If you've ever wondered what it might be like to talk to a serial killer, look no further than the new Netflix show Mindhunter. The series follows two FBI agents, Holden Ford (Jonathon Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they interview notorious serial killers in order to begin to develop better criminal profiling methods. The story is compelling when considered as a work of fiction, but it's rendered even more interesting by the fact that the show is based on a true story. In fact, Mindhunter is based on a book: Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker.
The book tells the true story of FBI agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler, who began working at the Bureau in the 1970s. In searching for a way to better combat the wave of serial murders that wracked that decade, Douglas and Ressler thought of a novel idea. They decided to go straight to the source, and interview some of the most notorious criminals in United States history, from Jeffrey Dahmer to John Wayne Gacy and many more in between. The agents hoped that interviewing these criminals would provide them with some insight into their psyches, and provide the FBI with a clearer picture of their motives. With this information, the nascent Behavioral Science Unit could develop criminal profiling methods that would help them identify warning signs of a potential serial killer and catch them before it was too late.
Their work had astounding results. For one thing, they were able to place serial killers into two distinct categories. As reported in The New Yorker, the conclusion that could be drawn from their research is that serial killers are either "organized," planning their attacks and selecting their victims ahead of time, or "disorganized", selecting their victims at random. This observation allows for specific profiling conclusions about these killers, per the New Yorker piece:
Each of these styles, the argument goes, corresponds to a personality type. The organized killer is intelligent and articulate. He feels superior to those around him. The disorganized killer is unattractive and has a poor self-image. He often has some kind of disability. He’s too strange and withdrawn to be married or have a girlfriend. If he doesn’t live alone, he lives with his parents. He has pornography stashed in his closet. If he drives at all, his car is a wreck.
This information allowed the Bureau to develop a clearer profile of what type of killer they were dealing with, and even what their physical appearance might be like. But in order to achieve these results, they had to interview a startling amount of serial killers: 36 in total, according to The New Yorker. Some of these conversations will be fictionalized in the Netflix drama, as the show attempts to recreate some of the true events described in the book.
Douglas and Ressler's work, as described in the book, also came at a particularly significant time for criminal investigations in American history. As reported by Vox, a study from Radford University and the Florida Gulf Coast University Serial Killer Database concluded that the number of reported serial killers (defined as someone who had killed two or more people on two or more separate occasions) rose sharply in the 1970s, and peaked in the '80s.
And, as reported in Slate, "The media's growing obsession with serial killers in the 1970s and '80s may have created a minor snowball effect, offering a short path to celebrity." In other words, the more that the media began to cover serial killers, the more that copycats and other criminals may have been inspired to begin killing.
This dangerous trend made the work of Ressler and Douglas all the more necessary, and they were truly pioneers in their field. Their findings solidified the Behavioral Science Unit as a core part of the FBI, and even led to numerous fictional adaptations based on their work, from Criminal Minds to Silence of the Lambs (The Atlantic reports that the character of agent Jack Crawford was based on Douglas).
Their work provided law enforcement with a template for how to identify serial killers, and maybe event prevent them from killing in the first place or killing more. However interesting the fictionalized account of these events is in Mindhunter, viewers should remember that the real mind hunters did incredible work to help make us safer and understand the minds of those who threaten that.