Adam; Johnson, Keisha; Baker, Ashley; Blowe, Amy. Elizabeth Bathory “The Blood Countess” Radford University, Department of Psychology. 2006.
- Heaney, Katie. My Life As a Psychopath. The Cut. 2018
- MassGeneral Hospital for Children. Childhood Epilepsy: The Brain. https://www.massgeneral.org/childhood-epilepsy/overview/brain.aspx
- Epilepsy. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/epilepsy/symptoms-causes/syc-20350093
- Tamune, Hidetaka; Taniguchi, Go; Morita, Susumu; Kumakura, Yousuke; Kondo, Shinsuke; Kasai, Kiyoto. Emotional Stimuli-provoked seizures potentially misdiagnosed as psychogenic non-epileptic attacks: A case of temporal lobe epilepsy with amygdala enlargement. Epilepsy & Behavior Case Reports 9 (2018) 37-41.
- Vronsky, Peter. Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters. 2007