Since Netflix released its popular series Mindhunter, the fascination with criminal profiling has reawakened. The main characters are loosely based on the real-life special agent’s John E. Douglas and Robert K. Ressler; Their searches are helping local police focus their investigations to find the cold-blooded killer.
After an arrest, they use a specific strategy to reveal the true personality of the serial killer so that it can be displayed during the trial. Douglas and Ressler were the first criminal profilers to interview some of the most notorious serial killers in history, including Edmund Kemper, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Donald Harvey, and Gary Ridgway.
The questioning of serial killers requires a long-term education and preferably a degree in psychology. However, there are some tips that experts have shared over the years on how to get into the mind of a serial killer. In their own words: “If you want to understand the artist, you have to look at the painting”.
10. Never Go In Blind
When dealing with some of the most violent and complex personalities in the world, comprehensive preparation is the key to getting the most out of an interview. Before questioning the serial killer, every case file must be fully investigated and the crimes of the person must be thoroughly investigated.
There are no two serial killers who are exactly the same – despite the similarity of some of their crimes. In “The Killer Across the Table” by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, the retired special agent explains: “The perpetrators we investigated were all murderers, and yet they were all different. Each killer and predator represented many layers of subtle distinctions.
There are a number of reasons why a serial killer agrees to speak to a special agent; some of them like to take part in a psychological study of their own psyche; some are lovers of law enforcement and enjoy being close to the police; some assume that they could receive special treatment in the ‘cooperation’ with the agents; some want a welcome break from everyday prison life, and for others, they simply enjoy telling their murderous fantasies in gruesome detail.
9. Play To Their Ego
One of the quickest ways to get a serial killer to open up about his horrific crimes is to play with his ego. Many of these criminals have a very flawed over me, i.e. they suffer little from fears, they are violently aggressive and often sadistic in their criminal behavior. They most likely also have a low heartbeat that allows them to commit such unimaginable crimes and then sit down with their partner for dinner the next evening, as if nothing had happened.
So how can we convince a criminal who is highly functional in high-pressure situations to finally drop the cover? Play with your ego, of course. Robin Dreeke heads the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s elite anti-espionage behavioral analysis program, and he recommends not disagreeing with any opinion and “focusing everything on them! Dreeke goes on to explain: “Validate every opinion without judgment. If you don’t agree with an opinion by chance, just ask, ‘This is a fascinating/insightful/thoughtful opinion… Would you mind helping me understand how you came up with it? Again, her brain will reward her on several levels.’ “”
8. Put Yourself In The Position Of The Hunter
Creating a criminal profile is like working on a complex puzzle in an attempt to understand the crime and the person who committed it. If you want to solve this puzzle efficiently, the experts recommend to get into the hunter’s mindset.
If you are uncomfortable portraying yourself as a serial killer, imagine being a lion on the Serengeti plain. There is an antelope herd, and you are looking for subtle signs of weakness; Train your look at these vulnerabilities to determine who of the herd becomes your next victim. In this way, many serial killers hunt their potential prey, it is the thrill of hunting itself that motivates them.
In ‘Mindhunter: Inside The FBI Elite Serial Crime Unit’ by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Douglas writes: “I have to put myself in the position of the attacker to think as he thinks, to plan with him, to understand, to feel his satisfaction in this one moment of his life, when his pent-up fantasies come true and he finally has control, is fully capable of manipulating and controlling another person. I also have to run in the shoes of this murderer”.
7. Never Write Anything Down
One of the most difficult obstacles that can be involved in conducting an interview with serial killers is that these conversations can last between 2 and 6 hours and you are not able to write anything down. There is also a 57-page document, which must be completed at the end of the interview in order for the perpetrator profile to be drawn up later; a great memory is certainly required for the work.
Douglas learned early in the interviews that recording subjects would keep her on the defensive, and he said, “I’m not going to play a tape recorder. So what you see on TV, maybe in the show Mindhunter, which is based on me… they go in with these big cassette recorders. That’s what we did at the beginning, and it really turns them off. Because they are dealing with very paranoid individuals – because where they are now, who they are, they do not want to be perceived as spies for security reasons.
And he added: “If you record it (think it), who will hear this tape. When you write notes, (do they think) why do you write notes?”
6. Sometimes You Have To Come Down To Their Sinister Level
When you talk to serial killers, you may need to lower to their dark levels to gain their trust. Richard Speck was a mass murderer who systematically slaughtered seven nurses at South Chicago Community Hospital in 1966. He miscounted the number of victims, and one of the nurses was able to hide until he left the hospital. Two days after the murders, Speck tried to cut open his pulse, and while he was being treated in hospital, a doctor recognized his “Born To Raise Hell” tattoo, which had been mentioned by the survivor.
During Speck’s interview with Douglas and Ressler, the killer decided not to cooperate and instead ignore both agents. Douglas then changed his tactics and talked about bacon as if he weren’t in the room, he turned to a consultant and said, “He took eight pieces of ass away from the rest of us. Do you think that’s fair?” Bacon then broke his silence and laughed: “You guys are crazy. It must be a fine line that separates you from me.” Then he opened himself up to the agents with more information about his crimes.
5. Learn How To Cut Through The BS
When interviewing serial killers, you don’t want most of your time to be wasted on the subject by telling a bunch of lies to feed their own ego. Especially since the criminal profile itself has to give an accurate insight into their own psyche and their motivations. Although many of these criminals are questioned while on death row, they will still try to bring the situation under control by embellish an event that they have repeatedly played into their own minds. In short, serial killers are often total fantasies.
In the summer of 1976, David ‘Son of Sam’ Berkowitz shot and killed six people in and around New York City. Berkowitz claimed his neighbor’s dog named Sam was possessed by a 3,000-year-old demon that forced him to kill. However, during his interview with Douglas—he wasn’t buying it. When Berkotwize recounted the possession story, Douglas told him, “Hey, David, knock off the bullshit. The dog had nothing to do with it.” Berkowitz laughed and nodded and agreed the agent was right which meant they were able to move on to the real motivating factors behind the crimes.
4. Don’t Ask Them To Feel Remorse Or Guilt
The ability that most of us have morally well-adjusted is to feel desperate when we witness another person’s distress or suffering. We should also feel moved enough to do something to alleviate that person’s suffering. There is cognitive empathy, i.e. the ability to know what other people are feeling, and the emotional empathy where you feel what they are feeling.
Many serial killers understand that another person is desperate, they recognize the fear, they just don’t feel moved, other than reacting with predatory behavior. This allows them to take advantage of the crying child who has been separated from their parents, or the young girl who goes home alone. Once they have instinctively acted like a predator, it is almost impossible to require them to feel bad about their crimes.
Mary Ellen O’Toole and Alisa Bowman write in their book “Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us”: “Asking a psychopath what remorse or guilt feels like is like asking a man what it feels like to be pregnant. It’s an experience they’ve never had before. If you keep asking a psychopath about his feelings (e.g., “What do you feel for the victims?” they will be irritated. They see (emotions) as problems and not as something worth having it”.
3. Set Your Body Language As If You Are On A Date
Body language accounts for 55% of communication, according to the latest statistics, so in an interview environment, the way you hold yourself is extremely important. Many serial killers are given the most pleasant feeling for the interview process, which can take many hours – often the handcuffs and chains are taken from them before they sit down.
Your body language should be set as if you are on a rendezvous with the face to the person, the arms should not be crossed, keep eye contact, have a relaxed voice and your feet should be directed forward. It is also recommended to avoid words such as “kill,” “murder,” and “rape,” as this can put the serial killer back on the defensive.
Another tip is that you should position yourself so that you look up to the serial killer. Douglas recommends: “I would look up to him easily throughout the interview. I wanted to give him the one psychological advantage that he feels superior to me.”
2. Stand Guard Of Your Own Mind
Serial killers are often highly manipulative individuals who are able to read people well enough to know exactly how to get under their skin.
In ‘Whoever fights monsters’, Ressler writes that almost everyone in their unit fell victim to situational stress and many special agents stopped profiling after a few years because of the terrible nightmares they endured at night. He also remembers witnessing an agent come under the spell of a cold-blooded murderer whom he had passed on information developed by the Bureau to support the killer’s appeal against his own death sentence. Ressler recommends that stability in your personal life will help prevent these manipulators from taking control of your emotions.
Douglas also explained: “You are dealing with the victims of violent crime, which is emotionally upsetting, and you are talking to the people who perpetuate the crimes that could really be less of a concern for the victims. And then do an interview with them as if everything was fine with the man. You may even indicate that you feel empathy for him, even though that is not the case. But you have to act like that.”
1. Never Go Into An Interview Alone
Edmund Kemper was described by investigators as a “natural born murderer” because he was 1.80m tall (9)) and weighed more than three hundred pounds. He offered Douglas and Ressler many valuable (and very frightening) insights into the mind of a corrupted murderer.
Ressler spoke to Kemper again, but this time the agent was alone. At the end of the four-hour questioning, Ressler pressed the call button to signal to the guard – but no one came. Fifteen minutes later, he pressed the call button again, and this time Kemper picked up the agent’s fear. Kemper told him, “If I were to turn it around, you would have a lot of trouble. I could unscrew your head and put it on the table to meet the security guard.”
A torturous 30 minutes passed in which Kemper and Ressler both tried to dominate the other in a battle of words. Ressler told the serial killer that there would be consequences if he killed an FBI agent and Kemper jeered: “What would they do, deprive me of my television privileges? When the guards finally opened the door, Kemper told the shaken agent, “You know I was just having fun, wasn’t I? Ressler made the important note of never having an interview alone again.
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