towards the end of his career with the FBI, celebrated serial killer “whisperer” John E Douglas arrived home from work to discover his wife had cut her knee. Rather than rush to help tend the injury, he was instinctively drawn to the spattered blood – analysing the angle at which it had splashed on the carpet for evidence of foul play. Everywhere he looked, he saw dark deeds and twisted minds.
Douglas’s groundbreaking work profiling and consulting some of the most notorious serial killers of the past 40 years is the inspiration for Netflix’s absorbing true-crime drama Mindhunter (loosely adapted from Douglas’s 1995 book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit), which returned for a second season this week.
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As fresh-faced new kid on the block at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, the softly -spoken native of Brooklyn – renamed Holden Ford in the series – was instrumental in expanding our understanding of murderous psychopathy. He even coined the term “serial killer”. It’s a compelling story – one that, in the hands of Mindhunter producer David Fincher, makes for grisly, gripping television.
But it is far from Douglas’s first time on screen. He was extensively consulted by Thomas Harris when the crime writer was researching The Silence of the Lambs, prompting Harris to create the character Jack Crawford – head of the FBI behavioural science unit at Quantico – and portrayed by Scott Glenn in the 1991 Jonathan Demme movie.
He is also credited with inspiring the version of Harris’s recurring hero, Will Graham, in Bryan Fuller’s eerie and criminally short-lived Hannibal television series. Fuller went so far as to burden his agent Graham (Hugh Dancy) with the same brain inflammation condition which, beaten down by stress and overwork, Douglas, now aged 74, suffered late in his time at the FBI.His screen immortality was further enhanced by the long-running Criminal Minds, with two FBI profilers, Jason Gideon and David Rossi, explicitly based on Douglas. He also worked as consultant to Peter Jackson on queasy dead teenager drama The Lovely Bones (2009).
Douglas’s great insight was to recognise apprehended serial killers not as monsters to be thrown down a deep pit and forgotten – but an untapped reservoir of knowledge and insight. Who could better understand, and decipher, these debased crimes than the criminals perpetrating them?
Through the 1970s and 80s, he estimated up to 50 serial killers were operating in the US at any time. With so many unhinged individuals on the loose – and with traditional criminal profiling incapable of diagnosing why they murdered – he took the unorthodox (as it was regarded within the FBI) decision of going straight to the source.
Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Edmund Kemper – the first murderer introduced in Netflix’s Mindhunter – were among the killers whose confidence he gained. Douglas had a natural talent for charming these men. In season two we meet Charles Manson, who Douglas first met at San Quentin State Prison in northern California; during their first meeting, the diminutive former cult leader sat on the back of his chair so as to loom over the taller Douglas. The FBI agent let it pass.
He understood that what Manson craved more than anything was control. In appearing to cede dominance to the criminal, he was able to win his trust.
“I conducted the research, not from a rehabilitation perspective, but from an investigative perspective,” he told the Powell Tribune newspaper in 2015. “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.”
A pattern quickly emerged. Serial killers were invariably the product of abusive childhoods. More often than not, they had a love/hate dynamic with their mother (strangely fathers were not often a negative influence). “Most of the people we interviewed came from some type of a dysfunctional family,” he said.
In Mindhunter this is gruesomely illustrated with the case of Edmund Kemper, who beat his domineering mother to death, defiled her severed head and then – in order to silence her forever – ripped out her vocal chords and threw them in the bin. Douglas identified a serial killer “homicidal triangle”. Again and again, murderers had a history of bed-wetting beyond a normal age, of setting fires and – this the key giveaway – of sadistic behaviour towards animals. “It’s almost as if the serial killers all read the same book,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “They do the same kinds of behaviour.”
His pioneering techniques soon made him the first point of contact for police forces, in America and abroad, on the trail of devious, deviant killers. He was consulted on the Yorkshire Ripper case and helped track down Robert Hansen, the Alaska ‘Butcher Baker’ who hunted women “like wild animals”.
Douglas’s relationship with the outwardly charming Ted Bundy – a necrophiliac who lured young women into his car and strangled them – meanwhile inspired the Hannibal Lecter-Clarice Starling scenes in Silence of the Lambs. In the early 80s, Douglas paid a courtesy call to the incarcerated Bundy as part of an investigation into the so-called Green River murders in Washington State.
Flattered by the attention, Bundy was happy to collaborate. He suggested the killer would in all likelihood return to where he had dumped the bodies to have sexual relations with the victims and that police should stake out these crime scenes. The insight proved crucial to the eventual apprehension of Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer.
Despite these and other triumphs, the ghoulish nature of the job eventually wore Douglas down. Nightmares and sleepless nights were increasingly frequent and he found it hard to communicate with his family (“You come home and your child scrapes her knee, but you just left work today in a case where a young child was murdered and mutilated.”)
Under immense pressure at work, he contracted viral encephalitis – a fever which doctors said “fried his brain”. His family were warned he would likely be left in a vegetative stage. He recovered, however, and was soon back hunting killers, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. But the psychological trauma never quite lifted and he turned in his badge for good in 1995, aged just 49.
By that point, Douglas had revolutionised the profiling of serial killers – and, in Hannibal Lecter, helped created one of the great pop culture villains. It had been a long and strange journey for someone who, growing up, had never considered a career in crime prevention. In fact, the first Douglas thought of joining the FBI was when an off-duty officer approached him at a gym in the early 1970s and wondered if he would be interested in applying.
Douglas was living in a cramped, one-room apartment and the prospect of a hefty government salary appealed. Had he politely declined and gone about his business, it is chilling to think how many twisted killers may never have been apprehended.
The second season of ‘Mindhunter’ is on Netflix now
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