By Levi Lee
“As I had so many times before, I put myself in the mind of a killer.”
-John Doulgas, Journey Into Darkness
I first read John Douglas’s “Journey Into Darkness” when I was seventeen years old. I picked it up in the Waldenbooks in Crossroads Mall while on break from my job as the shift manager of the candy store on the other side of the mall. It was an easy job. By that time, around 2002, Crossroads was already economically and socially rotting from the inside out. Most of the store spaces were now vacant, and at around seven each evening the mall became the prowling grounds of local youths, bored and growing up on the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder, just looking for something to do every night. Often there were fights, just a few weeks after I left that job a fifteen-year-old boy was shot to death by the off-duty cop who worked security in his off hours after the boy had pulled a gun in the middle of a fistfight and started firing wildly into the crowd.
On nights there wasn’t such excitement though, I got to spend most of my time sitting behind the counter, reading. Most of the people in and out of the store were just killing time, rather than actually making any purchases. The scant ones that were made were small and didn’t require much of my time to ring up and get them on their way. The place didn’t call for much upkeep. So I read. It was on a night like this that I picked up “Journey Into Darkness” on one of my breaks. I took it back to the store and started reading.
As anyone who knows me at all knows I’m a lover of genre fiction, and horror specifically, but this was my first foray into true crime. I remember reading that book every free moment I had over the next two days, whatever time I could eek out between school and work. I didn’t put it down until I was done. It horrified and disgusted me but I could not put it down. It led me to seek out Douglas’s other works, “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit,” “Obsession: The FBI’s Legendary Profiler Probes the Psyches of Killers, Rapists and Stalkers and Their Victims and Tells How to Fight Back,” and “The Anatomy of Motive: The FBI’s Legendary Mindhunter Explores the Key to Understanding and Catching Violent Criminals.” The man is a fan of subtitles. What can I say? Voluminous titles aside though, these books all enthralled me, and I respected immensely the commitment of a man so willing to delve into the criminal mind. Until my second year of college at the University of Oklahoma, I pursued a degree in Sociology: Criminology due almost solely to this author’s influence, and dreamed of being chosen to work in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. I had, as many of us do, a fascination with the dark and a need to try and understand and make sense of it.
In the first chapter of “Journey Into Darkness,” after the quote that I mentioned at the top of the article, Douglas gives the reader the account of the murder of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Collins on the night of July 11,1985, told from the first person perspective. He literally places you in the mind of the killer. You, the reader, thinking those thoughts and doing those horrible things. It’s awful, and it will make a great many of you cringe to read, but it is gripping and telling and emotive in ways that are both uncomfortable and undeniably fascinating. Netflix’s new binge-a-riffic offering for October is “Mindhunter,” and it’s based on the experiences recounted in Douglas’s first and most famous offering of the same name.
The opening salvo of “Mindhunter” introduces us to FBI Agent Holden Ford, Douglas’s loosely based counterpart in the series, as he shows up to a hostage negotiation that has at best gone bad, and at worst is seemingly about to end up with bodies on the ground. A man is holding a woman at gunpoint at the entrance to a warehouse, demanding to see his wife and asking repeatedly if people can “see him.” Ford does his dead level best to calm and communicate with the man, buying time in as empathetic a way as he possibly can. The negotiation does not end particularly well, but from this one scene, we come away seeing Holden as a character who is not only deeply analytical but also capable of empathizing with people whose personalities and behaviors run the gamut of the emotional spectrum. It’s this empathy and need to understand that pushes him into the mechanism that drives the overall plot of the show, the detailed interviewing, categorizing, and classifying of violent multiple offenders all over the United States in an effort to develop a means to profile and catch future killers. In short, he’s going to interview and try to understand serial killers, which was a term that at the time, did not even exist and was purportedly invented by one of his counterparts in the Behavioral Science Unit.
The pilot is directed, as are several of the subsequent episodes by David Fincher, he of “Seven,” “Fight Club,” “Gone Girl,” and “Zodiac” fame. It feels distinctly Fincher throughout. The color palette is cool and clinical for the most part, except when we move into the realms of the killers where things take on a sickly feeling. Throughout those environs, the prisons and institutions, you can feel the grit. It’s not overt, just enough to set you on edge, giving you the feeling of what it might be like to step into the fringes of a killers psyche.
The characters are well drawn, and while you can find some of your typical types and tropes, those types and tropes are couched in truth. The jaded old-timer, the experimental wild-card rookie, and the polite psycho who’s done horrible things that you can’t square with their quiet and polished social demeanor are on display here, but there is a lot more beneath the surface as you watch the show and allow the characters to breathe. They are complicated people that you will at times like, dislike and feel outright contempt for, just like actual human beings. This is fitting, given that some of the insights provided by Douglas’s works are that while the actions perpetrated by serial and spree killers are beyond the pale for most of us, they do display their own interior logic and interpretation of human feeling and emotion, and to be able to catch these people we have to understand how they think. As Agent Tench, one of the other main characters of the series puts it, “How do we get ahead of crazy, if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” “Mindhunter” attempts to show us how we find killers when motive is elusive and the personal price that is paid for that knowledge.
As a society, we have a fascination with crime in general, and murder in particular. We seek it out in our books, television, movies, and video games. It’s everywhere. Why do we have this fascination? Murder is fascinating to think about in the abstract, when it’s happened to someone else, somewhere else. Even when reading true crime stories that we know are based on fact, we are reading them in a book, and subliminally it makes us feel safe to have the distance of a book, a movie, a tv show, to experience the darkness through. Most of us have no scruples taking a photograph of others, but when asked to stand in front of the camera and be a part of a vulnerable experience we become shuttershy. Using the same kind of analogy some of us are able to be a part of an event such as a wedding or a party when we are the photographer, having the lens between us and the experience gives the comfort of distance. Murder can happen to someone else, somewhere else…just not to me, and not here, even though we all know deep down that, in fact, that’s just not true.
That darkness does exist, out there in the world, and inside us, but how do we acknowledge it and cope with it without letting it become a fear which then can affect or downright control us? We need a release valve, and that is what things like “Mindhunter” do for us. In a time of increasing violence in our country, where we know intrinsically that the darkness can reach out and touch us with no notice and little effort, these fascinations and our reflections of them in pop culture allow us to acknowledge and cope with the darkness, without letting it get so big that it seeps into and destroys our daily lives. Agent Ford’s character in “Mindhunter” has to contend throughout the series with attacks on the “unsavory” nature of his work, but he realizes that regardless the work is necessary, and so is fiction like this.