Dressing in disguise is a time-honored Halloween tradition where self-expression and secrecy often meet. But costumes can also serve a much more sinister purpose: to mask a criminal’s identity. While serial killers in signature outfits seem mostly the stuff of horror movies and TV shows, they do have real-life counterparts. Below, a few:
The Phantom Killer
A 1946 string of killings in Texarkana remains unsolved to this day. Because each attack happened after dusk and most victims were young people parked in “lovers’ lanes,” the spree earned the name the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. The killings became inspiration for the horror film The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
On February 22, 1946, at midnight, lovers Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey were violently assaulted in their car. Both survived, and Larey was able to describe their attacker to police: a man in a white mask with cut-out holes for his mouth and eyes.
The next couple was not so lucky. Over the course of 10 weeks the “Phantom Killer,” as he was nicknamed, would slay a total of five and severely injure three.
“A disguise may be strategic in reducing eyewitnesses’ ability to identify the culprit,” says criminologist Dr. Melissa Hamilton, senior lecturer of Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Surrey. With the Phantom Killer, this was absolutely the case—lacking additional evidence or conclusive suspects, the murders were never solved. However, some people think that the Phantom Killer of Texarkana was none other than…
Between 1968 and 1969, the Zodiac killed five people, authorities have confirmed—though he claims to have killed as many as 37. Never caught or identified, the enigmatic psychopath wore a costume during at least one of his crimes: surviving victims describe a black executioner-style hood, and clothes decorated with zodiac symbols. Like the Phantom Killer, the Zodiac often targeted young couples parked at lovers’ lanes. What set the Zodiac apart from his predecessor were his cryptic letters to the media and police which, like a costume, heightened the mythology and terror surrounding him.
According to Dr. Carole Lieberman, forensic psychiatrist and expert witness, killers not only wear costumes to keep the victim from making an identification later, but also to intimidate their victims. “Some killers,” she adds, “use masks or costumes because they are acting out a fantasy or delusion.” Which brings us to…
James Eagan Holmes
While not technically a serial killer, James Eagan Holmes deserves a mention for his horrific murder of 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater during a 2012 midnight screening of the Batman-themed movie The Dark Knight Rises. With an additional 70 people injured, the incident saw the largest number of casualties in a U.S. shooting until the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub four years later. Holmes had dyed his hair like the Joker, a fictional Batman supervillain, and NYPD police commissioner Ray Kelly said that Holmes told authorities that he “was the Joker” after being apprehended.
“It can be about role performance,” Dr. Hamilton says. “The killer who consistently wears a disguise likely has to emotionally and physically get into his ‘uniform.’ The costume can be an integral part of his elaborate fantasy played out.”
But what about when the killer dresses up at home, after the crime?
Ed Gein was a murderer and grave robber who created costumes, furniture and other keepsakes from the bodies of his victims. While he was only officially convicted of killing two people, Bernice Worden and Mary Hogan, he made a lasting impression on the American psyche and inspired fictional villains Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill and Leatherface.
A police raid on his house turned up masks literally made from human faces, a belt of nipples and a corset created from a skinned torso. Like serial killers BTK and John Wayne Gacy, Gein never wore costumes during his crimes. Instead, he donned them in the privacy of his home.
According to Wyndell C. Watkins, Sr., retired chief of detectives for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., “Serial criminals are known for taking souvenirs from victims for the expressed purpose of reliving and reenacting their crimes.”
Lieberman agrees: “When killers wear masks or costumes to relive the crime, it is paradoxical. It is a way of distancing themselves from the ‘evil’ person who committed the crime, while at the same time making the connection with their fantasy or delusion more intimate.”
The Haunting Legacy of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, the Man Who Killed Halloween
How Serial Killers Get In the Mood for Murder
The Zodiac Ciphers: Decoding the Serial Killer’s Cryptic Messages