“Mindhunter”: A Look into The Criminal Psychology of the 70s

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By Jocelyn Contreras

Another drama-filled cop series joins the multitude of police shows on Netflix. However, this isn’t about the cops or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), but rather the focus is narrowed to the development of criminal psychology through interviews and gruesome research on these “sequence killers,” soon to be known as serial killers, of the 70’s. Netflix’s new psychodrama, “MINDHUNTER” directed by David Fincher and written by Joe Penhall, is based on the true crime book “Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit” written by John. E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker. The show introduces how and why criminals are formed as opposed to the institutional mindset of criminals being born evil.

The series begins in Quantico, Virginia 1977, but the series takes place in many areas of the country. Hostage negotiator Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), enters the introductory scene trying to calm down Cody Miller (David H. Holmes), a criminal holding five hostages. Ford is a special agent and occasional lecturer on hostage negotiations. He teaches his class the win-win situation, which means “no body-bags.”  This is evident in the first scene where Ford asks Miller if there’s anything he wants, Miller responds by asking to see his wife. Realizing that his wife is not going to show, Miller walks out naked with a gun held against his hostage. Miller asks them if they can see him, and Ford responds, “Yes. I can see you.”

Miller puts his clothes back on, positions the shotgun under his jaw and shoots himself. Splattering his brain everywhere with his head gone, the scene ends in blood. The “criminal” couldn’t be saved, but the hostages were freed. This is what Ford’s boss referred to as a “job well-done,” but in Ford’s case, it just wasn’t enough. Ford wanted to reduce or even eliminate the number of deaths associated with a crime by understanding the criminal himself.

Unfortunately, understanding the psychology of a criminal’s mind was “for backroom boys,” said Ford’s superior. In other words, it was the psychologist’s job. Famous lecturer Peter Rathman (Jordan Gelber) teaches the impossibility of understanding the motive of a killer  at the FBI academy; however, in Rathman’s words, “there is none.”

In the early 70’s, criminal psychology was not incorporated in any investigation at the time. The criminal was viewed as evil — their psychology was ignored. Criminal profiling, identifying likely suspects and analyzing patterns that could potentially predict future offenses were unpopular, until investigators like Robert Ressler and John E. Douglas began to do just that.

Ford joins forces with FBI employee, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who runs the Behavioral Science Department.  Both of these men develop their skill set throughout the series, interviewing notorious serial killers and trying to understand their motives in order to predict suspects in other cases. Many police departments began to look to them for answers. Unfortunately, budding agent Ford personally changes as he is influenced by studying each criminal, growing  close to and easily swayed by Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), the Coed serial killer.

In an almost chilling and yet contemporary relation to today’s criminals and that of the series’ interviews, the significance of criminal psychology is still so important  today. Mass shootings that have happened in recent years have been studied extensively, bringing in much information as to the shooter’s  motives. However, the perception of the public and law enforcement has still not changed in viewing the serial killer as just that, a killer. The series demonstrates the intense firearm training and lack of hostage negotiation, or negotiation in general, which is still the method of today’s law enforcement training.

Cameras have been implemented in officers’ uniforms and Virtual Reality police simulators have been introduced to reduce police shootings, but are yet to be incorporated in all law enforcement institutions. This lack has resulted in the deaths of people like Eric Garner in 2014 or Alton Sterling in 2016, along with many more victims. This mentality to shoot the “criminal” or the detained person without hesitation is absurd and no different than the mentality these young FBI students have in the series of “no explanation, no reason,” just shoot.  

Criminal Psychology has developed since the 70’s and “MINDHUNTER” gives the audience an understanding of its significance, as well as signs to look out for in identifying suspects and criminals. Unfortunately, we have only made it so far. The show portrays the revolutionizing of criminal psychology, but now it’s up to law enforcement and citizens to take them seriously.

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