Since the release of its first season in October 2017, Mindhunter fans have been clamoring for more of Holden Ford, the FBI hostage-negotiator-turned-serial-killer-interviewer trying to learn what makes criminals tick. As viewers watch Ford (played by Jonathan Groff), along with Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), investigate real-life serial killers such as Edmund Kemper and Dennis Rader (a.k.a. BTK), tons couldn’t help but wonder if Ford is actually a real person.
Turns out, the answer is…kind of. While “Holden Ford” himself isn’t a living, breathing member of the Bureau, many of the stories featured in the show’s first season (and second, premiering on August 16) come straight from the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, written by retired FBI Agent John E. Douglas and author Mark Olshaker.
Douglas spent more than 25 years working with the FBI, speaking with some of the most infamous serial killers of all time. And way before he inspired one of the best TV shows to ever hit Netflix (sorry if I’m biased), his interviews helped advance the field of criminal profiling and psychology forever.
So, who was John E. Douglas exactly?
Douglas joined the FBI when he was just 25 to work on violent crimes and was a member of the SWAT team. Then he became an instructor in hostage negotiation and applied criminal psychology at the FBI National Academy, according to a profile of him in the Powell Tribune.
It was only when he started being sent around the country to teach criminal-psychology classes that he had the idea to interview serial killers themselves, in order to truly understand how their minds worked.
Over the course of his career, Douglas interviewed some of the most notorious serial killers in history.
The first year of his project, Douglas interviewed 59 serial killers. The next year, that number doubled, and by 1995, Douglas received more than 1,000 (!) requests for criminal profiles. He’s talked with Charles Manson, Edmund Kemper, and Ted Bundy—just to name a few.
His visits with Bundy, btw, helped Douglas create the criminal profile that would eventually lead to the apprehension of The Green River Killer in Washington, per The Guardian.
Pretty quickly, Douglas started noticing patterns in the stories serial killers were telling him.
Most of the people he talked to came from “some type of a dysfunctional family,” he told the Powell Tribune in 1999. Not everyone who grows up in an abusive household will become a serial killer, of course (and thank god), but it was—along with a history of cruelty toward animals and setting fires—something that Douglas heard frequently.
(FYI: Those two childhood behaviors, combined with bed-wetting, were dubbed the MacDonald Triad, which was once believed to predict serial killers. The theory, however, has no evidence to support it.)
Take a look at all the other Mindhunter characters based on real people:
Douglas wrote the book Mindhunter after retiring from the FBI in 1995.
As anyone could imagine, being a criminal profiler is a pretty taxing job.
After a successful FBI career—he contributed to investigations of Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Robert Hansen (the Butcher Baker), and the Tylenol poisoning case—and recovering from a bout of viral encephalitis that almost killed him, Douglas left the Bureau in the ’90s, per the Powell Tribune.
“It causes stress in the family,” Douglas told Vulture years later in May 2019. “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.”
Since hanging up his FBI jacket, Douglas has since continued to consult on cases—including the Jon-Benet Ramsey killing—and has written multiple books about his experiences in the FBI.
Douglas admits he’s used his profiling skills in everyday interactions.
Given how much time he spent on the clock, Douglas hasn’t exactly left his FBI skills at the door (do you blame him?). In his recent interview with Vulture, he said he’s been known to profile people in public—once leading to a confrontation with a man who was taking pictures of kids in public without their knowledge. His skills have also reportedly left some of his daughter’s boyfriends a tad on the stressed side.
“It was crazy,” he said of one particular interaction. “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.”
Mindhunter isn’t Douglas’s first foray into Hollywood.
If you were to name your favorite criminal profiler in pop culture (besides Holden Ford, of course), it’s more likely than not that Douglas’s career helped inspire the character.
Roles in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Criminal Minds are all based on interviews Douglas and his team conducted with violent offenders in prison. (The man is an icon.) And given true crime’s recent pop-culture boom, you could confidently bet Mindhunter won’t be Douglas’s last collab with the big or small screen.
I, for one, can’t wait to see where he (or a renamed version of him, rather) pops up next.