Lust Murder, “Sequence Killers,” and Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter’ (2017)
It takes a very specific type of person to study pure evil clinically — that is, doing what one can to put aside one’s preconceived notions and judgments to truly understand the mechanics of evil: what is its genesis? What is its function? How does it work? Most importantly, how can we stop it?
How does one even begin to study this problem with even a pretense of objectivity? The FBI attempted their answer starting in the 1970’s with what was more or less the American boom in serial murder — this was but years after the Manson murders rocked the world; only about a decade after Psycho’s twisted vision hit the big-screen; only about 15 years after Psycho’s inspiration, “The Butcher of Plainfield” Ed Gein was caught and placed into intensive criminal psychiatric care in Wisconsin; The Zodiac Killer was still stalking the fields and concrete jungles of California at this time; killers like Ted Bundy and BTK (known for his modus operandi , of “Bind, Torture, Kill”, and who himself factors into the story of what we will be examining, Netflix’s Mindhunter in his own leering way, more on that below) also recorded their first known kills at this time.
Were there more serial killers in this period than in other periods? In the author’s opinion: no. People were likely just more conscious of them for the reasons named above, and the advent of a more interconnected world through media like television. One must also remember, that, in large part, the only even remote idea most people had of what a “lust murderer” (the term for a “serial killer” before “serial killer” existed in the scientific taxonomic lexicon and the popular mind — yet, as will become known, and as Mindhunter points out, it is not entirely accurate to describe the class of crime we are talking about) even was, was Jack the Ripper. As any ripperologist and student of criminology will tell you, the Ripper is not at all representative of how most serial murderers function (especially in light of the organized/disorganized killer dichotomy, developed by the FBI). Still, he so effected the popular mind, that indeed he became THE archetype for this kind of crime in the minds of so many people.
The term “lust murderer” comes from the expansive study of deviant sexuality by Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his seminal 1886 tome Psychopathia Sexualis (read a copy FREE by clicking the title), which is both a legal study of all kinds of sex crimes (everything from zooerasty to incest to pedophilia to pederasty, von Krafft-Ebing even devotes a section of a chapter to “reasons why legal proceedings against homosexual acts should be stopped”) and commentary on their genesis in the individual.
Von Krafft-Ebing defined “lust murder” as “lust potentiated as cruelty, murderous lust extending to anthropophagy” which also usually includes some form of genital mutilation. In this way, it is expansive to take in all sorts of sex acts — not just extreme sadism, which is the principle mark of most lust murder nonetheless, strangulation being the preferred method — but also acts like murder with necrophilia as an end (see Jeffrey Dahmer’s criminal history for examples of that).
The FBI, or more specifically, two FBI agents, knew that we needed to expand our understanding of this varied and not-well-understood phenomena through interviews of caught and incarcerated “sequence killers” (the term Mindhunter adopts before “serial killer”). Mindhunter as a series is based on the very real interviews done by John Douglas in the 1970’s, Douglas was one of the first profilers in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (alternatively Behavioral Analysis Unit) who put his odyssey of interviewing serial murderers to print in the book Mindhunter. John Douglas and co-author Mark Olshaker also are credited as writers on the show.
The show itself is not strict history of what went on as the two agents are dramatized as Holden Ford (Johnathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), both absolutely spectacular in their roles. Their relationship is far from “buddy cop” as so many of these kinds of shows tend to be and is certainly entertaining, but is not what struck me most about the show.
No, what struck me most about Mindhunter was its scientific and systematic nature. Make no mistake, this a show focused on the evil being studied, NOT so much the relationship of the protagonists or their individual lives. This is very much in keeping with Executive Producer David Fincher’s reputation for historicity in his art — 2007’s Zodiac was legendary for this, manifested in things like the characters even talking faster to fit Fincher’s larger script in a shorter time.
The first season of Mindhunter focuses on interviews with 3 killers: Edmund Kemper — eerily played by Cameron Britton, you will find yourself strangely attracted to the affability of the Monster known for having sex with his mother’s severed head, Kemper further went to a psychological outpatient visit with the severed head of a woman in his trunk. See an interview with the real Edmund Kemper below.
Jerry Brudos (played by Happy Anderson) — known for his shoe fetish, necrophilia, and bondage photo obsession. Brudos killed at least 4 women in Oregon between 1968 and 1969. See a documentary on the real Brudos below.
Richard Speck (Jack Erdie) — the only murderer portrayed in Mindhunter who actually WAS NOT a serial killer (by the FBI definition of at least three SEPARATE murders spread out over a cooling-off period in between each). Speck tortured, raped, and murdered 8 nurses over one night in Chicago in 1966. See video of the real Richard Speck below.
Yet, perhaps the most menacing of the murderers in the show didn’t kill anyone on screen this first season. Credited only as “ADT Serviceman”, Sonny Valicenti plays Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK Killer (who was an ADT Serviceman and look’s JUST LIKE Valicenti’s character), known for his signature of “Bind, Torture, Kill”, who murdered 10 people in Sedgwick County, Kansas (the Wichita area), from 1974 to 1991. BTK has one of the longest cooling-off periods of any serial killer in the literature, going several years between some kills. He was not caught until 2005. See BTK’s taped confession below.
Throughout the interviews on the show, one is further struck by the exposition of the banality of evil — one must take great care not to be driven insane by this when one studies it: will Ford and Tench survive that test? Especially, when we need their expertise with so many more killers coming down the pike: Bundy, Dahmer, and indeed the menacing BTK, just to name 3.
Mindhunter is an eloquent take on the study of evil. It is well-executed drama and well-done true crime: keeping the essence of the real story intact while elaborating its own drama on top of it. I highly anticipate Season 2 (of the 5 David Fincher wants Netflix to give it).