Mind Games

Forget The Slasher Flicks And Horror Movies, Netflix’s Mindhunter May Be the Scariest Thing You See This Halloween. Or Any Other Time Of The Year

I have a strange interest in human evil. Not quite a hobby per se, but more than a passing fascination at the very least. I’m occasionally gripped by a morbid curiosity about the mechanics behind the worst parts of human behaviour. What is it that convinces a person to commit unspeakable violations against fellow human beings? What dictates the scale? In the early and mid 1930’s, Berlin was considered one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan cities in Europe. But we all now how that turned out and I find myself asking what could have possibly triggered the metamorphosis of an entire nation into a genocidal hell?

And while I’m no expert on the subject of human evil, I do know that despite the untold amount of time and money science has invested into the exploration of Humanity’s darkest side, we still stumble around blindly when trying to explain the motives of murderers and serial killers. But the most revealing attempts to peer behind the often opaque curtain of human behaviour are the direct ones. The opportunities to sit down with an actual monster, earn their confidence and probe the labyrinth of shadows that poses as their mind are the best chances we have to answer these questions.

And they’re the most terrifying ones.

That’s why I became addicted to Netflix’s Mindhunter, which may be the most genuinely disturbing thing I’ve experienced since studying Nazi Germany.

Based on the early days of the FBI’s contemporary behavioural sciences unit, Mindhunter is a genuinely chilling trip to the dark side of the human condition. Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) defy traditional investigative practices to develop a fresh approach to identify and cope with a new breed of predator; the serial killer. Eventually joined by Dr. Wendy Carr (Ann Torv), the erstwhile trio faces a number of obstacles, the least of which is the law enforcement establishment who passionately clings to its obsolete ways despite facing brand new monsters.

The terrifying brilliance of Mindhunter’s is how skillfully it immerses itself and the audience into the desolate wasteland that passes for the soul of the killers it studies. They aren’t portrayed as crazy, insatiable monsters consumed by unspoken lust. They are often lucid, sometimes exceedingly bright and articulate human beings. And that’s the terrifying part. The guy whose wanted for killing a half a dozen people could be a neighbour or a co-worker, and you’d be none the wiser. You could even be discussing sports with him while he is reminiscing about his last kill or planning his next.

There is perhaps no more frightening example than Ed Kemper, the first killer a very nervous agent Ford interviews. Brilliantly played by Camera Britton, Kemper was a beast of a man whose inept social behaviour made him just as much of an outcast as his enormous size. Yet he was never caught by authorities, he surrendered himself out of fear of being caught. Despite spending five years in an institution for killing his grandparents, Kemper was never on the police’s radar for killing and posthumously raping six college girls. He even added his mother to his horrifying resume-cutting her head off and using it to masturbate after killing her-before confessing to his horrifying sins.

Yet the most frightening thing about Kemper, to paraphrase his own quote, was that he managed to spend the majority of his adult life avoiding capture while preying on human beings to satisfy an unknowable hunger (he described himself as an “accomplished murderer”). When Ford bumps into a pair of local officers in a bar, they admit that while they thought he was annoying, they also thought he was harmless and one even had a soft spot for him. Despite the fact he had spent half a decade in an asylum for murdering both his grandparents.

Mindhunter dissects its source material, with a cool, eerie dispassion. While they are emotionally repulsed by the subjects they study, the detectives talk about their crimes and heinous motives with a matter of fact detachment that makes you both admire and pity the men and women who deal with this every day. And Anna Torv’s pitch perfect portrayal of Carr, whose cool, academic distance becomes challenged by her increasing immersion into the actual world of murderers and psychopaths, perfectly illustrates what happens when you come too close to true monsters.

Mindhunter definitely isn’t for everyone. It’s an acquired taste and I have to admit that after the first episode, I was kind of underwhelmed. That’s what all the fuss was about, I thought, but after the next few episodes I was hooked. Or should I say my morbid fascination with human evil was. But having said that, it’s dark, disturbing subject matter makes it nearly impossibly binge watch.

But as a series goes, Mindhunter is also masterfully made. It wallows in subtlety and nuance. It is cold and bleak and gray, right down to the wall paper on the walls and clothes everyone wears. The characters are perfectly cast and scrape and collide with each other with morbid accuracy. Tench’s experience and occasional emotional outbursts perfectly compliments Holt’s restrained ambition. Holt often wears an expression that reminds us that no matter how much he’s in over his head, he’s determined to tread the dark waters he’s chosen to swim while Carr is the constant academic, despite her bouts of horrified discomfort.

One of my favourite scenes from the entire series was when the trio learns their research-derided and looked down upon until that point-was being funded full time. While assuming postures that reflect the inner workings of their characters and without looking at each other, the three slowly break into triumphant smiles at the same time. And then the credits roll.

But if you need to be convinced how much painstaking effort Mindhunter’s producers put into the show, take a look at the recreation of one of Kemper’s actual interviews. If it doesn’t send chills up your spine, you may need to check for a pulse.

Video Thomas Flight

There are no gun fights, no climactic fight scenes or car chases or explosions, but Mindhunter may be the scariest thing you ever see. It’s an almost exhausting lesson about the true nature of human beings. The idea that the girl next door may be a predator in waiting or that the quiet guy working down the hall may harbour the darkest, most violent fantasies. Mindhunter is a stark reminder that plain old regular human beings are the greatest monsters of all, capable of all kinds of unspeakable nightmares.

And I can’t think of anything scarier, Halloween or otherwise.