Spoiler alert: If you are planning on watching Mindhunter, do not read this article. It contains spoilers from the season finale. And if you haven’t watched it yet, WTF are you doing?
America loves serial killers. Our culture has gone to great lengths to glamorize them: Dexter, Hannibal, and now, apparently, Mindhunter. But Mindhunter does more than cartoonify or dress up serial killers with campy killing styles: the new hit Netflix show follows an FBI investigation into the killer’s motivations for their crimes, launched by the show’s protagonists, Agent Ford and Agent Tench. They mirror our simultaneous disgust and endless fascination with “killer psychology.”
Mindhunter climaxes in the season one finale with its essential premise: how far do we pursue our curiosity into the mind of a ‘monster’ without discovering a piece of ourselves?
Playing the Part
An actor’s responsibility is to bridge the gap between them and their character. They do this by researching them, knowing what they want, and why they want it–the motivations behind their actions. Agent Ford is really asking himself what many actors do when preparing a role–the “magic if.” What if I lived inside the life and mind of a serial killer? (By the end of the season, he gets his answer.)
To get serial killers to open up, Agent Ford mirrors them and tries to “wear” their psychologies like a new skin, an actor wearing a mask. When talking to Richard Speck, a typical country macho who murdered eight women in one night, Agent Ford starts with this: “I mean, you were really robbing us of eight hot, fresh cunts.” Agent Tench looks on with disdain, noting the recording was paused for Ford’s performance. Everyone grows concerned by how good of an “actor” Ford is turning out to be. What does his rapport with them say about Ford and the way he thinks?
Agent Ford is dangerously curious (and aren’t we for watching?). His desire for knowledge blinds him. Ford can manipulate and charm like a sociopath and disregards society’s expectations of him in his unconventional psychological methods, much as a serial killer has done away with society all together. In Agent Ford’s role play, he has integrated a part of the serial killer in himself.
The Human Condition and Our Desire to Reject Society
We all have destructive impulses. It’s human. As I referred to in other posts, Carl Jung proposed society conditions us to repress aggressive, at times sadistic, impulses that would tear its fabric. Society teaches us to be considerate of others, tolerant, and to sacrifice complete self-concern (and despite the number of assholes in America, they could never run their own society). But even if these impulses are hidden, they are there. They’re a part of the human condition.
Now, that isn’t to say we have a part of ourselves that’s a serial killer waiting to jump out of the bushes at any moment. But that is to say we all know a part of ourselves we’ve had to bury because of fear of punishment, rejection, or exile. Even if some of our normal, natural emotions contain an element of sadism, like jealousy or rage.
Agent Ford has a morbid fascination and curiosity that he steadily allows to surface throughout the first season. It’s the kind of curiosity that would be met with a punitive side glance or slap to the hand if he were a child. Edmund Kemper, one of the serial killers he talks to, speaks frankly about his killings, saying: “Got to get that young pussy before it turns into mom.” You can see Ford begin to back reel in awe. He uses this same line in another interrogation. Word for word.
When we hear of the unleashed sadistic acts that serial killers commit, there is an odd reverence for their “bravery” (they are, by some accounts, our new superheroes). The reverence doesn’t come for the act itself–but more for the total expulsion of society’s norms, which can be our greatest savior, but at times an omnipresent cell. In Ford’s case, he rejects the conventions of FBI conduct, gaining more bravado as the investigation continues. He feels liberated, empowered. But his own “bravery” has led his partners and girlfriend to shun him completely.
Mindhunter asks: should Ford be punished so severely for his shamelessness? How can we accept serial killers as humans like ourselves?
“Moments of Impact” is an original Falcon Post series dedicated to when experiences, culture, philosophy, and psychology find a meeting point, producing finely-tuned revelations. I hope you have one moment of impact every week.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.