The real Mindhunters: why ‘serial killer whisperers’ do more harm than good | Television & radio
Uncork the chianti, serve up the fava beans, have an old friend for dinner: the second season of Mindhunter has returned to Netflix, allowing us to chill with history’s worst serial killers.
Plenty of true crime dramas claim that the misdeeds they depict actually happened, just so. But Mindhunter, which stars Jonathan Groff as special agent Holden Ford and Holt McCallany as his partner, Bill Tench, goes further. David Fincher’s series is based on the theories and career of John Douglas, founder of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and so-called “serial killer whisperer”.
Douglas’s 1995 book Mindhunter, from which the show is adapted, is full of claims that the innovative methods he established in the basement of the FBI’s Quantico base were critical in establishing modern-day thinking in criminal and investigative psychology. “If you want to learn about violent crime, talk to the experts,” he writes. And who, Douglas argues, could better understand the most debased crimes than the deviants we have already incarcerated? Under the guise of psychological research, he began to create mental “profiles” of murderers on the loose, based on interviews with the US’s worst serial killers.
In season one of the Netflix series, Douglas is depicted (in the guise of Holden Ford) interviewing serial killers and rapists Edmund Kemper, Jerry Brudos and Richard Speck. In season two, the Dictaphone rolls as we hear the insights of Charles Manson and “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz.
Long before Fincher’s series, the FBI profiler became a trope of airport literature, Hollywood movies and serialised TV series; a mythology was created around the “mindhunter” theories Douglas developed. But are these theories really all he claims? Can you hunt a mind?
Some of Britain’s top forensic psychologists think not. “To put it bluntly, Douglas’s writings should be in the fiction section,” says David Canter, emeritus professor at the University of Liverpool, who is credited with establishing the new scientific discipline of investigative psychology in the UK. “Speculations about the mind of a criminal have never helped a real-life investigation,” Canter says.
Instead, modern forensic investigators are more interested in trying to ascertain the everyday aspects of a potential murderer’s life – where they might live, who they might know, where they might work, what access they might have to transport links – rather than trying to understand the dark recesses of their mind. “You can’t knock on someone’s door and ask: ‘Where were you last Thursday and what are your masturbatory fantasies?’” Canter says. “That’s not how investigations work.”
The Freudian-based theories Douglas espouses might be fascinating to viewers, but they are rarely useful, Canter says. “It is very often of no use at all to the police how the killer got on with their mother. Many forensic pathologists wouldn’t let profilers anywhere near investigations they’re involved in, because they’re often so unhelpful.”
Dr Christopher Clark, a consultant forensic psychiatrist at Rampton high-security psychiatric hospital, who was responsible for ascertaining whether the Soham murderer Ian Huntley was fit to stand trial, is similarly unpersuaded by the effectiveness of “mindhunting”.
“I’ve learned from 30 years in psychiatry that, however much psychologists theorise about it, our motivations are largely unknowable,” Clark says. “I am more convinced than ever we will never know the motivations for that person doing that thing in that way on that day to that person.”
The idea that an investigator could stroll into a maximum security ward and quickly glean a unique insight into one serial killer by talking to another is beset with issues, says Clark. “These people have a very poor understanding of their own motivations, and they’re very poor at reading their own emotions,” he says. “If they were able to do that, they would likely be like the rest of us. They feel a great sense of tension and have sometimes killed or raped someone to ease that tension. But they’re not going to clearly tell you why they have done those things.”
Beyond the usefulness of the information available to police from talking to serial offenders, the ethics of doing so is also deeply questionable. “Those interviews [held by Douglas] were never properly conducted. Only a very small number of volunteers were interviewed. It is a very distorted sample, not carefully selected and representative. And no proper research was conducted or published on the basis of the interviews.”
The second season of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta murders, a string of 28 murders between 1979 and 1981 that culminated in the arrest of 23-year-old African American man Wayne Williams. Douglas was censured after stating to local media that Williams was “looking pretty good for a good percentage of the killings”. He made the statements before a court case found Williams guilty. In March of this year, Atlanta police announced evidence from the murders would be retested to be definitively sure of the now 61-year-old Williams’s guilt.
Douglas himself has been critical of the glut of individuals using methods like his. “The television and the internet is full of men and women calling themselves profilers, most of whom have no discernible credentials or actual experience,” he writes in Mindhunter. “Often they do more harm than good, and we’ve seen a number of cases where academic-orientated profiles have misinterpreted evidence and sent either the investigation or the defence’s strategy off in a completely wrong direction.”
This is a pretty rich statement, Canter suggests. “Douglas actively turned criminal investigations into a media event. He spotted a market opportunity and started pushing it. It was a public relations strategy for the FBI.”
The gambit has worked. Douglas is invariably celebrated as the man who revolutionised criminal psychology. The author Patricia Cornwell, for example, credits Douglas as the “FBI’s pioneer” and “a master of investigative profiling”.
Douglas’s willingness to share the grisly details of his work have made him a Hollywood celebrity. The author Thomas Harris consulted with him extensively when writing Red Dragon and its sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, both of which depict FBI agents who use incarcerated murderer Hannibal Lecter as a way to better understand the mind of the killer in their midst.
Harris has said both The Silence of the Lambs character Jack Crawford, who pushes his ingenue profiler Clarice Starling to visit Lecter, and Red Dragon’s Will Graham, the detective who hunts serial killers by tapping into a dark internal intuition, are based on Douglas. Both books were adapted into successful feature films, while Graham became the hero of Bryan Fuller’s NBC series Hannibal. Of course, Canter notes: “People forget that Hannibal Lecter doesn’t actually ever solve a crime.”
In his book, Douglas writes of developing an ability to think like the criminals he hunted. His peers claim he is more interested in his own sixth sense than in engaging in accepted clinical practice. “When I met him, he said he didn’t support research in this area because it interfered with his intuition,” Canter says.
Douglas also identifies a so-called “homicidal triangle”. Evident in the childhood of virtually all serial killers, Douglas theorises, is persistent bedwetting beyond a normal age, a fascination with fire and – the big tell – a persistent willingness to torture animals.
It is a recipe for great television. Dramatising the most dangerous deviants recounting the pain and abnormality of their childhoods makes for fascinating drama. In doing so, Mindhunter scorns the many schlocky, sensationalist incumbents of the true crime genre. But does it swim in the same pool? Undoubtedly so.
And it studiously avoids the most pertinent question. As Clark points out, plenty of people experience violence, rejection and trauma in their childhood, but don’t end up burying severed heads in the garden beneath their mother’s bedroom window. Instead, they have the strength of character to overcome.
“There’s a lot of focus on why serial killers become violent,” Clark notes. “But why do some people survive their traumatic upbringing? There’s very little focus on the other side of the coin. That, in my opinion, would be a very worthwhile study.” And perhaps good television, too.
Mindhunter 2 is available on Netflix