The True Story of a Man who Pioneered the Science of Profiling Serial Killers

The True Story of a Man who Pioneered the Science of Profiling Serial Killers

Review on Mindhunter – An Original Netflix Series adapted from the book “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit” by John E. Douglas.

A look at the origin of the series


Mindhunter is based on a nonfiction book by John E. Douglas, one of the first criminal profilers in the U.S who interviewed Charles Manson and David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) .
Mindhunter is loyal to the 70s culture of the FBI in the most uglier ways.
Traveling the country to interview some of the most notorious criminals in American history was the idea of John E. Douglas, in order to understand their criminal psychology.

Douglas’s great insight was to recognize apprehended serial killers not as monsters to be thrown down a deep pit and forgotten but an untapped reservoir of knowledge.
And he wanted to interview convicted murderers in order to find the “why” of their act and not the only the “how.”

The creation of the term “serial killers”

The ritual murderers of the 1970s had a profound impact on American culture. Thus, in 1977, the FBI tried to understand a new wave of depraved killers.
Through the 70s-80s, Douglas estimated up to 50 serial killers were operating in the USA at any time.
And it was in the ’80s where the nation’s first computer database of unsolved crimes was created, which helped capture those who crossed state lines as they killed.

Mindhunter: Holden Ford on the left side / John E. Douglas on the right side

FBI agents’ aim was to better understand the psychology of serial killers and use information they learn to catch future criminals.
In the book of Douglas, we see that he uses details from these interviews by a criminal psychology in order to sketch the personality of a serial killer. It is striking to know that many of the murderers he interviewed had similar backstories and cited similar motivations.

The main question during the Mindhunter series was:

“How can agents stop crimes being committed when they don’t understand why they are happening ?”

We can learn about serial killers while reading the book

  • They are manipulative, which is an obvious point but as in an interview at this moment, it is important to keep in mind that serial killers will tell to the police whatever they need in order to stay out of prison. For instance, Douglas interviewed serial killers that were able to convince psychiatrists of their recovery but they were in fact killing multiple people in between their weekly appointments.
  • Serial killers could demonstrate signs as children. When Douglas studied their background, he discovered that they often exhibited three behaviors that he identified as “homicidal triangle”:
    • Bed-wetting beyond a normal age
    • Cruelty to animals
    • Fire-starting while young
  • Early childhood fantasies can develop into dark realities. “Probably the most crucial single factor in the development of a serial rapist or killer is the role of fantasy. And I mean this in the broadest sense.” says Douglas. Actually, a murderer seen during the series, Edmund Kemper, at a young age, fantasized about domination and possession about girls and eventually about killing them.
  • Many serial killers show interest in law enforcement as a career. During the interviews made by Douglas, many of the serial killers tried and failed to become police officers and instead were night watchmen or security guards. According to Douglas: “A policeman represents power and public respect, a killer feels that he is authorized to hurt bad people for the common good.”
    Serial killers rarely attack the people they most resent but they will gift them trophies taken from their victims. Indeed, it “relives the excitement and stimulation of the kill,” Douglas has declared.
  • Serial rapists and murderers are motivated by their need for control. At first sight, it seems always to be senseless crimes, but serial killers are always motivated by something else. Key motives for such killers are identified as domination, manipulation and control. The main reason is that killers feel powerless or inadequate and kill in order to feel powerful.
Bill Tech from the show on the left, Robert Ressler in real life on the right,

The end of the season with a case that really happened

In the first season finale of Mindhunter, we can see FBI’s agents solve a case using methods gleaned from their conversations with serial killers. Douglas writes about this case in his book, making clear that it was his first chance to stage an interrogation.
Douglas used tactics in his interrogation and FBI’s agents led to the suspect’s confession.

As information, another book is recommended, as it was written in the same period, in 1988. Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, a breakthrough study of serial killers.

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