ASB 2019 Contest Winner in the Category “Best Books & Fabulous Films”

By Lauren Solomon

On behalf of the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Blog, we would like to extend our sin­cer­est con­grat­u­la­tions to Lau­ren Solomon whose win­ning entry in the cat­e­go­ry “Best Books & Fab­u­lous Films” can be read below.

Mindhunter: Harnessing the Minds of Monsters

Noth­ing cap­ti­vates an audi­ence like the inhu­man and hor­rif­ic acts of a ser­i­al killer. After Con­ver­sa­tions with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes aired on Net­flix in Jan­u­ary 2019, fol­lowed in May by the release of the bio­graph­i­cal crime thriller, Extreme­ly Wicked, Shock­ing­ly Evil and Vile, also based on the Ted Bundy sto­ry, the U.S. has become mes­mer­ized by sto­ries of ser­i­al killing. With that ris­ing fas­ci­na­tion, peo­ple can’t seem to stop talk­ing about the sec­ond sea­son of Mind­hunter.

Mind­hunter is a crime thriller tele­vi­sion series on Net­flix inspired by the non­fic­tion­al book, Mind­hunter, writ­ten by John E. Dou­glass and Mark Olshak­er. The book’s nar­ra­tor is a renowned for­mer FBI Spe­cial Agent who pio­neered the devel­op­ment of psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­fil­ing by study­ing the behav­ior of vio­lent defenders.

Crim­i­nal psy­chol­o­gy as a means of iden­ti­fy­ing and locat­ing per­pe­tra­tors wasn’t used in law-enforce­ment until the late 1970s. In fact, the term “ser­i­al killer” wasn’t invent­ed until the late 70’s, let alone passed around in typ­i­cal inves­tiga­tive jar­gon. Although the book is based entire­ly on non­fic­tion­al events, the TV series, also set in the 70s, fol­lows the sto­ries of sev­er­al fic­tion­al char­ac­ters that have been assigned to a task force – the new­ly estab­lished FBI Behav­ioral Sci­ence Unit. The agents must begin to col­lect data by inter­view­ing incar­cer­at­ed crim­i­nals that have been con­vict­ed of mul­ti­ple vio­lent crimes. These inter­views are sup­posed to deter­mine the com­pul­sions which lead peo­ple to kill in sequences.

As the task force col­lects data, they devel­op the­o­ret­i­cal pro­files for com­mon types of ser­i­al killers. The agents are fre­quent­ly called to assist in cur­rent open cas­es with pos­si­ble fin­ger­prints by ser­i­al killers as a way to test their new­ly devel­oped the­o­ry. While they’re some­times suc­cess­ful, their work doesn’t instant­ly or eas­i­ly progress. The task force expe­ri­ences a pletho­ra of obsta­cles while try­ing to imple­ment their new find­ings in prac­tice: pres­sure from FBI col­leagues, lim­it­ed finan­cial resources, resis­tance from local law enforce­ment, and per­son­al set­backs result­ing from work­ing in extreme­ly stress­ful and unset­tling environments.

Every ser­i­al killer pro­vides an extreme­ly chill­ing and cap­ti­vat­ing per­for­mance. Mind­hunter is about more than killers and their unthink­able actions – it’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller that requires a task force to get inside a killer’s head to ratio­nal­ize what a sane mind would iden­ti­fy as irra­tional. In oth­er words, men­tal­ly sound peo­ple have to ignore their inner moral com­pass and make sense of the obscene behav­ior of an extreme­ly vio­lent and often unre­morse­ful mur­der­er. What makes a per­son behave this way? Was it their child­hood? Have they expe­ri­enced trau­ma? Were they born this way? As fic­tion­al char­ac­ter Agent Bill Tench says in an inter­view with David Berkowitz, a.k.a. The Son of Sam, in the nov­el: “If you want to learn how to paint, go straight to the artist.”

But what about a sound mind? Is it affect­ed by this type of work? Is it desta­bi­liz­ing to con­stant­ly immerse a per­son, or a group of peo­ple, into the tor­ment­ed minds of the crim­i­nal­ly insane? The main char­ac­ters con­stant­ly strug­gle with sleep depri­va­tion, alco­hol abuse, depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and pan­ic attacks. Their rela­tion­ships with peo­ple out­side of work are chal­leng­ing and com­pli­cat­ed. After all, the behav­ior of Ed Kem­per – a rapist, mur­der­er, and necrophil­i­ac – doesn’t real­ly make for an appro­pri­ate din­ner conversation.

Depend­ing on the sub­ject, the agents are suc­cess­ful if they man­age to demon­strate a con­nec­tion between them­selves and the per­son they’re inter­view­ing. In order to estab­lish this sense of secu­ri­ty with the sub­ject, they share per­son­al details. Some­times, the agents fab­ri­cate sto­ries to cre­ate these con­nec­tions, but in order for the ser­i­al killer to believe them, their sto­ries usu­al­ly con­tain a painful­ly sig­nif­i­cant grain of truth. The agents must look inside them­selves to find sim­i­lar­i­ties with the dement­ed, infa­mous ser­i­al killer seat­ed across the table.

These are the scenes that are espe­cial­ly grip­ping. They cap­ture the audi­ence in a unique and uncom­fort­ably hor­rif­ic man­ner – by empha­siz­ing the real rea­son we’re so ter­ri­fied of and inter­est­ed in these mon­sters. Mind­hunter forces us to face the deep, dark ques­tion we nev­er want to ask our­selves: “How much of that inhu­man mon­ster resides with­in myself? My neigh­bors? My friends? My fam­i­ly? My kids?”

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Lau­ren has enjoyed writ­ing since child­hood. She is a free­lance writer and the creator/author of her new­ly estab­lished blog. She has recent­ly giv­en up her full-time desk job to pur­sue a career in writ­ing. In her spare time, she enjoys curl­ing up with her dog and a good nov­el, hik­ing through the forests of Penn­syl­va­nia, and attend­ing Vinyasa Flow Yoga classes.