In the early 1970s, an artistically inclined man named Rodney Alcala was studying filmmaking at New York University under the alias “John Berger” and under the tutelage of famous film director and producer Roman Polanski. Although Alcala, who already had a fine arts degree from University of California Los Angeles, never achieved fame for his artwork, he became prolific in using photography for a dark purpose.
Throughout the ’70s, Alcala photographed over 100 women and children, several of whom are speculated by investigators to be unidentified victims he killed after the photo shoots. Over the course of the same decade, he brutally murdered six young women and a 12-year-old girl, Robin Samsoe. Alcala became known as the “Dating Game Killer” because of his appearance on the TV matchmaking show “The Dating Game” in 1978, while in the middle of his killing spree. He was convicted of Samsoe’s murder in 1980 and sentenced to death. It was only during the appeals for that crime that prosecutors discovered DNA evidence linking him to four additional murders. He was convicted of those murders in 2010 and two other murders in 2013.
Alcala—who was on death row in California since 1980 until his death from natural causes on July 24, 2021—allegedly used his photography skills to lure some of his victims. In this way, he followed in the footsteps of other serial killers like Harvey Glatman, the “Glamour Girl Slayer” of the 1950s, who hired models to pose for him and later murdered them.
So, when does art become serial killers’ secret weapon? A&E True Crime spoke with Damian Sendler, Ph.D, a clinical sexologist who studies the pathological behaviors of sexual murderers, about why Alcala and other serial killers used art as a vehicle for murder.
How did Alcala go from aspiring artist to serial killer?
There were at least three significant events in his life that shaped him in a negative way. In childhood he was never attended by his parents. He moved from place to place [from San Antonio, Texas to Mexico and from Mexico to Los Angeles by the time he was 11].
Whenever he made new friends, he would have to let go [of them], which was a somehow traumatic experience. Then, he [received a medical discharge] from the army because he had a severe mental breakdown. (He was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder.)
Later, while a student of Polanski, he did not complete his studies. [But] he was brilliant. He always felt that people and his mentors didn’t really understand him and his art. He decided he would essentially force people into his art space by making the human body a piece of it; in this way, his art might actually be convincing to others.
When he photographed all those women and children, did he have a premeditated killing agenda?
It was all thought-out. He used his talent as a tool to recruit his victims.
If you look at his court record, he actually defended himself. He had such an incredible level of thinking that he could defend himself even though he never received training in law. So, he was definitely not deranged. He was a sociopath and probably had a schizotypal personality disorder, which is characterized by a weird [unconventional] behavior and is often associated with artists.
Do you think Alcala’s victims may have been willing to look past red flags and chalk up odd behaviors to a person being unique or creative?
These people…probably didn’t recognize the dangers of meeting up with strangers. A lot of serial killers’ victims, women and men–especially in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer–were young, not older than 25. They [may have] had a thrill-seeking behavior; they wanted to experiment even though their gut told them they shouldn’t be doing something.
And a lot of these murders occurred in the ’70s and ’80s; during this time in the history of the U.S., people were very arts-oriented. In order to experience life in the best possible way, they [may have felt] they needed to engage in what might seem strange, dangerous or questionable [to others].
Generally speaking, do ‘artistic’ serial killers, like Alcala or John Wayne Gacy or Richard Ramirez, share common traits?
They all never achieved a maturation in how to express their emotions like every normal adult and thought art would be a creative way to do so. Some of them even claimed to have been haunted by ‘demons’ living in their mind and the only way to satisfy their internal ‘fight’ was to create art.
Do you think Polanski influenced Alcala in any way?
It does seem plausible to think so because Polanski [was convicted of having] raped a 13-year old girl but [fled the U.S. before he was sentenced]. Perhaps Alcala was thinking that if Polanski could get away with [what he did], maybe he would be able to get away [with it] as well. But Polanski was never a killer. He was a sexually motivated man who preyed on young actresses and girls telling them he would make them famous, but there was a price to pay and that was having sex with him.
Alcala definitely had a predilection toward killing. [His] psychiatric problems essentially kept growing bigger and bigger and at some point just poisoned his mind.