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Returning to the Scene: Seriality and the Serial Killer in Mindhunter (2017-)

By Katie Jones

The perennial popularity of films, mini-dramas, and documentary-style TV shows depicting serial killers reflects the symbiotic state between production and our fascinated consumption. As a culture, it seems we return to the scenes of violent and notorious crimes compulsively. Mark Seltzer implies the extent of our interest in this particular configuration of masculinity when he writes that representations of the serial killer and serial murder ‘have by now largely replaced the Western as the most popular genre-fiction of the body and of bodily violence in our culture’ (1).[1]. Christina Lee explores the serial killer’s relationship to consumption through the fictional exploits of American Psycho’s investment banker and compulsive murderer Patrick Bateman, who presents ‘a limit case of commodity fetishism that no longer recognizes the process of production, merely the act of consumption. He can only conceptualise things in their finished form, that is, the money form of a commodity’ (111). In the Netflix series Mindhunter (2017-), the relationship between commodity culture and consumerism is more subtle. The series adapts the non-fiction crime book of the same title by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, which in turn is based on research conducted by a group of FBI agents and psychologists (led by John Douglas, Robert Ressler, and Ann Wolbert Burgess) in the 1970s. However, in Ressler and Tom Shachtman’s Whoever Fights Monsters (1992), the link between serial consumption and the term serial killer is made explicit: Ressler reveals that the term “serial killer” is partly inspired by his own consumption of The Phantom. Just as a cliff-hanger works to attract the viewer’s return, the act of murder ‘leaves the murderer hanging, because it isn’t as perfect as his fantasy’ (33). The returns of the spectator and the murderer, then, are linked to fantasies of a more fulfilling consumer experience, to put it crudely.

This article utilises a feminist psychoanalytic model to reconsider the phenomenon of this repetitious cultural return in relation to theoretical approaches to seriality and trauma. Seriality’s relationship to capitalist modes of production and consumption is well-known, as are the ways in which our changing forms of spectatorship serve to heighten this relationship. As Veronica Innocenti and Guglielmo Prescatore (2014) point out, the release of an episode is no longer a weekly viewing event, instead our consumption is more likely to be dislocated from a specific time and day as entire series are available for binge watching upon first release on platforms such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. In this article, I first consider the ways in which Mindhunter consciously critiques and contributes to the mythology of the serial killer and the serial killer genre; next, I put this into dialogue with the notion of seriality; lastly, I speculate on what our cultural return(s) to these traumas, and the nature of our remembrance, might reveal.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay licensed under CC BY 2.0

Myths and Masks

The serial killer mythology makes a celebrity of the criminal, indicating ‘the roles fame and violence play in American culture’ (Schmid, 2). While a transgressive figure, the serial killer can nonetheless be viewed as serving conservative ends. Joseph Grixti argues that the cultural construction of serial killers reinforces a reactionary sentiment; society positions these criminals as monsters who ‘repeatedly emerge as the exceptions that make the rule’; they are ‘the chinks and cracks in the fabric’ that ‘remind us of the structural soundness of the fabric itself’ (95). Further, due to depictions of serial killers as predominantly white and male, they ‘uphold the dominant order of male supremacy and [are] not an aberration but rather an extreme form of the social control of women through fear and terror’ (O’Neil and Seal 107). Indeed, despite the relatively low rate of this type of crime (particularly when compared with seemingly random violence against and between men, for example), the disproportionate sensationalism surrounding the murder of women by strangers constitutes a form of discipline exerted over the female subject. Like most depictions of serial killers (fictional and “real”), in Mindhunter the victims appear somewhat liminal, reflecting their marginal societal position – they are mostly women, people of colour or children. However, Mindhunter does not visually revel in the violence of the crimes committed, rather they are orally described in the Senecan tragic tradition. This may be seen as an attempt to evade the sensationalised spectacle of misogyny, common to the true/crime genre. Alternatively, the series underlines the brutality of a misogyny rooted in language and male power over social and private narratives, thereby preserving the relationship between violent words and actions.

In Mindhunter, FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCannelly), and psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) interview some of America’s most notorious serial killers. This conceit drives the narrative and produces a teleological quality to each episode; while it isn’t exactly the case that an interview takes place in every episode, most do include an interview. As with many products belonging to the crime genre, Mindhunter blurs the boundary between the investigator and the serial killer, as gestured toward in the title, which implies that the FBI agents are also “hunters” of sorts. The first season fictionalises and focusses on interviews with several infamous murderers (Edmund Kemper, Richard Speck, Jerry Brudos), two “live” sexually-motivated murder cases, Holden’s burgeoning interest in the psychological motivations behind serial murder, and his romantic relationship with sociology grad-student Debbie (Hannah Gross).

Throughout season one, Holden’s interview techniques are questionable; he poses as an ally to the murderers he interviews. For example, he asks Richard Speck ‘what gives you the right to take eight ripe cunts out of the world? Some of them looked pretty good. Ever think you were depriving the rest of us?’ (1. 9). Holden’s misogynist posturing jars with his character in scenes of his and Debbie’s conversations and lovemaking, in which he is depicted as an attentive lover interested in mutual pleasure. However, he also expresses concern that Debbie may be faking her orgasms (1.1) and becomes jealous when she receives a lift home from a male course-mate (1.8), implying anxieties which in turn mirror those of his interviewees’. When Tench and Ford interview Monte Rissell, he tells the detectives that his girlfriend’s infidelity is what prompted him to attack his first victim. However, he also reveals that he initially intended to rape her, but when her response to his assault was to perform pleasure, thereby taking away his power as aggressor, he spontaneously reacted with rage and murdered her. Bracketing the resemblance (or lack thereof) this statement may have to the actual murder of Aura Marina Gabor on 4th August 1976, in Mindhunter such comments from the serial killers’ mouths mirror Holden’s personal anxieties, described above. Such anxieties chime with representations of the feminine other in the horror and noir genres, and reveal a shadow of dread or insecurity, aligning with psychoanalytic conceptualisations of the unknowable feminine Other or the “castrating woman” and the way she might threaten and attenuate normative masculine identity, associated with dominance, knowledge, and control. Murder is an extreme version of the generalised societal repression of women’s voices described by Hélène Cixous: ‘if masculinity is culturally ordered by the castration complex, it might be said that the backlash, the return, on women of this castration anxiety is its displacement as decapitation, execution, of woman, as loss of her head’ (43). Rissell’s confrontation with his lack of control over his girlfriend and then Gabor, his victim, prompts him to assert himself violently. The vital difference, though, is that when Holden sees Debbie flirting with Patrick, her fellow student, his obvious anger does not become sinister; he leaves the venue. Similarly, when their relationship ends (1.10), he does not react violently toward her or anyone else, thereby demonstrating his difference from the criminals with whom he may share similar (stereotypically heterosexual male) anxieties regarding the threat of the feminine. In other words, while the relationship between normative and brutal masculinities is explored, the connections are complicated.

This observation relates back to Nicola Rehling’s (2007) contention that investigations into representations of the serial killer ‘resulted in concerns that white, heterosexual masculinity, as the universal, dominant, unmarked norm, is an anxiously empty identity that lacks specific content, apart from its assigned role as oppressor’. While this void-like absence is conveyed through various means – for instance, images of hyper-consumerism, to use Lee’s example in relation to American Psycho – this is simultaneously challenged by the gravity of the acts the murderer (fictional or not) has committed. Rehling’s commentary chimes with Seltzer’s influential work that ties the serial killer and his popularity to the modern self, in particular a kind of person arising from institutionalized society. Anthony King Summarises Seltzer’s view as follows: ‘because [serial killers] have adopted certain routinised practices, they seem typical. However, this routinisation, which constitutes the selfhood of modern individuals like the soldier male, is precisely what threatens the serial killer’ (2009). This perspective aligns with depictions of serial murderers as “transgressive outsiders”, who are used to develop ‘themes of anonymity in mass society’ (O’Neil & Seal 106). In other words, the experience of feeling anonymous, which is a condition of a globalized, capitalist and consumer-driven modernity, threatens any romantic individualist notion of selfhood; the serial killer reacts to this through the annihilation of the threatening other. The trope of the “signature” left by the murderer implies a need to be recognised as somehow unique.

Seltzer argues that the question of serial murder ‘is inseparable from the problem of the body in machine culture’ (33). Christopher Bollas’s psychoanalytic perspective contends that the act of murder reverses the power dynamic of the killer’s own historical victimisation: ‘the person who has been “killed” in his childhood is in unwilling identification with his own premature mortality, and by finding a victim […] he transcends his own killing’ (162). There is a tension here, between the popular depiction of the serial killer – as powerful, enigmatic, artistic, innately monstrous, and a possessor of knowledge that we are hungry for – and the kinds of socio-cultural theories attached to him. The socio-cultural considerations of the serial killer as traumatised person, monster, and artist will all be familiar to us; they are common tropes of the genre, and indeed operate in Mindhunter, as described. It is not only serial murderers and their crimes that we return to, we also return to these theories.

Returning to the Scene

In Mindhunter, the various murders cited tend to be described by the murderers or interviewers, but the viewer is occasionally shown photographic evidence. For instance, when Tench and Ford are asked to comment on the (likely fictional) grisly murder of Ada Jefferies and her son, and there is a shot of a photo of the crime scene, in which the victim lies dead and bloody. The photograph distances the viewer from the crime, referring to the camera as a postmodern framing device, which in turn alludes to representation and gestures towards the problem of (re)creating and (re)presenting trauma to an audience.

In season two, Tench travels to Wichita, Kansas, to meet a detective named Bernie and discuss an unsolved murder committed five years prior by the BTK killer, who has since tauntingly written to the police. After surveying the crime scene themselves (by now just an empty house), the two detectives discuss the case at a bar, and Bernie reveals that, after the crime, he and other detectives slept in the house in case the murderer returned: they were ‘hoping the killer came back […] is that true that these guys return to the scene of the crime? We were just going on what we’d always heard from old detective stories’. Tench replies: ‘the co-ed killer – he told us he went back […] he considered these places sacred’ (2.2). I interpret this as a metafictional allusion that implicates the viewer – of Mindhunter, but also other representations of “true crime”. While commentators may diverge on what our cultural obsession with serial killers means (i.e. whether they are an extreme representation of a continuum of state or masculine violence, or a reaction to the anonymity of mass culture), it is beyond doubt that these crimes constitute cultural ‘wounds to an idealized and intact American culture’ (Seltzer, 6).

The serial killer figure may be a shifting form, whose meaning changes depending on context, but our return to these scenes may nonetheless be conceptualised through the psychoanalytic model of trauma, which posits that repetition may be a form of “acting out” or “working through”. The intensity of a traumatic experience prevents the subject from experiencing the affect as it happens; unconscious repetition compulsion allows the subject to experience the event: ‘the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. […T]he patient does not say that he remembers that he used to be defiant and critical towards his parents’ authority; instead, he behaves in that way to the doctor’ (Freud 1914, 1958: 150). While this unconscious acting out may aid the individual in working through trauma, it may also constitute a destructive pattern of behaviour (for the self or others), akin to picking at a scab or wound. This is an individualised response to trauma, but it can be used to form an understanding of collective response and consumption, too.

Photography is something of a trope in trauma literature and film, used variously to connote representation and perspective (as described briefly above), as symbolic of acts of remembering, or to signal ‘the limitations of traumatic memory’ (Botez 112). Photographs (like film, literature, and memory) constitute ‘unreliable, precarious media’ which produce an alienating affect (Botez, 112). The photograph begs the question of what is out of focus or beyond the frame, beyond recall/memory. In Mindhunter, photographs appear, or are discussed, at various points: the gruesome photographs of Ada Jeffries (1. 1); a photograph of a beaten elderly woman Rosemary Gonzales and her dog who has had his throat slit; photos of the mutilated body of Beverley Jean Shaw (1. 4); Jerry Brudos photographed his victims and Tench and Holden raise this point in the interview, in which they present him (and the audience) with one such photo (1.7), and in the same episode, Tench’s babysitter finds the photograph of Ada Jeffries. These examples illustrate the extent to which the victim’s body becomes evidence, and rituals of mourning are violated as the body is once again objectified by juridical processes and institutions.

It is noteworthy that both the FBI/other legal institutions and the murderer Jerry Brudos are associated with photography, as it serves to further blur the boundaries between state institutions (which sanction some forms of violence), the “normative” masculinities of the FBI agents, and the deviant masculinity performed by the murderers. When Tench and Holden interview a man accused of raping and murdering Lisa, a twelve year old majorette, Holden poses as an ally to the accused. He presents the murderer with a photograph of Lisa in her majorette uniform and suggests that she looks older than twelve, and ‘looks pretty tasty in that outfit’ (1.10). The photograph of the beaming and clearly very young girl with braces on her teeth jars with such commentary, serving to unsettle the spoken narrative and reveal the extent to which the perspective of the murderer (ventriloquized here through Holden) distorts and privileges one perspective. Later, when describing the interview to Debbie, she remarks on his use of props (Lisa’s majorette’s hat, and the rock used to kill her) and states that he set the scene like a ‘director’ (1. 10). The point I wish to make is that the mode and style of representation are depicted as under the control of the serial killers and/or men of the law: the FBI researchers and regional detectives. (As a researcher, Wendy is not present at these interviews, and notably she is prevented from conducting interviews by her male boss in season two.) Botez’s contention that photography in trauma literature alludes to gaps in memory and limited perspectives is pertinent when considering these points: the perspective of the photographed victim is never incorporated as it is never available.

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay licensed under CC BY 2.0

This point recalls interpretations of cultural trauma, particularly the Holocaust, an event which cannot be known because those who experienced it were murdered; while survivors and witnesses may testify, the full experience of this crime does not – cannot –be communicated. For Ravit Reichman, the ‘speech of testimony is, in fact, unburied, and the events which cannot be assimilated are those experienced by the dead witness’ (38); ‘unexperienced realities yield a language marked by silence, an uncanny cryptogrammatology which creates in the listener and the viewer “(a) dead (gap)” – an absent/present memory which we incorporate’ (39). While the crimes against victims of the state-sanctioned holocaust and those against victims of individual serial killers differ, both types of crime have captured the public’s imagination in similar ways and are continually (re)turned to, (re)processed and (re)presented through film, literature, documentary, etc. I suggest that the photographs of the victims in Mindhunter allude to this silence/silencing. The programme’s repetitious nature mirror the compulsive acts of the criminals, which in turn is mimicked first diegetically when the interviewees are interviewed on multiple occasions across episodes; second, on a broader scale, the return to these historical traumas through historical fictional representation; and finally by the form: the serial.

Serial Circularity

The serial killer ‘satisfies the audience’s desires for both the culturally forbidden and the socially conservative’ (O’Neil and Seal 107). He murders those who are perceived as vulnerable or risky, and therefore crystallises stereotypes regarding the vulnerability of certain groups (especially women, children, gay men, and the elderly). However, our cultural return to these figures may gesture towards the coalescing of consumer-driven exploitation (sensationalised cinematic renderings or gratuitous documentaries) and the repetitious revisiting of wounds that fail to heal. I argue that the televised serial formalises this compulsion. Mindhunter underlines issues of representation through the repeated use of photography and in the narrative, which is controlled by the murderers and investigators. In Mindhunter, the misogyny depicted may shock the viewer and produce an affect conducive to revaluation; it may also reinforce conservative positions, such as the view that women are inherently vulnerable. The photographs of the victims refer to the lost voices or testimonies/narratives of the victims, and gesture towards the incompleteness of representation and dominant narratives, which are transmitted by men (often the murderer himself) or by masculinist institutions. On a broad level, our compulsion to return to these scenes may be borne from this gap and silence.

I suggest that these features raise questions about the serial objectification of women and minorities in film and television. While seriality on the one hand implies a connection to capitalist modes of consumption, it may also be conducive to working through and revaluations of past trauma (such as the crimes depicted) and contemporary states of injustice (the perennial objectification and disposability of women, LGBTQ people, and minorities). While Mindhunter does not avoid problems of representation – indeed, it is unlikely that depictions of the murder of women could reflect or effect the emancipation of women – it does raise questions regarding the way in which entrenched ideas and inequalities may manifest in new forms. Despite its status as historical fiction, Mindhunter presents its viewer with a wholly recognisable world of inequality and misogyny, but unsettles the status quo by linking it to serial murder. Our repetitious return to these narratives gestures towards their incompleteness and the absence at their heart: the voices of the repressed.


[1] For reflections on depictions of the female serial killer, see the variously authored essays collected in Helen Birch’s Moving Targets.


Katie Jones, “Revisiting Wounds: Seriality and the Serial Killer in Mindhunter (2017-)” Alluvium, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2020): n. pag. Web. 5 May, https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.1.03

About the Author

Katie Jones is a recent PhD graduate with research interests in the history of psychoanalysis, critical theory, and life writing. Her PhD research, Improper Subjects: Confession, Shame, and Femininity, focuses on ‘confession’ as a narrative trope in semi-autobiographical fictions by twentieth- and twenty-first-century English- and German-language women writers. She has articles or reviews published or forthcoming in the Modern Language Review and gender forum.

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