true crime

What Pop Culture Misunderstands About Serial Killers, According to the FBI Agent Behind Mindhunter

Photo: MGM

Retired FBI agent John E. Douglas is no stranger to Hollywood. Over the past three decades, his groundbreaking work as a criminal profiler has inspired characters in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Criminal Minds, largely based around his interviews with imprisoned violent offenders. His 1995 book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, co-written with Mark Olshaker, more recently led to a standout Netflix drama starring Jonathan Groff. (Groff’s character, Holden Ford, is based on Douglas.) By talking to almost every major convicted serial killer of the past 30 years, Douglas and his team have not only played a vital role in helping the FBI and other law-enforcement communities understand violent crimes, they also, perhaps inevitably, have had an influence on pop culture’s true-crime boom.

In their new book, The Killer Across the Table, Douglas and Olshaker offer a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to conduct a profile of a killer. The killers in these cases are not as well-known as some of the others Douglas has interviewed (among them Charles Manson, Ed Kemper, and David Berkowitz), but they each provide an insightful example of what can be learned from profiling. Ahead of the book’s release on May 7, John Douglas sat down with Vulture to discuss his FBI career, why so few TV shows get serial killers right, and how he’s managed years of such horrific, emotionally difficult work.

When you first started profiling, did you ever think it would become so important, and have this cultural fascination around it?
No, when I started it was really for survival, just like Holden Ford [from Mindhunter]. He just wants to be credible in the classroom, so why not go in the prisons and conduct these interviews? I thought we could actually provide something positive to the investigation. Usually they just submit the cases to us, so they come to Quantico. But a case like the Atlanta child murders, where there were so many bodies, I just went on down. That case has been in the news recently. They’re taking another look at it.

That’s right.
The police cleared the books of all 28 or 29 cases, and they’re saying all the cases were perpetrated by Wayne Williams. That’s not true. He did not kill all 28 or 29 or those victims. I said it back then and I’ll say it today: He just didn’t do it. So I guess the new DA or chief of police down there is going to be taking a look.

Why did you select the four cases in The Killer Across the Table?
Everyone is interested in the interview process. “How do you prepare? How do you know if they are telling you the truth? Do you interview them all with the same approach?” So I picked very different types of murders which help explain the process. Joseph McGowan, who kills the Brownie. Joseph Kondro, who kills his friends’ children. Donald Harvey, who kills hospital patients. Todd Kohlhepp, who is an unusual killer who basically just does revenge killings but had that one girl that he kept in that container in South Carolina. When you’re interviewing people like this in prison, they don’t trust anyone. They are paranoid. So it truly just becomes conversation. It’s developing trust.

You’ve talked to a lot of people who have done awful things, haven’t you?
Yeah, it’s the worst of things. I think that’s why I nearly died in 1983, during the Green River murder case. They show something similar on the last episode of Mindhunter, where Jonathan Groff is having an anxiety attack after being picked up by Ed Kemper. The Kemper part was not true; Kemper never grabbed me. But all the other stuff is. You’re dealing with the victims of violent crimes, which is emotionally gut-wrenching, and you’re talking to the people that perpetrate the crimes, who really could care less about the victims. And then, you’re conducting an interview with them as if there’s nothing wrong with the guy. You may even indicate that you have empathy toward him when you really don’t. But you have to do this acting.

It causes stress in the family. Say your child falls off a bicycle and hurts her arm, you get home and it is a big deal. But you’ve seen, earlier that day, a young child who was brutally murdered, so you may come across like you’re hardened.

I can imagine.
Another example is my mother accidentally died in an assisted-living home. My mother was 87 and what happened was an accident. Her TV fell out of the stand and on top of her, killing my mother. It crushed her head.

Oh my God.
It was terrible. They found her because the TV was really loud, apparently. They heard it all night, but finally went into the room in the morning and saw the TV on top of my mother. They called the police and detectives. I get word and come to the scene. The cops asked, “Do you wanna come in?” It looked like a crime scene. I went into this mode of reconstructing what happened to my mother. I think she used the remote and accidentally she turned up the volume way too loud. So, she went over to the TV to try to see the button to adjust it by hand. In all probability, she lost her balance and fell down. The point is that if you’re a detective watching me, you would say, “This guy is so emotionless. He may have killed his mother.” But that was my professional persona. When I went home, I was a basket case. I was an emotional wreck. That’s how it affected me.

That’s one of the things that bothers me, too, when you look at JonBenét Ramsey’s father being stoic. Many people see this persona and say, “Look at him. He lost a daughter, Jon Ramsey, and look how he comes across.” I was with John Ramsey because I assisted on that investigation, and he was crying like a baby. But when he’s out in public, this is the way his business persona was. Same with Amanda Knox, who I helped in Italy, or Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three.

How do you feel about this recent true-crime boom? Do you think it’s helping out with cold cases? Or are you kind of wary about it?
Some of these podcasts have done a really good job of bringing light to old cases. I’d like to see a little bit more looking at the wrongfully convicted ones. Sometimes that’s the only way, by putting pressure on a department or prosecutor that they’ll refocus again and look at a case. But you just have to be careful, because you don’t want people to interfere with investigations. If a department is actively involved in the case and they’re somehow interfering with interviews, it could hurt an investigation.

The popularity, I think it’s really good. The interest just amazes me. The audiences are predominantly women. And even a lot of these podcast [hosts], a lot of ’em are women, which is great.

Do you find yourself profiling people that you see on the street? Do you naturally profile people?
Oh yeah! Some people are weirded out because they think I’m assessing them. I just look for potential problems. Many years ago, I’m watching some pony rides with two of my daughters. I see this guy looking at the kids on the pony rides. I told my daughter — and they were young, like, God, 7 and 11 — I said, “You see that guy over there?” “Yeah, what about him dad?” “He doesn’t have any kids on the pony ride. You watch and see.” Sure enough, the pony ride ends and he has no kids. He started following the kids who are leaving the ride with a camera. Unbeknownst to them, he is taking pictures.

Oh my God!
We trailed him and confronted him. He wasn’t the type to take any kids in broad daylight, but it was still upsetting. It used to drive my kids crazy. Especially with boyfriends. One time my daughter came home with a boy and of course we are asking questions, but my wife wants to do more. First she gets the license plate, and then she gets him to show his driver’s license — she’s showing him that she doesn’t have a good picture on her driver’s license and gets him to compare his picture by showing his license. From this, she gets the date of birth, address, and all of that. And then she offers a drink. Guess why she does that?

To get fingerprints off of the glass in case we need it in the future.

I’m totally doing this when I become a parent.
[Laughs.] It was crazy. But really, everyone profiles. We size people up by the way they look or dress or nonverbals. But you can be wrong in your assessment like that. You really need conversation and to ask questions. You can’t just say that a person looks good. Once you get some real information, you can make a better evaluation.

How does it feel to be portrayed in so many popular shows and movies?
It’s … really crazy. I was going through some really big cases like the Atlanta child killings, the .22-Caliber killer, the Green River murder, Tylenol case, Unabomber, and the guy up in Alaska who was hunting women, Robert Hansen. And then, what got us on the map was Silence of the Lambs. We have all these real cases and then a fictional character — who was a composite of three real killers that me or my colleagues interviewed — gets us on the map. One one hand, it was great, but on the other, it gave so much publicity to me in the organization. They tried to keep us faceless, but I was getting all these requests for media interviews. The movie wanted me in Hollywood for the Oscars. The bureau originally said yes, so my wife and I were planning to go out there. But at the very last minute, the bureau changed their minds and said we couldn’t go.

They didn’t tell me why, but I know why. They didn’t want me to get this publicity. When Jodie Foster got her Oscar for her part, you can watch it on YouTube, she thanks John Douglas from the FBI. You would think that was good, but the organization didn’t like it. It drives them nuts to see that.

Do you enjoy shows or movies with serial killers in them?
No. Even Criminal Minds, I don’t watch it because procedurally it’s all wrong. The others, they make the killers so diabolical and unreal. We’ve never had a killer like Hannibal [Lecter], who is at this genius level committing these crimes. Yeah, Ed Kemper was 145 IQ, but he wasn’t a genius in the way his crimes were perpetrated. There’s a big debate now with Joe Berlinger, who directed The Bundy Tapes and the movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, about if they romanticize it. He says it’s going to show that [Ted Bundy] was diabolical. Yeah, Bundy was not bad looking and fairly intelligent, but he had a manipulative psychopathic personality. When Bundy was arrested, one of the assistant directors came up to me and said, “My wife thinks that Bundy didn’t do it.” He’s definitely responsible for those crimes!

There’s so many killers. I mean, Mindhunter is going to have a five-year arc. At least five years is what they are planning. That’s what David Fincher asked both the actors: “Can you give me five years here?” In fact, Jonathan Groff is actually reading the audiobook of The Killer Across the Table. We asked him to do it and I’m surprised he did it. Nice guy. Both of them. Holt McCallany, who plays Bill Tench, met up with me after a panel and we got dinner. He spent time at my house just learning and trying to figure this character out. He’s supposed to be more like my partner, Robert Ressler, but some of his personality traits are more like mine. I was pretty assertive, more so than the Holden Ford character, but I think he may be going there.

I don’t know about [Mindhunter] season two yet. Usually they will send it to me. I know they are supposed to be eight episodes. I know the cases. They are going to have David Berkowitz, as well as Charles Manson. The Atlanta child killings in the early ’80s, they’re gonna be covering that. But I’m curious to see how they are going to develop this character.

They haven’t told you where Jonathan Groff’s character is going?
No, they keep everything a secret. Sometimes they will ask some questions. It’s based on the book and me, but it’s definitely not all me. [Laughs.] It’s kinda funny to watch the sex scenes, right? There’s one or two with the girlfriend character. We will watch the show together and my wife will go, “Is that supposed to be me?” And I’ll say, “Well, it sure as hell isn’t me.”

What do you think of the theories that Holden is going to become a serial killer?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, it didn’t happen to me!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What Pop Culture Misunderstands About Serial Killers