Warning: SPOILERS for Netflix’s Mindhunter Season 1 ahead.
Recently, Charlize Theron and director/producer David Fincher (Gone Girl) teamed with Netflix and renowned British playwright Joe Penhall to bring the fascinating world of the FBI criminal profiling unit to life. Their hunt for dangerous offenders is detailed in the new series, Mindhunter. Following two FBI agents, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Trench (Holt McCallany), as well as professor turned Fed Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), the trio maps out the psychology of murder in the most grisly manner, by cataloging the minds of people who do horrendous things.
Over the course of the show, the triad interviews serial killers, tracks down criminals, and develops the rudimentary tactic of criminal profiling. Throughout 10, slow-burning episodes, Fincher and company follow the team as they document the ugliest and most brutal “sequential killers,” in modern history. The screenplay is based on the 1995 book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit written by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. But how many of these sordid tales are the product of creative embellishment as opposed to reproduced from real life?
The Truth Behind the Mindhunters
On the show, many of the steps Ford and Tench take to help build the Behavioral Science Unit ‒ which later became the manifold Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) ‒ are given a melodramatic, scripted flare. The truth behind the FBI’s “serial crime unit” probably had a somewhat less-traumatic birth than portrayed. The fledgling department came to fruition in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, without the benefit of glamorization by procedural thriller cinema and profiler TV shows. There were probably a few raised eyebrows due to Douglas and company interviewing notorious psychopaths, as well as some heated debate about the direction and focus of the department.
On the show, chipper g-man Holden Ford is in fact based on author and profiler John Douglas, who also inspired Jodie Foster’s fed mentor, Jack Crawford, in Silence of the Lambs and Jason Gideon on Criminal Minds. Tench's character is rooted in another legendary FBI behavioralist, Robert Ressler, who worked with Douglas to mold the criminal analysis side of the Bureau initiated by Patrick Mullany and Howard Teten in the early '70s. Ressler’s also attributed with coining the term “serial killer.” Both men were key in bringing a public awareness to the psychology of murder, along with the character Anna Torv’s Dr. Wendy Carr is based on, Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess.
Dr. Burgess co-founded one of the first rape crisis centers. She discovered, alongside Boston College psychologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, that rape victims often experience similar mental trauma. Their work on the psychology of sexual assault led them to realize many sexual sadists also suffered from sexual abuse. In addition, Burgess, along with Ressler and Douglas, co-wrote the influential book Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives. Most importantly, Burgess pioneered methods to evaluate and treat victims of sexual assault and abuse.
Their work at the Bureau helped develop our modern understanding of psychopathy and serial crime, in addition to aiding in the capture of a number of brutal offenders. They also narrowed the categorization of mass murder. In history, as on the show, the agents developed a better concept of a serial killer – a murderer responsible for two or more unrelated homicides over an extended period of time, typically with a cooling off period between crimes. Beforehand, this particularly heinous breed was often lumped in with mass murderers, such as the recent Las Vegas shooter and spree killers like the Beltway Snipers who terrorized Washington, D.C. in 2002.
Their work interviewing and cross-referencing different killers allowed them to determine two different categories of serial killers: “organized” killers, who come from stabler lives and are methodical in planning their crimes; and “disorganized” killers, who strike at random and are usually mentally unstable loners. Since then, these categorizations have further expanded, while being criticized by some criminologists as too limiting. Without a doubt, their efforts paved the way for modern organizations like ViCAP (a unit dedicated to cataloging and tracking violent offenders) and gave mental health specialists a deeper awareness of criminal psychology.
While Ford, Tench, and Carr’s backgrounds are based in reality, the show also stages interviews with disturbing killers. How many of their subjects are real-life psychos?
The Truth Behind the Horror
The first killer of note, aside from the bumper segment creep (more on him later), is Edmund Kemper, aka the “Co-Ed Killer.” Kemper first came to light in the 70s due to his massive 6’9”, 250-pound frame and his remarkable sadism. He began his murderous stint by killing his grandparents at 15. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and subsequently jailed in a juvenile mental health facility for the murders. After psychiatrists deemed him "rehabilitated," he was released. Shortly thereafter, he began picking up hitchhiking college students, torturing and murdering five over the course of several years. Eventually, his rage turned inwards against his own mother and her friend, and he killed them both before being captured.
Played by Cameron Britton on the show, the non-gentle giant first appears in the second episode. His nonchalant manner as he relives his vicious attacks relates to his actual persona. Of course, Kemper is but the first of many disturbed individuals Ford and Tench interview.
Another key account, from the seventh episode, is Jerome “Jerry” Brudos, played by Happy Anderson on the show. A slayer famed for footwear fetish, Brudos' paraphilia simmered over into full-blown psychopathy. Between 1968 and 1970, he tortured and butchered four women, making plaster casts of various body parts into mementos of his odious crimes. The scripted version was actually similar to the real killer, especially his attempt to blame his crimes on migraines or blackouts (similarly, hypoglycemic episodes on the show).
In the ninth episode, the detectives talk with notorious mass murderer Richard Speck. Actor Jack Erdie captured the brash attitude of the man who tortured and killed 8 nursing students over the course of one hellish night, His “born to raise hell” tattoo – which incidentally helped the surviving victim identify him to police – also jives with his known temperament. FBI agents talk to serial killer Monte Rissell (Sam Strike), a rapist and murderer who also convinced his therapists he was improving. Responsible for killing five women, like Kemper and Brudos, he comes across as a self-pitying, woman-hater. His deadpan to the camera is bone-chilling in its dispassionate nature, something which Douglas notes in the book as well.
Additionally, the show name-drops infamous New York assassin David Berkowitz (or Son of Sam), hippie-cult leader Charles Manson, paranoid schizophrenic “earthquake” slayer Herbert Mullin, and sexually sadistic murderer Gerard Schafer, among others. As an added creepy bonus, most of the episodes include scenes of the “warming up” period of an ADT Serviceman (played by Sonny Valicenti) who bears a striking similarity to Dennis Rader. Although stylized for the show, the well-documented Rader, or BTK (for bind-torture-kill), purportedly went through similar rituals, before murdering several women and an entire family, right under the nose of his wife, kids, and community. Rader was finally captured in 2005, perhaps suggesting the timespan Mindhunter hopes to cover.
In contrast to the infamous killers, the show also features several lower-profile cases that Douglas discussed in Mindhunter. In particular, episode 8 details principal Roger Wade (Marc Kudisch), who has a perturbing fetish for children’s feet. The principal's name was likely changed for the show, but the incident is documented in the book – which even relates Ford's agreement with the school board over firing the administrator. Furthermore, the fourth and fifth episodes explore a case from Altoona, PA, where Beverly Jean Shaw was killed and dismembered by her fiance Benjamin Barnwright (Joseph Cross) and his brother-in-law Frank Janderman (Jesse C. Boyd). In reality, the victim's name was Betty Jane Shade, and her life was cut tragically short by her boyfriend Charles “Butch” Soult and his brother.
Clearly, many aspects of Mindhunter are punched up for a streaming audience accustomed to melodrama. At the same time, the series retains the disturbing flavor that accompanies cataloging the most disturbed minds in America. Carr, Tench, and Ford's mapping out criminal behavior, in order to catch other dangerous UNSUBs (or unknown subjects), follow a similar course to Douglas and his real-world FBI team. Creator Joe Penhall, Fincher, and the writing staff were shrewd to include the troubling offenders with relatively little alterations while appropriately tweaking the personal aspects of the agents' lives.
With a probable season two on the way, which would include a story arc for Atlanta child murderer Wayne Williams, Mindhunter should continue its true to life (or as much as allowed) manner. The lightly varnished "true story" also reminds audiences that reality is just as twisted and unsettling as fiction, if not more so.