The real history behind Netflix’s new criminal profiling drama Mindhunter

The new series from Fight Club director David Fincher has a dark history behind it – find out more about the story and the book that inspired the series

Mindhunter

Legendary director David Fincher’s new 10-part TV series Mindhunter is now available to watch online on Netflix.

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The dark drama follows the real-life development of the FBI’s forays into criminal profiling in the late 1970s.

The story is based on a true crime book by John E. Douglas called Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, in which the former FBI man details his experiences with the Behavioural Sciences Unit (BSU) and the creation of the ‘Criminal Profiling Programme’. This programme involved him conducting interviews with notorious serial killers and rapists including Charles Manson and the Boston Strangler, and working on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case.

The drama follows agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) – the former is based on Douglas – as they develop the ideas that will become the tenets of the profiling system.

Here is everything we know about the reality – and the myths – behind the story of Mindhunter.


What is criminal profiling?

An investigative tool used to narrow down the list of potential suspects of a crime, which you may have seen before in Criminal Minds, or any of the Hannibal Lecter films. It involves drawing up a “profile” of the likely offender – for crimes more complex than ‘Colonel Mustard with a candlestick in the library’ – based on the nature of the crime, how it was committed, and, if discernible, why.

The type of criminal profiling in use today is accomplished with the help of a wealth of information about the psychological backgrounds of offenders, compiled by profilers in an effort to understand what can cause someone to commit a seemingly random or senseless crime.

Psychiatrist James Brussel is credited with the first successful use of criminal profiling, after he aided police officers in the capture of the “Mad Bomber”, who was responsible for three explosions in New York the 1940s and 50s. As the story goes, frustrated detectives called upon Brussels – who had previously acted as a consultant for the FBI – in 1956, with a stack of case materials and left with an accurate description of their man, down to the detail that he would be wearing a buttoned-up, double-breasted suit.

Who is John E. Douglas?

Despite Brussel’s best efforts, criminal profiling did not reach the FBI until the 1970s, when Douglas – an agent in the Behavioural Sciences Unit (BSU) with an MSc in education psychology – and his mentor Howard Teten launched the bureau’s own criminal profiling programme. This involved travelling around the US and interviewing serial killers and rapists in an effort to understand how the criminal mind works.

Over the course of a 25-year career in the FBI, he worked over 5,000 cases and interviewed some of the most heinous serial offenders in US history, including Charles Manson and the Boston Strangler.

Douglas has written about his experiences in the Bureau in several true crime books with co-author Mark Olshaker, and served as the inspiration for the character of Jack Crawford in Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels and films.

He served as a consultant for Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon film, which starred Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes and Edward Norton. Check out a video featurette from the film’s DVD release below, in which Douglas discusses his beginnings in profiling and the psychology of Hannibal Lecter.

Does criminal profiling really work?

While understanding criminal psychology is evidently a helpful tool in law enforcement, the reality of criminal profiling is much less glamorous, and significantly less effective.

In the 1990s, the British Home Office analysed 184 crimes and found that profiling worked only five times – a success rate of 2.4%. A similar study, by a group of psychologists at the University of Liverpool, found that several of the FBI’s assumptions which are integral to the profiling system – that crime scenes fall into one of two categories, organised and disorganised, and that certain crimes correspond to certain types of criminals – are incorrect.

“The fact is that different offenders can exhibit the same behaviours for completely different reasons,” Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist who has been critical of the F.B.I.’s approach, tells The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell in a long-form piece which unpacks the myths surrounding criminal profiling.

In his piece Gladwell relates the ambiguous language used by criminal profilers, which can support “virtually any interpretation”, to that of psychics and fortune tellers.

“The ‘hedunit’ [Gladwell’s tongue-in-cheek terminology for a mystery tackled with criminal profiling] is not a triumph of forensic analysis,” Gladwell says, “it’s a party trick”.

Who is Edmund ‘the co-ed killer’ Kemper? 

While it is unclear how many real-life criminals feature in the series, the latest trailer has revealed that Jonathan Groff’s character will interview serial killer Edmund Kemper at some stage.

*The details of Kemper’s crimes are not for the faint of heart – though, neither is Mindhunter – so look away now if you are reading this at bedtime.*

In 1963, at the age of 15, Kemper murdered his grandparents, and, believe it or not, it gets much, much worse. Diagnosed by court psychologists as a paranoid schizophrenic, he was sent to a mental institution, only to be released at the age of 21 after convincing psychiatrists that he was fully rehabilitated.

In 1972, the 6′ 9″, 17-stone man went on a killing spree, picking up young, female college students, dismembering them and performing sex acts with their remains. He turned himself in in 1973 after murdering his own mother. He is currently serving eight life sentences in a California prison – where the real John E Douglas interviewed him in the late 1970s.

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Mindhunter is available on Netflix UK. Watch now