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Real 'Mindhunter' speaks: Why Netflix's serial-killer drama is different

Former FBI profiler John E. Douglas, the inspiration for Jonathan Groff's character, likes that the David Fincher series doesn't paint murderers as "magicians."

Jonathan Groff (right) plays FBI profiler Holden Ford in Netflix’s “Mindhunter.”
Jonathan Groff (right) plays FBI profiler Holden Ford in Netflix’s “Mindhunter.”Read morePATRICK HARBRON/Netflix

Sooner or later, a serial-killer story was going to catch me.

I'm so much of a wimp that I've never seen Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs — as much as I'd like to see Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins face off — because the Thomas Harris novel gave me nightmares.

You'd probably have to tie me to a chair to get me to watch CBS's Criminal Minds, whose early episodes I found so deeply unpleasant I've been back only when it was necessary for work.

And I quickly came to loathe that critics' darling, Hannibal, the Bryan Fuller prequel to The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, whose corpse presentations, I once wrote, "could be ripped from old issues of Gourmet magazine, if Gourmet had featured cannibalism." It didn't help that episodes had cutesy names like "Aperitif" and "Amuse-Bouche." Call me crazy, but I prefer not to see serial killers hosting horrific dinner parties.

Yet last weekend, I binged the entire first season of Netflix's new serial-killer profiling drama Mindhunter, all while telling myself it wasn't like those other stories — even if it was the story that in some ways made those other stories possible.

I may be a wimp, but former FBI Agent John E. Douglas — the model for Jonathan Groff's character in Mindhunter — has spent a long career talking to serial killers, and he thinks the Netflix series is different, too.

In most shows and movies, "the way they make the bad guys, the way the make the serial killers … they're like magicians, some of them. And they're so smart. It's just crazy," Douglas said Wednesday. "They have the profilers taking over investigations, knocking down doors, pulling their gun, breaking the rules in an investigation, not Mirandizing [suspects], and it's just over the top and aggravates me."

And then there are the soundtracks. "When you're working real cases, you don't have that scary music in the background," he said, laughing.

Not surprisingly, Douglas made an exception for the addictive, 1970s-set Netflix drama from David Fincher (House of Cards, Zodiac)  inspired by Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, the memoir Douglas wrote with Mark Olshaker.

Mindhunter stars Groff (Looking, Glee), a Lancaster County native, and Holt McCallany (Lights Out) as FBI Agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, whose pioneering research into what makes serial killers tick begins with interviews with some of America's most notorious monsters, including Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) and Richard Speck (Jack Erdie).

And yet the show's not so much about the monsters as it is about the people who study them, and the toll that research takes.

Holden and Bill are fictional characters based on Douglas — who retired from the bureau in the mid-1990s but who, at 72, continues to work as a speaker, writer, and independent investigator — and the late Robert K. Ressler. The pair  are shown in the first season partnering with an academic,  Wendy Carr (Anna Torv, Fringe), to develop the study of serial offenders that in real life became Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, coauthored by Douglas, Ressler, and Ann W. Burgess.

The personal lives may be fictional — in the show, Holden is single and in a complicated relationship with a pot-smoking  student named Debbie (Hannah Gross), while Douglas was married and became a father during the same period — but the former agent sees a lot of himself in Groff's character.

"He's a go-getter," he said of Holden. "I always was doing two things at once. When I was in the service, I was going to college. I joined the FBI [and] I'm working on a master's degree," and went on to earn another master's and a doctorate and to write a string of books.

Like Holden and Bill, he worked "10-, 12-hour days, traveling 150 days a year," he said. "The battle that they're having [with the FBI] is very similar. I had to deal with an organization that was still in a way [as if longtime bureau director J. Edgar] Hoover didn't die," and where people didn't necessarily see the point of talking to criminals who'd already been caught.

"The bureau's thinking was, 'Why? What's the purpose of this? Why is it necessary to go in and do these interviews?' " he said. "It just seems so basic. No matter where your interest lies, you should interview the people who are in that field."

That didn't mean experts like psychiatrists or psychologists, "because I had problems with them [and with] … these people who are making decisions regarding probation, parole, and treatment, even. Because they would never, ever look at the crime-scene photographs, look at the police reports, the preliminary reports, look at the victim [or] profile the victim," Douglas said.

"You cannot rehabilitate some of these characters, because they were never habilitated to begin with."

Netflix hadn't yet announced a second season of Mindhunter, whose first 10 episodes  premiered Oct. 13, but Douglas said he hopes the series will evolve to show that "there are other [profiling] cases, too, besides serial-murder cases. We did arson, bombings, kidnappings, extortions. I did bank robbers."

There are hints in the current season of a monster Holden hasn't  yet met — Dennis Rader, the notorious Kansan  known as the BTK killer. Rader, who murdered 10 people between 1974 and 1991, was the president of his church council when he was finally arrested in 2005. Authorities had first approached Douglas' unit in 1979 for insight into the case and returned a few years later. He'd left the bureau by the time Rader resurfaced.

“I got to interview him a few years ago,” said Douglas, who wrote a book about the case, Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer. “Sometimes you know the case so well that there’s just like one thing you want to know. With him, it was, ‘Why did you stop? And then what triggered you to start killing again?’ “

But for all the attention serial killers attract, Douglas believes "the focus, more times than not, should be on the victims. We forget the victims of the crimes, and that's the part that got to me, psychologically, emotionally."

Diagnosed at one point with post-traumatic stress disorder —  he nearly died in 1983 of viral encephalitis believed to have been brought on by the stress of his work in Seattle on the Green River murders — he's seen the price others he's worked with have paid, including heart attacks and other illnesses.

"To do the job effectively, you really have to throw yourself 100 percent into the job and walk in the shoes of not the offender but the victims, and really try to sense, and try to experience, what went on. … When the time comes to talk to the offender, you have in the back of your mind what this guy — who looks so normal — what he did," he said. "So you have to do a pretty good acting job of your own and show this false sense of empathy toward them during the interview."

And speaking of acting: What does he think of Groff's portrayal?

"I think he's doing a great job," he said of Groff, who also played King George III in Broadway's Hamilton.  The actor, he noted, has captured what he's been told is his own tendency to be soft-spoken in some situations.

"And it's great to see the interaction between Jonathan and Holt. … When they do the interviews, and it's so revolting and then they come out of it, and it's like they're experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. They just get in the car and they just look ahead. They don't know what to say."