|WHERE TO LOOK
Obviously, Pat Brown has put a lot of thought into what constitutes a serial killer, so if you’re interested in reading more on that, your first stop might be her two books, Killing for Sport: Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, which breaks down some of the myths associated with psychopaths and The Profiler: My Life Hunting Serial Killers and Psychopaths, which takes readers “behind the scenes,” in the mind of these twisted weirdos.
From there, Brown suggests Inside the Criminal Mind by Dr. Stanton Samenow. The book is a 1984 study that’s fascinating because “you’re actually going to get a view of how the criminal mind works,” according to Brown.
She also suggests Dr. Robert D. Hare’s book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. “I use it and I love it,” she says.
In general, Brown suggests building a reading list that’s psychologist/author-heavy because they’re much better at showing how psychopaths think.
And when you’re ready to get into the historical nitty-gritty, hop on the web and check out the serial killer section of the TruTV Crime Library. You’ll find all the lurid details surrounding scores of serial killers. “They’re not always accurate,” admits Brown, “Sometimes they’re the writer’s viewpoint, but I think at least you can get a clue of how things really work.”
Written by Denis Faye
So you think you know everything there is to know about serial killers because you’ve seen Silence of the Lambs four times, tivo The Profiler weekly, and own the first three seasons of Dexter on Blu-ray?
Talk a while with real-life criminal profiler Pat Brown, and you’ll realize that you don’t know diddly about psychopaths – and that Hollywood could use a little brushing up on the topic, too. Real serial killers don’t play cat and mouse with profilers. They don’t leave calling cards. They aren’t particularly smart. And most importantly, they’re just not nice guys. “They’re evil,” Brown states bluntly. “To portray them in a redeeming way makes me nauseous.”
In addition to her extensive work profiling serial killers and training law enforcement to catch them, Brown offers commentary and analysis for MSNBC, CNN, FOX, America’s Most Wanted, Court TV, The Discovery Channel, and on and on. She’s written two books on the subject, Killing for Sport: Inside the Minds of Serial Killers and The Profiler: My Life Hunting Serial Killers and Psychopaths, which comes out in May. She also teaches the serial homicide program at Excelsior College.
We’re not 100 percent sure how she found time to talk to Technically Speaking, but she did. We walked away with a much deeper understanding of the psychopathic mind, as well as a renewed commitment never to climb into a Volkswagen with a guy named Ted.
What does Hollywood get right about serial killers?
Very little. One of the problems we have with Hollywood and serial killers is that they want a lot more excitement in their films than real serial killers are going to give them. The real serial killer isn’t as smart; he doesn’t do so many clever things. He also doesn’t have a fantastic signature with every crime, something really creepy that links every one of the crimes together. And there’s not a showdown between the killer and the profiler where the killer almost knocks off the profiler but the profiler wins. It’s very exciting, but it’s not the way it is in real life.
What about films based on real events, like Zodiac [Screenplay by James Vanderbilt]?
Zodiac was one of the better movies, but that was more of a true-crime type of movie. A lot of that was still inaccurate. They came up with the suspect in the movie, and I don’t agree with that. But it was truer to life, shall we say. And the Zodiac was a little more unusual than most serial killers because he did have these missives that he’d send into the police, and nobody’s ever figured them out. I think that’s probably because they’re all garbage with no real meaning behind them. He was definitely in the one percent category, as opposed to the ones that jump out of the bushes, hit you in the head, and rape you, and you’re done.
But if they’re not as smart as the guys in the movies, why aren’t they easier to catch?
The real reason it’s so hard to catch serial killers is that it’s usually stranger homicides, so there’s no link from the victim to the killer. He gets the window of opportunity where there are no witnesses and by the time the body is found, he’s had the opportunity to get rid of evidence, or the body has taken so long to be found, maybe a year later in a remote mountain area, that all the DNA evidence is gone, and it’s hard to link anybody to it. That’s why it’s hard, not because they’re so clever.
And the reason they usually do get caught – and it’s a small percentage that do get caught; most serial homicides go unsolved – but the ones that do get caught do something stupid because of their arrogance. I like to use the example of Ted Bundy because everybody thinks he’s such a brilliant serial killer. Actually, Ted was one of the stupidest ones.
Here’s Ted. He decides to commit a serial homicide. He goes out in broad day light at Lake Sammamish. He goes up to women in front of other people and says, “Hi, my name is Ted, can you help me out here loading something into my car?” The women went off with him, and they didn’t return. He got two that day. They put out the composite of him and underneath it said, “A guy named Ted driving a gold Volkswagen.” His own girlfriend said, “Gee, that sounds like my boyfriend.” Not a brilliant guy.
But that’s not how he got caught.
She turned in Ted. They ignored him. Two other people turned in Ted. They still ignored him. Sometimes, when they get tips, the person handling them decides some tips aren’t valuable or someone’s getting back at their boyfriend, and for some reason, Ted Bundy got ignored.
What do profilers do in real life if all those signatures and patterns don’t exist?
Well, no, there are things you can look for, but you have to be careful, and they’re just not as obvious as you’d think. The signature isn’t there, but the M.O. is there – the method of operation. If you find you can use a ruse to abduct a girl, and say, “I’m a photographer, do you want to get your picture taken in my van and never come back out again?” When the girl says, “Sure” and jumps in, he’ll say, “Wow, that worked.”
But the signature, doing something because it’s exciting but not because they need to do it to commit the crime, like they carve an S in every girl’s head or something, no. Most of them don’t waste their time with that. They rape, they kill, they go home and have a hamburger.
But he’s not always going to use the same method. He might try something else on another day, so you have to be careful of that. What happens is that sometimes you’ll have two or three crimes that look the same, but you can’t tell them apart.
And it’s your job to sort that out?
Yeah, you try to see if there’s anything about those crimes that’s different. Maybe if one particular guy wouldn’t commit that kind of crime, whether there was a guy in the area capable of committing that crime.
As a profiler, what I do is go into the police department, take out their files, and analyze all the information that they have. I analyze the crime scene photos and the autopsy photos and determine what happened at the crime scene, what behavior happened. Then I look to see what would be the motive and who would do this type of thing. Is this a serial killer? Is it a domestic crime? Is it a staged crime? Then I can look for the type of person who committed this crime. Then I will go into their investigation and all the interviews they’ve done, and I can see if there’s someone who matches the analyses I’ve come up with. I can see if there’s something missing in the interviews, statements he made that nobody saw. I look for those things. In some cases I’ve been able to come up with the suspects, but in other cases, I’ve said to the police, “Well, good luck. I’m with you. I can’t figure it out either.”
What are some of your favorite movies about serial killers?
My absolutely favorite of all time is An Eye for an Eye [Screenplay by Amanda Silver & Rick Jaffa] with Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland. That is an incredibly accurate depiction of serial homicide. Kiefer Sutherland’s performance is just chilling, and it is so right for a particular type of killer. He’s an anger-retaliatory killer. He just knocks on the door, and the girl answers it, and she’s just pretty much dead. And his way of committing the crime, going from being completely blasé to extraordinarily violent is amazing. The way the investigation falls apart is also pretty accurate. That is the most realistic depiction I’ve ever seen.
Tarantino’s film, Reservoir Dogs [Written by Quentin Tarantino], I thought that was brilliant. It showed how psychopaths try to work as a gang. You can’t trust any of them. Each one of them exhibits a psychopath in a different way.
How about some movies you didn’t like?
Oh my god. Let’s go straight to Silence of the Lambs [Screenplay by Ted Tally]. Absolutely awful, ludicrous movie – the serial killer that doesn’t exist, behaviors that don’t exist, cutting the skins off women. Come on, please. The cleverness and all that is just foolishness, and on top of that, Jodie Foster would have been fired really quickly because she’s an emotional nightmare. If she hears lambs in the night, she needs to not have a profiling job.
And of course, the cat and mouse game is totally inaccurate. I’ve been in the business 14 years and the threat comes from stalkers, not serial killers. Serial killers want to keep a low profile. They don’t want to get involved in some back and forth thing.
Serial killers like to play games with us, but not in the Hollywood cat-and-mouse sense – more on the side. They think profilers are cool, or they might hang out with the police having a beer because they’re police wannabes. But they aren’t going to have one-on-one with profilers. Usually it’s mass murderers that do stuff like that.
What’s the difference?
A mass murderer usually is a one-time thing, knocking off a whole pile of people. A real serial killer just wants to have his moment of power. He has a bad hair day, and he feels like a loser, so he goes out and has his revenge on society by killing someone, usually someone smaller than him, a little, small girl. He never picks a bigger girl. If you see a big girl who’s been killed, you know it’s a boyfriend. It’s just too much damn work.
What would you like to see in a movie, just once?
I’d love to see them show more accuracy in the serial killer himself and how he behaves. I have a new book coming out called The Profiler: My Life Hunting Serial Killers and Psychopaths. One of the things I look at is how serial killers behave, how psychopaths behave, the things they say, the mannerisms. The way they behave with victims. The way they behave with police investigations. A lot of that is never portrayed in film very well. It’s fascinating, but they’re not as bizarre as the films show. For example, one thing that’s common among serial killers is that they claim they’ve been in special ops. I don’t know what it is about special ops, but serial killers all want to claim they’ve been in it. They have the stupidest stories, and they can’t back any of them.
I would love to see a clever film that brings out how the guy operates and how his mannerisms get mistaken and some of the quirky things – like in that French film, With a Friend Like Harry [Screenplay by Dominik Moll and Gilles Marchand], when Harry puts the body of the brother in the trunk then drives up to the house and says, “He wasn’t around.” So the sister says, “Let me give him a call.” Harry says, “Oh shit!” and runs out to the car because the cell phone is still in the brother’s pocket in the trunk. I had to laugh because that’s a stupid mistake a serial killer will make.
His behavior was believable, but there was a lot of humor in it, in a strange, demented way. I think you see a little more of that in Fargo [Written by Joel & Ethan Coen], some of the quirky little things that they don’t think through because they just don’t think like normal humans. They don’t look into the future and predict how things might go.
Any other advice for writers?
It depends on whether you want it to be more exciting or more realistic. I don’t think a writer has to stay with all that mythology of serial killers; “They kill every time there’s a new moon! They won’t stop killing! They kill every week!” They don’t have to stay with that. They can be quirkier about it. Take more interesting characters. For example, that guy who was on The Dating Game. He was bachelor number one, and he won! But the girl wouldn’t go out with him because she said he was too creepy. It was true. It’s in the news. If you study the way they behave, and the way they get caught, you can create a character that is fascinating and subtle and way more quirky than having some freaky, crazy guy who kidnaps girls by helicopter or whatever.
And the other thing that is terribly problematic is the psychology behind it, like he once had a problem with a raccoon and therefore he went after PETA people who like raccoons. I’m like, “What?” Sometimes, shows try to overprofile the killer’s mental state. Frankly, usually it’s just not true. He’s just pissed off at society and became a psychopath when life didn’t work out his way. Society didn’t do what he wanted it to do, so he developed his own game plan. Usually, his crimes are not very fanciful. They’re just full of rage. Some add more sadistic components in, like chaining a woman in the basement and torturing her, but the majority just strangle the woman to death and rape her. Some get into mutilation, but that doesn’t have to do with something that happened in their childhood. It’s just that the fun ends too quickly, so instead of walking away from the body, they want to play with it because they can continue having control. “Now I’m eating you! Look at that!” It’s an ongoing feeling of power.
All that said, I have to say, what Hollywood does works. I think anyone in a profession doesn’t like a show made about that profession because its unrealistic, but again, you have to have something that’s a lot more thrilling than real life, like contorted plot lines and surprise endings.
It is, after all, drama.
Yes, but what I’m really opposed to films that portray the psychopath as someone who can be likable. He may be a serial killer, but he has redeeming qualities. I’ve never seen a serial killer with redeeming qualities or one you can have some kind of sympathy for, like it’s just a bad hobby he’s got. When they portray that, it really irks me. What people don’t get is that a psychopath can portray, at certain points in his life, certain levels of affection, like he loves his kid, or he stayed with his wife for 30 years, or he has a dog. Those are just objects in his life. He doesn’t care about the feelings of the children, his wife, the dog. Those are things to him, and everybody likes things. We like our cars, we like pretty clothing. We like our new sofa. Well, serial killers like those things, too. They like their kids because the kids pay attention to them. They’re proud. “Look, I can produce kids; I’m a strong male guy,” like that bodyguard for the evangelist in Ohio, he had a wife and two sons. Everybody said he was a great father. Then one day he kills the whole family and goes off to Florida with some stripper. What the heck? People mistook what he was doing for love. They were just useful too him. People are either useful, or they’re in the way, and they got in the way.
I don’t mind a little cat and mouse because it makes for interesting stuff. But don’t portray them as redeeming. You want to portray them as redeeming in the beginning because nobody knows who he is, but he has no redeeming features in the end.