Mindhunter and Theology: Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and the Death of Christ

The Netflix series Mindhunter dramatizes the beginnings of FBI profiling necessitated by, what would come to be called, “serial killers.”  Based largely on the work of John E. Douglas, who recognized that seemingly random murders often follow a pattern traceable to particular “psychological types,” the series illustrates Douglas’ application of psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis to crime. Douglas brings psychology, and specifically the Freudian theory of masochism and sadism (death drive), to bear upon criminality so as to both identify the psychological make-up and experience of the killer and to predict future behavior. In the broadest terms, psychoanalysis is built upon the presupposition that the human disease (Freud was a medical doctor) is subject to prognosis because it follows regular patterns with identifiable causes and effects.  The more the disease – neurosis or psychosis – has a grip on an individual the more their behavior, thought, and personality, will follow a predictable (almost mechanical) pattern (the more the disease will “present” itself). In terms of destructive behavior and murder, the more the individual is given over to compulsion the more destructive and thus the more predictable their behavior. In this sense, a serial killer presents the perfect object of study as they have relinquished control (in their own description and as the series abundantly illustrates) to compulsions which are totally destructive.  Those who are most “out of control” better demonstrate the nature of the cause and effect power which animates their actions. The perfect presentation of the disease is to be found in pure death drive and destruction.  

As Hannah Arendt inadvertently noted in the case of Adolph Eichmann, radical evil and a banality of evil (terms which she seemed to not recognize are contradictory) coincide in Eichmann because it is precisely his desire to be the perfect bureaucrat and to give himself completely to serving the Nazi cause, which explains his genocidal drive.  Where she had envisioned a diabolical monster (one who is radically and creatively evil) prior to seeing Eichmann, what she encountered in the flesh was someone without the capacity to think – the perfect bureaucrat executing orders without admixture of creativity or personality.  Eichmann, the mass murderer, resembles the serial killer in his having relinquished his own powers of thought to the powers that be.  He could plot the regular movement of trains and timetables so well because his own thought was reduced to the regular order of a machine, ultimately a machine in which he was only a cog. This gets at the resolution to the contradiction: radical evil or that which seems to be self-generating and without purpose beyond itself is inhuman by definition. Human evil is always banal in that it reduces the individual to forces beyond their control.  It is these forces, seemingly all powerful and infinitely destructive, which necessarily portray radical evil coincident with the reduction of human freedom.  The failing of Arendt to recognize the contradiction in the terms she employs may have been her greatest insight.  Radical evil makes itself known at the point where stupidity and banality have completely corroded humanity. The form that this corrosion takes, serial killer or mass murderer, sociopath or psychopath, Adolph Hitler or Ted Bundy, may be determinative of how the radical evil is identified but the constellation involved in human experience (shame, humiliation, control, revenge) will be ever present.

As the psychologist, Wendy Carr, notes in the series, her study of politicians will apply directly to the study of serial killers as both groups portray a similar sociopathic lack of empathy.  The masochist and the sadist will find an infinite variety of outlets to attain pleasure.  Deriving pleasure through pain is not the exclusive realm of the serial killer. All of humanity experiences the various elements which, in their extreme form, converge to rob us of our humanity.  The difference with those who kill is that they have been consistently exposed to more intense and systematic forms of shame and violence. Lonnie Athens, in his doctoral studies, interviewed hundreds of violent criminals to arrive at a pattern which he calls “violentization.” He discovered that those who commit the worst forms of violence have themselves been exposed to consistent and predictable levels of violence as children. The serial killers of the first season of Mindhunter all reduce to a singular form: each is male and has a mother who has humiliated and shamed them while their father is absent and has abandoned them. The pattern may be simplified for television but the point of systemic exposure to regular patterns of humiliation and violence ring true. What Freud indicated both Douglas and Athens confirm: the key to understanding the worst forms of psychological illness lie in the repetition in the present of an attempt to resolve a childhood experience (though the individual may not have conscious access to either the memory in the past nor the struggle to bring resolution in the present).

Freudian theory, captured in his explanation in “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,” is built upon the notion that symptoms are formed in early childhood and are compulsively repeated in destructive thoughts or behaviors. The symptom is a resistance formation which intervenes in remembering. At first, Freud turned to hypnosis to bring out these repressed memories but hypnosis, focused as it is on the past, fails to address the present symbolic significance of the resistance. As in the television series in which a shoe fetish will be understood only through tapping into both the specific experience of the individual and the symbolic universe which results, so too in analysis the goal is not simply to dig up a forgotten memory but to deal with the symbolic significance the memory takes on in the present. The symptom is an inaccessible memory which is kept symbolically alive in the present through repetition. It is compulsively repeated and it is the present symbolism and its repetition which has to be intervened in or worked through – the goal of therapy.

The problem which confronted Freud and which becomes obvious in the television series is the degree to which resistances and symptoms become definitive of the individual. Can the serial killer stop killing or does he enjoy his symptom such that the symptom is all that is left?  As Freud developed his understanding of the death drive he came to recognize the possibility that the ego itself, along with its opposite – the superego, may be a resistance formation. That is the very substance of what he had previously presumed to be the core of the individual now seemed to be a symptom. This problem caused him to question the efficacy of analysis. He wondered whether being human entailed an incurable disease, not just in our mortality but in the resistance (the ego/superego) to our mortality (death drive).  Is the problem of the serial killer the human problem in that we can we only enjoy the various symptoms out of which we are constituted? Are we tied to resistance and repetition, such that we are our resistances compulsively repeated so as to make up the course of our life?

To this point, I have resisted explaining the psychoanalytic predicament through a theological explanation as the psychoanalytical, much like the television series, leaves us short of any sort of (theological like) resolution and this is part of the fascination. In fact, in my binge television watching (justified here in this reflective blog) the pattern is continually repeated – the FBI profiler, the pursuer, becomes so fascinated with unraveling the mystery of the Zodiac Killer, Ted Kaczynski, the CIA (in Wormwood), or the serial killer in Mindhunter, that their own life has taken on the look of a symptom (compulsively attempting to unravel a mystery such that it consumes their life).  We are fascinated by the mystery, like the pursuer, but we are most satisfied and continue watching as we watch the consumption of the life of the pursuer in the pursuit.  The mystery repeats itself in the pursuer and it repeats itself in the viewer. We enjoy our symptom and the best stories keep this enjoyment alive?[2]

There is something inherently repulsive in the theological which, I am suggesting, directly challenges our enjoyment of the symptom.  What if sin is not simply a one-off failure in behavior but a power or force (on the order of a drive) which is at the core of who we are?  What if it is in fact so definitive that, as with Freud, the “I” or ego is itself a formation which must be undone?  This cannot be a very pleasant prospect from the vantage of the “I.”  It would seem one would “kick against the goads” so as to resist and that every conversion must involve the overcoming of certain resistances and symptoms that are perhaps more entrenched with age. C. S. Lewis described himself as the most reluctant Christian convert in all of England and he describes an unpleasant sensation of “melting” as he recognizes he cannot resist.  Death and rebirth describe a process that may be quite unpleasant.  Paul’s description of sin, tied up as it is with desire, is such that it is channeled by and gives itself over to desire. Paul claims that there is an ultimate relinquishment of the will in which it is no longer “I” but sin which animates the doing. Desire, in both the description of serial killers and in Paul’s description, becomes all consuming and definitive of the self.  To resist this defining desire must be to refuse the allure of the ultimate pleasure.

This final pleasure is very much connected in Scripture and among the serial killers to death.  The killers describe an ultimate sexual pleasure gained in humiliating their victims and their bodies.  The ultimate humiliation is found in torturing and killing their victims and then desecrating their bodies.  Torturing and killing gives them a feeling of power where, in their humiliation, they have felt powerless.  To kill and humiliate another is a real-world sort of power – the ultimate sort of power/pleasure – which the state as well as the individual potentially yields. For example, the torture and humiliation of Christ in crucifixion seems to be both an execution carried out by Rome but vicariously “enjoyed” by the children of Rome.  The Jews swear their allegiance to the god Caesar (we have no king but Caesar) in spite of the fact their entire religion is pitted against this sort of blind, idolatrous allegiance. His death gains for his killers (the socio-religious powers of Rome and Israel – the “Jews” in John’s description) the god-like feeling of power (or at least identification with the god, Caesar). Isn’t it this exulting in power, enjoyed by every killer, precisely that which he overcomes? The killings carried out by Caesar, Mao, Stalin, Hitler, or any war mongering demigod are not a realm apart from the serial killer. To extend the point, corporate killing (whether by tribe, clan, state, or mob) is such that all are implicated.  Everyone would seem to be implicated in the same elemental forces of humiliation, shame, perceived powerless, and the attempt to gain power over and through death (whether individually or corporately) illustrated by the serial killer? The point is not to reduce all people to the same moral level but rather to suggest that all are infected, in varying intensities, with the universal problem starkly traceable in the serial killer.  Isn’t this precisely the implication of placing ourselves and our sin, as in the old hymn, at the foot of the cross as part of the cause behind the cross?  The difference I am drawing out though, is not to suggest some mysterious similarity between all sinners before God, but rather to concretely demonstrate that the murderous forces which put Christ on the Cross and the murderous forces at work in the serial killer have their genealogy in a universal condition which affects us all.

The Good News is that Christ’s death is not simply another murder but, along with his life and resurrection, is an uncovering of the resistance or symptom that killed Him and which lies behind every murder and every life given over to violence and death. His is not an overcoming through resistance (of either the Freudian kind or, the same thing, the violent kind) but an acceptance and exposure of the workings of this power portrayed in the ultimate violence wrought against him.  Christ’s form of remembering, repetition, and working through, is not in the Freudian mold, a final acceptance of the symptom.  Paul relates the dissolution of his ego directly to the crucifixion reenacted in his own life. “I no longer live as I have been crucified,” he writes, “but Christ lives within me.” The remembering and repetition enacted by Christ overcomes the boundary of individual experience.[3]  The deception of sin repeated in every “I” is dispelled in the dissolution/death of this “I” which is grounded in the lie of death resistance (“you will not die but be like gods”).  Remembering Christ, in the manner and with the full meaning given at the Lord’s Supper, overcomes the resistance of sin – of the blocked memory of the symptom (thus the disciples recall the moment as the point of intervention which they did not immediately apprehend). The remembering and repetition of Christ worked through in walking as he walked breaks through the fabric/fabrication of neurosis (e.g. the denial of Peter) portrayed in the primordial symptom – the ego or “I.” Serial killer, potentate, apostle, or low-level sinner all have fallen short of the glory of God, perhaps to different degrees but in the same systemic way the New Testament identifies as sin. The perspective given to us in salvation, I have argued in the past several blogs and will continue to argue, allows us to concretely follow the system of sin particularly in its most degraded form.

[1] I am driving to the point of the crucifixion.

[2] Even Freud recognized the urge to reduce everything to a symptom when he resisted applying his theory to Fyodor Dostoevsky.  He had come to be bored with neurosis and neurotics as the same pattern continually presented itself. He did not want to reduce humanity to the form of a disease and he recognized in Dostoevsky one who, in spite of his drinking and gambling, portrayed a creativity which could not be measured by his own theory.

[3] In this way Paul presumes to be able to describe sin as following a predictable pattern in every child of Adam as it is systemic.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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