Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Why Netflix's 'Mindhunter' Is Your Next Big Serial Killer Obsession

True crime seems to dominate so much of the media landscape lately that every time a new show with procedural elements premieres, it feels like it could be rooted in the truth. For example, Netflix's new series Mindhunter follows two FBI agents as they delve into the minds of serial killers to figure out how they think. But is Mindhunter based on a true story? There may be fictional elements to the series, but inspiration did come directly from real life: specifically, a true crime book by John E. Douglas called Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit.

Douglas' book lent the show its premise and its title, as well as its main characters. Jonathan Groff's Holden Ford is based on Douglas even though they don't share the same name, and Bill Tench (played by Holt McCallany) is based on Douglas' fellow agent Robert K. Ressler. Just like on the show, the FBI did start to profile serial killers in the 1970s as part of their Criminal Profiling Program within the Behavioral Sciences Unit, which Douglas was a part of during his time in the FBI. He was a former agent who spoke with many famous criminals like Charles Mason and the Boston Strangler, and even investigated the JonBenét Ramsay murder case.

So now that the ten-episode series has premiered on Friday Oct. 13, true crime fans might recognize a lot of details.

One trailer for Mindhunter showed Ford and Tench interviewing a real serial killer named Ed Kemper, whom Douglas did speak with in the '70s. Known later as the Co-Ed Killer, Kemper's crimes began when he was young; he murdered his grandparents at 15 years old and was institutionalized until he was 21, at which point he was thought to be rehabilitated. That was not the case. Once free, Kemper went on a spree, killing multiple young female hitchhikers before murdering his mother and her friend. He turned himself in and even requested the death penalty, but instead received eight life sentences. The presence of Kemper in Mindhunter could indicate that other real killers will be integrated into the show, but it's difficult to say this early on.


In the past, Douglas lent his expertise to film when he worked as a consultant on Red Dragon, but he's inspired quite a few fictional characters as well. FBI agent Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs was based on Douglas, as was Hannibal's Will Graham. On Criminal Minds, both Jason Gideon and David Rossi were based on Douglas. Groff's character on Mindhunter is simply the newest in a long line, proving that the impressive work Douglas did has had a lasting impact.

"I conducted the research, not from a rehabilitation perspective, but from an investigative perspective," Douglas said in an interview with the Powell Tribune about his profiling work. "It was considered innovative, but to me, it was basic. If you want to learn about violent crime, talk to the experts: the criminals perpetrating rapes, arsons, and serial homicides." The things he learned over the course of his research led to him recognize patterns in the behavior of repeat abusers, including finding supporting evidence for something called the "homicidal triangle": three factors that could help predict violence tendencies in a person. One factor was cruelty to animals, now a commonly accepted sign of emerging violence in a person, and the other two were bedwetting and setting fires.

There is a lot of real life woven into Mindhunter, but the altered names of the main characters indicate some elements of the series will still be fictionalized. But while the show might mix fact and fiction, a lot of reality did go into its creation.

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