The Psychology Behind the Netflix Series Mindhunter

02 July, 2020
Mindhunter is a fascinating series that gives real insight into some of the most important advances in criminal profiles. Find out more in today's article.

Applying psychology to the development of a psychological profile has, in many cases, been key in resolving many cases. In addition to this, we can get to know common behavioral patterns in the world of crime. This helps to create better ways of dealing with offenders, while, at the same time, improving our crime prevention programs. The Netflix series Mindhunter has used this as its inspiration.

The importance of psychology in criminology may seem obvious to us today. However, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that two FBI agents named John E. Douglas and Robert Kenneth Ressler began the fight to bring psychology into investigations.

They interviewed several criminals, with the help of psychology doctor Ann Wolbert Burges. As a result, they were able to create psychological profiles of some of the bloodiest killers in the United States. In fact, Robert Kenneth Ressler himself coined the term “serial killer”.

The story behind the series Mindhunter

FBI Agent John E. Douglas worked as a sniper and hostage negotiator for several years. He then moved to Quantico, Virginia, to the Behavioral Analysis Unit. There, he taught criminal psychology to incoming agents and veteran police officers.

Douglas was never content with the training available in this field at the FBI and wanted to learn more about the criminal mind. He felt that this knowledge could shed light on many investigations. Therefore, he managed to convince his superiors to allow him to attend university classes that dealt with the latest investigations. He felt that this would offer them a new perspective in analyzing cases.

At this time, he met Robert Kenneth Ressler, a detective, who, like Douglas, was interested, in the study of criminal profiling. Ressler was traveling around the country giving talks to police officers to help them investigate unsolved crimes.

A scene from Mindhunter.

A meeting at the FBI

Thanks to a meeting at the FBI’s Quantico facility, the two agents agreed to investigate nationwide cases together, in order to incorporate some of the findings into the criminal behavior analysis study. In addition to this, they interviewed some of the country’s biggest serial killers in prison.

At first, the police chief was reluctant to take on the project. However, later, and in light of some of the crimes solved by the agents’ new insights, the FBI not only authorized the project but supported it with increased funding.

They were able to carry out the interviews with better resources, and with a greater theoretical foundation. This was, in large part, due to the expertise contributed by the doctor in psychology, Ann Wolbert Burges.

From the research and interviews with criminals came the idea for the books Sexual Homicides: Patterns and Motives and the Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes. These were both written by John E. Douglas and the Netflix series Mindhunter bases its premise around them.

Douglas and Ressler are reflected in the series by the characters of Holden Ford and Bill Tench; psychologist Ann Wolbert Burges goes by the name of Wendy.

The Mindhunter killers

Throughout the first season of Mindhunter, a mysterious character appears in several episodes. Because of his resemblance and the criminal method he uses, we can take this person to be Dennis Rader, who killed 10 people over 20 years and wasn’t arrested until 2005. We don’t know how this story will develop in future seasons.

However, if there’s one character that really stands out in the first season of Mindhunter, it’s Edmund Kemper. He’s Holden’s first interviewee and is masterfully played by Cameron Britton. Also known as “the Schoolgirl Killer”, Ed Kemper murdered more than 10 people, including his grandparents, his mother, and a friend of hers.

This killer loved to talk and give interviews. This made it possible to get to know how he carried out the murders and to understand why he acted the way he did. His great insecurity in establishing relationships with other women and the difficult relationship he had with his mother triggered his sadistic tendencies.

Richard Benjamin Speck is another one of the chilling killers reflected in this fictional series. We could consider him to be a mass murderer rather than a serial killer, as he committed several murders at the same time in the same place. He shocked American society when he murdered eight nursing students in a college dormitory in Chicago in just one night.

Benjamin Franklin Miller is the perpetrator of the “bra murders”. He was imprisoned for murdering at least four women between 1967 and 1968. After driving them to his private garage, he killed them and created photo shoots with their bodies, inspired by adverts and images from the popular culture of the time. The shoe scene is probably the most surreal of all the agents’ encounters with criminals.

Some conclusions from Mindhunter‘s first season

If anything, this first season of the series Mindhunter makes it clear that criminals and serial killers often have several characteristics in common. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a person with these characteristics will always commit a crime. However, if there are antisocial tendencies in the person, this will make it more likely that the person will end up in trouble with the law.

It’s clear that a person’s environment and surroundings have an influence, but many of the killers who appear in the series were already showing signs of cruelty at a very young age. We know that they tortured animals, beat their brothers and sisters, or showed disturbing behaviors at school.

This suggests that psychopathy, as many psychiatrists and psychologists claim, is innate. Data obtained with neuroimaging techniques seem to support the theory that, in these people’s brains, the connection between emotions and decision-making is weaker.