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There’s an awesome new show on Netflix called Mindhunter. It’s about the development of psychological profiling for serial killers in the 1970s. The show is a fascinating examination of law enforcement’s totally wrong mindset about violent criminal behaviour for most of human history. It’s fictional, but apparently based on real events. So I’m sure that there are many aspects of the idea that are over-dramatized. However, even if the show has a small semblance of truth, the fact that the psychology of serial killers was neglected for so long is phenomenally engrossing.
Apparently, it was extremely controversial to try to understand how violent murderers think. I was surprised by this at first. But in retrospect, it makes total sense that the collective cultural mindset operated this way. We almost always fear what we don’t understand. It’s easy to write off serial killers as genetically broken. This is an example of biological determinism because it’s the mindset that our genes predetermine our entire fate. Biology does play a role in people becoming murderers, but our environments shape our behaviour, sometimes to a very large extent.
I am fascinated by Mindhunter’s insight into the burgeoning influence of sociology in examining criminal behaviour. Along with psychology and biology, this helps the main characters put the puzzle pieces of criminal profiling together. Some people are genetically predisposed toward violent behaviour. A small number of them experience profound and sometimes persistent childhood trauma. This increases their psychological tendencies toward violence. So some people are programmed to harm others. If they are abused and neglected as children, this understandably increases their angry outlook on life. This encourages some of them to be violent toward people or animals. If they continue to feel ostracized by society and have bad relationships, this vicious cycle can continue. Then, a negative feedback loop can be created. It can make some of these people into serial killers through the complex two-way relationship between genes and environment.
Another great aspect of the show is that the main characters are essentially inventing a new field. This means that they make up the terminology as they go along. They figure out that murderers can be put into different categories. These are broad and don’t account for the always important individual differences. One of the characters says, “The way people kill is as distinct as the way we have sex.”
However, there tend to be recognizable differences. One is that some murderers with multiple victims are highly organized, while others are the opposite. Some plan every detail, choose specific victims, and kill in particular ways due to complex motivations. Others are more spontaneous about when and who they murder, and are have messier methods. They don’t mythologize their kills as much.
It’s also compelling that according to Mindhunter, the term “serial killer” had not yet been invented in the 70s. So the three main characters start referring to anyone with multiple victims who kills ritualistically as a “sequence killer.” Eventually, the term is changed to “serial killer.”
Another contentious part of the show is the way that these murderers are interviewed. It shows the beginning of the shift in cultural mindsets. People are very uncomfortable with the way that one of the characters talks to a few of the serial killers. He sometimes pretends to be just as sadistic as them, and says fucked up shit to gain their empathy. He does that in a deceptively genuine way so that they trust him. Almost nobody is okay with this interview method. This is in spite of it allowing the characters to gain more insights into how these twisted people think. It’s unsettling. But it helps them achieve their goal of understanding serial killers better so they can prevent mass murder.
There is one profound message of Mindhunter that I think is crucial: Understanding people better, INCLUDING serial killers, can literally save lives. One of the characters says this in a perfectly simple way. This is one of my favourite lines in the show: “How are we gonna stop crazy if we don’t understand it?”