By Lisa Black
A surprising amount of serial killers have appeared on television—and not on a perp walk. Turns out they long for their fifteen minutes on games shows and reality TV as much as the rest of us.
Rodney Alcala’s father abandoned them when Rodney was ten. Seven years later he joined the army, had an AWOL nervous breakdown but eventually became a photographer with a degree in Fine Arts. Among his many endeavors he worked as a counselor at a children’s art camp—an idea to give any parent nightmares—before being convicted of 7 murders (though the number is likely higher). He was omnivorous; his victims ranged in age from 8 to 28 and included both male and females. But in 1978 he was the winning contestant on The Dating Game, though he never made it to a date with the bachelorette. She found him ‘creepy’—go figure.
London chef and serial killer Stephen Port liked to catfish his victims on dating apps, but his crimes went beyond using someone else’s picture and lying about his Oxford and Royal Navy background. He drugged, raped and killed four young men. Three of his victims were dumped on the grounds of a historic church erected in the 13th century, where he left a fake suicide note in which the victim not only took responsibility for his own death but ‘confessed’ to killing another victim as well. It didn’t work, and he will spend the rest of his life in jail. Yet he wasn’t lying about being able to cook—he worked as a chef and appeared as a sous chef to a former boy band singer on England’s Celebrity MasterChef.
Charmless John Cooper, perhaps ironically, turned to crime after winning a huge amount in a newspaper contest; after squandering the money he began to rob. He shot his victims in the face with a shotgun and raped two teenage girls among his many other crimes. In 1989 he appeared on the British TV show Bullseye, which centered around teams of two contestants, one throwing darts and the other answering trivia questions. (He threw the darts.) This worked against him in the end, when cops compared his image from the TV show to witness sketches, and he wound up in jail for life.
Edward Wayne Edwards’s life started out bad and got worse. First he was given a first name that lacked imagination vis-à-vis his last name, then his mother committed suicide in front of him when he could barely walk. He shuffled through abusive orphanages and, not surprisingly, began to act out in his teens. He joined the Marines but they kicked him out and he wound up in Leavenworth, where he supposedly ‘reformed’ himself so well that he went on the lecture circuit after his release. This led to an appearance on To Tell the Truth and What’s My Line? both in 1972. He was convicted of five murders but suspected in upwards of fifteen, his motives ranging from lust to robbery to an insurance payout. He died of natural causes in 1977 – four months before he would have been executed.
We writers love to invent genius criminal masterminds who almost never exist in real life, but Paul Curry really was a nuclear engineer, a Mensa member and a two-time winner on my favorite show, Jeopardy! when he poisoned his wife with nicotine for a million-dollar insurance policy in 1994. But just like our supervillains, Curry got overconfident, because Linda and those around her were already suspicious of him even before her death. He lost his job when it turned out he didn’t have a college degree after all. Still, he remained free for twenty long years before authorities finally sentenced him to life in prison.
Why would someone with criminal tendencies want to appear on national TV? Simple: these men were narcissists, people so self-centered they could take someone else’s life on a whim. They wanted to be in the public eye, wanted to have the admiration and attention they thought they so richly deserved. It made complete sense to show off their intellect to the world—even if that intellect, in reality, didn’t measure up to their own inflated view.
But in fiction, it must—our protagonist needs a worthy adversary. An easy contest is not worth winning.
Who is your favorite literary genius of crime?
What an incredible list of killers on TV – it makes one wonder why those producers of reality shows can’t do a better background check on their various contestants!!! In fact, from your list, it looks like the only reality shows that have not had a killer on as a contestant are on HGTV – guess I’ll stick with those! Thanks for the heads-up….Karna Small Bodman
Ugh! Ghastly (and fascinating). I did not know nicotine poisoning was a thing! How do you administer? Can just picture my search history if I Google. Here’s to non-narcissistic men.
In defense of the game shows, none of them were convicted killers before their appearances. Killers, maybe, but no one knew yet. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we haven’t jinxed HGTV!
I wouldn’t be surprised if they also thought they could win, also narcissism at work. Sherlock Holmes’s Moriarty is always an interesting criminal genius. And there’s Nero Wolfe’s nemesis but I can’t think of his name offhand. I’m glad they’re fictional! Great post, Lisa.
Arnold Zeck, Carla.
My wife was a classmate of Ted Bundy. In fact, it was her callous dismissal of his bumbling adolescent attempt to ask her for a date that turned him into a serial killer of women.
Not really, but that’s what l tell people.
The Dating Game guy was creepy. I recently saw a clip of that show on Dateline or 20/20. I love your comment about HGTV. Now I’m thinking–which of those home remodelers is out doing nighttime demolition?