The Following, a television series starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, presents as a riveting psychological thriller filled with senseless murder and mayhem. Purefoy plays Joe Carroll, a one-time professor who is obsessed with the works of Edgar Allan Poe. He ends up in prison following a literary-driven killing spree that only Ryan Hardy (Bacon) was able to crack. It seems like it’s all over for Joe – until events unfold that reveal an elaborate cult filled with people who believe that murder is beautiful, as well as the only way to make your life matter.
While Joe Carroll is a purely fictional character, his methods raise interesting psychological questions. How could someone build a highly effective murder cult with members from all walks of life? How could one charismatic leader bind them together, going against what most experts agree is basic human nature? The answer lies in Carroll’s unique character, uncanny people skills and precision methods.
Who is Joe Carroll in The Following?
Joe Carroll is a highly intelligent, thoughtful professor who captures the hearts and minds of his students. While this is usually a good thing, it’s turned to malicious uses with Joe Carroll’s students – and, one soon discovers, many other followers as well. Using Poe’s works as a backdrop, Carroll pursues what he believes to be a poetic career in murder. After his capture, he encourages each of his followers to create their own “chapters” based on whatever form of murder inspires them. His one major failing is that Carroll must have an audience. After shooting Ryan Hardy in the heart and ending his FBI career, Carroll continues to draw Hardy into every facet of the sordid tale.
Unique psychological elements in Joe Carroll’s character
If one were to put a label on the character of Joe Carroll, it would probably be that of malignant narcissistic personality disorder. He’s self-aggrandizing, plays his own oh-so-witty game, and absolutely must be the center of attention. Far from coming across as a self-centered a-hole, though, Carroll has the attentiveness and intuitive senses to find exactly what each person needs. By providing those needs, he is then able to manipulate them into not only committing murder, but believing that murder is a good and beautiful thing.
Why Joe Carroll is a believable murder cult leader
Whoever cast James Purefoy did a perfect job – no one could play this maniacal, cold-blooded killer nearly as well. Why? Purefoy plays the perfect gentleman. His unassuming demeanor and piercing gaze make it easy to see why the world’s misfits would listen and follow him. They’re not all obvious misfits, either – Carroll’s uncanny ability to feel out people’s insecurities and give them everything they want is what allows him to assume complete control. While each of his actions is cold and calculating, it never comes across as such. Carroll himself seems like a warm, sensitive character with a deep sense of compassion for his followers.
The most terrifying aspect of Joe Carroll’s character is, quite simply, that such a man could exist. In fact, his character seems quite similar in many respects to such men as Rasputin, Hitler, and Charles Manson. Such a person would likely be a case study with at least a dozen psychiatric labels, yet in another setting could have been hailed a military hero or political genius.