Before its finale in 2020, Criminal Minds was one of the longest-running police procedural shows on television. For fifteen seasons of the CBS hit, we followed the investigations of the Behavioral Analysis Unit or the BAU, an elite FBI task force.
Unlike police procedurals where the focus is on forensics or homicides, the BAU conducted psychological profiling of serial killers so they could hunt them down.
The unique focus was an exciting addition to the genre when Criminal Minds episodes first aired in 2005. For any true crime fan who’s read about the likes of Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, or John Wayne Gacy, it was exciting to get into the minds of serial killers.
Why do they feel compelled to do what they do? Did they have traumatic childhoods that drove them to kill? Or, as with serial killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Dennis Rader, did they grow up in supportive households but were, quite simply, psychopaths?
These were the questions the BAU usually tried to answer in each episode of Criminal Minds. They’d map these out to create a profile of an unknown subject or an unsub. Even if they didn’t know who it was yet, the BAU could usually determine the next move of the unsub based on their profile.
It was even more fascinating when they connected the fictional case to real ones. In the U.S., there were about 30 serial killers operating in 2015, down from the 151 that terrorized the country in 1994. In a twisted way, true crime and the serial killings that were rampant in the 20th century supplied shows like Criminal Minds with enough true-to-life events to draw inspiration from.
Criminal Minds Episodes Based on Real-Life Killers
Unfinished Business (Season 1, Episode 15)
A retired FBI agent works with the BAU to reopen the case of the Keystone Killer who’s been inactive for 18 years but is now killing again.
The murders of seven women were linked together by the intricate knots used to tie them up. The killings and letters from the unsub eventually stopped, leading the FBI to believe that he died, moved away, or was incarcerated.
This Criminal Minds episode is largely based on Dennis Rader, who named himself the BTK (bind, torture, kill) Strangler for his modus operandi. Rader was a stalker. He learned the routines of his victims, most of whom were older women, so he could enter their homes and attack them without interruption.
Between the years of 1974 and 1991, he killed ten people in Kansas. During that time, he also taunted the police with letters, much like Criminal Minds’ fictional Keystone Killer. “How many people do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention,” asks one of Rader’s letters to the department.
It was actually Rader’s thirst for recognition of his crimes that finally got him arrested in 2005 after a long cooling off period. The Witchita Eagle published an article suggesting that the BTK Strangler is no longer a threat to the cities of Witchita and Park City.
This triggered Rader, who was later diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, to resume his reign of terror. But he became sloppy and left forensic clues that led investigators to his identity and location.
There are plenty of similarities between Dennis Rader and the unsub in this episode of Criminal Minds, from victimology to the method in which they killed.
Even the mind games they played, with the taunting letters and puzzles, created a similar profile of a serial killer with a need for control and recognition for their crimes, almost as uncontrollable as their urge to kill.
Lucky (Season 3, Episode 8)
The third season of Criminal Minds is one of its best. There’s a lot of shocking drama within the BAU and terrifying crime to keep our favorite profilers awake at night. One of these cases is the abduction of a woman in Florida (of course, it’s Florida) that appears to have ties to a Satanic cult.
The BAU quickly dismisses the idea of killings driven by Satanic beliefs as urban legend. David Rossi (Joe Mantegna), an expert on the subject, profiles the unsub and explains, “He adapts satanic beliefs to fit his specific homicidal drives. He doesn’t kill because he believes in Satan. He believes in Satan because he kills.”
The key detail in Criminal Minds’ Lucky is the fact that the unsub kept the bodies frozen for consumption. While this is reminiscent of infamous serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, it reminds me more of Joe Metheny.
Real-life cannibal Metheny ran a roadside barbecue, as did our unsub, Floyd Feylinn Ferrell. As you might have already guessed, both men served meals that were made from human flesh. Not only is feeding your guests human meat an unspeakable act, the means through which they were harvested by our serial killers were also very much illegal and immoral.
Minimal Loss (Season 4, Episode 3)
The religious cult in the Minimal Loss episode is eerily similar to the Branch Davidians involved in the deadly Waco Siege. Criminal Minds created a profile of their cult leader, Benjamin Cyrus, who posed as a messiah to his followers. He used this place of power to control the men and the women in the cult, normalizing polygamy with underage girls.
Meanwhile, the real-life Branch Davidians had David Koresh, who also practiced polygamy. Koresh claimed he was the Chosen One and would often use his prophecies to take new wives, most of whom were underage.
Like the Criminal Minds episode, there were also allegations of child sexual abuse by the cult’s leader. This, and the group’s possession of illegal firearms and explosives, were the main reasons behind the FBI’s planned raid. The Waco Siege lasted 51 days and produced 82 casualties, including Koresh.
Catching Out (Season 4, Episode 5)
Some criminologists believe that the development of roads and highways contributed to the proliferation of serial killings in the 1980s. The ability to hunt for victims in an unfamiliar area gave some really sick individuals the mask of anonymity that they needed to commit their crimes. Plus, the ability to travel provided them with as many target-rich environments as they wanted.
This is why a lot of serial killers relied on vehicles as an important part of their process. For instance, Edmund Kemper used a 1969 Ford Galaxie 500 to pick up hitchhikers he would later kill in isolated fields.
For Ángel Maturino Reséndiz, trains were his chosen means of transportation.
Reséndiz became known as the Railroad Killer due to the proximity of the crimes he committed to the tracks. He would hop on and off trains, pick homes to burglarize, and use tools he found nearby as weapons.
He’s what the BAU would call a disorganized killer or an opportunistic offender. Because of their lack of planning, opportunistic offenders are the hardest to profile and their moves are difficult to predict.
Criminal Minds had an episode with an unsub that’s very similar to Reséndiz. In Catching Out, a homeless man hopped trains across the country and picked victims based on opportunity. The unsub slept in his victims’ beds, ate their food, and wore their clothes.
Although it wasn’t clear why, Reséndiz was also known to linger in his victims’ homes after he killed them, just like the unsub in Criminal Minds. He was linked to at least 23 murders across the U.S. and Mexico and was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive list before he surrendered in 1999.
Alpha Male (Season 12, Episode 15)
Season 12’s Alpha Male may feel a little familiar for those who followed the 2014 Isla Vista killings.
In the TV version, a series of acid attacks forced the BAU to investigate further. The only thing that seemed to connect the victims was their appearance. The unsub only threw acid at young and attractive individuals, which led the BAU to believe that the unsub felt he was socially awkward and unable to date.
The BAU also connected the unsub to a forum called the manosphere where misogynistic views prosper. Additionally, the unsub wrote a manifesto detailing a final attack, which he called “The Day of Reckoning.”
Unfortunately, groups like the manosphere do exist in real life, only we call them incel forums. A reductionist view of self-proclaimed incels, or involuntary celibates, is that they really, really hate women. They believe women are inferior to men, and see themselves as victims of women or the alpha males in their lives.
Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator behind the Isla Vista attack, was a self-described incel. Although acid wasn’t his weapon for killing, Rodger’s primary motivation was similar to the Criminal Minds unsub.
He was isolated and felt rejected by the women in his life. He also felt jealous of the so-called alpha males who received all the attention that he felt he deserved but somehow didn’t get.
Rodger wrote a 107,000-word manifesto explaining his frustration over being an incel and his grand plans to avenge himself. He also recorded a disturbing video as an explanation, which he called Elliot Rodger’s Retribution.
In it, he laments, “For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection, and sex, and love to other men but never to me.”
He added, “Well, now I will be a god compared to you, you will all be animals, you are animals and I will slaughter you like animals. I’ll be a god exacting my retribution on all those who deserve it and you do deserve it just for the crime of living a better life than me.”
True to his word, Rodger went on a killing spree on May 23, 2014. He stabbed three men, two of whom were his college roommates. Later that night, he drove to a sorority house and began a shooting spree, killing two women. Rodger also ran over pedestrians and attacked several more people in drive-by shootings. In total, he killed six people and injured 14 more before killing himself inside his car.
Throughout its initial 15-season run, Criminal Minds satisfied true crime fans such as myself with fictional versions of real-life cases. Sure, many of them are disturbing, especially knowing that some details are taken from real life. But it’s always fascinating how the BAU dug into the minds of unsubs to figure out their motivations and patterns.
Luckily for fans of the show, Criminal Minds is getting a reboot and it seems like creators are taking inspiration from real life again. Only this time, they’re using the pandemic as the context of their new storyline.