Serial Killers and Celebrity TV

It’s no surprise that psychopaths seek an audience, but some are quite bold.

Posted Nov 13, 2016

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

Among the news items to emerge from Stephen Port’s ongoing murder trial is that he'd once appeared on a British TV show, Celebrity Masterchef. He can be seen in a clip helping singer J.B. Gill and actress Emma Barton make meatballs and pasta for bus drivers. Port is accused of four murders in East London over the past fifteen months. He allegedly overdosed his victims on GHB and left their bodies in various places near his apartment building, including a cemetery.

A serial killer on celebrity TV! For an audience, they pass as good guys; in the shadows, they change.

It’s similar to the discovery that Rodney Alcala was on an ABC show, The Dating Game. In September 1978, Cheryl Bradshaw walked on to the studio stage, took a seat, and began to question three eligible bachelors, who were blocked from her view. In her puffy-sleeved dress, Bradshaw asked Bachelor #1 what his “best time” was.

“Night time,” he responded smoothly. “It’s the only time there is.” Asked to elaborate, he said, “That’s when it really gets good.” He smiled, as if at some secret. He’d already assured her with his greeting that they were going to “have a great time together.”

“I’m serving you for dinner,” she later said. “What are you called and what do you look like?”

“A banana,” he told her, adding, “and I look really good.” To her request for more description, he said, “Peel me.”

Alcala had described himself as a skydiver, motorcyclist, and photographer. He'd left out some things. By this time, he'd already served time for the sexual assault of two young girls. He’d also murdered several women, although no one knew this yet. He would be apprehended in 1979 and eventually convicted of 7 murders. (He’s recently been charged with one more.)

On the show, Bradshaw was enticed. She selected him. “I like bananas,” she explained with a shrug. But it wasn’t long before that banana didn't look so good. She felt uncomfortable with Alcala and decided not to go on the date.

And then there are the killers who appear on TV because they were convicted killers. In Austria, the literati supported convicted murderer Jack Unterweger's release from prison, because they thought he showed literary talent and could become a productive citizen. He dressed in white suits and artistic scarves, drove sports cars, and went on talk shows. People adored him.

He even got some writing gigs, due to his knowledge about murder. He started killing again and, as a journalist, covered these incidents and taunted police. Eleven women died before Unterweger was apprehended and convicted. (Some media cronies, denying he had fooled them, insisted he’d been framed.)  

Convicted felon Jack Abbott became a celebrity from a book he’d penned in prison, In the Belly of the Beast, which became a bestseller and garnered support among America’s literary set. The book had developed from a series of letters that Abbott had written to Norman Mailer during the 1970s, and Mailer had helped him to get the collection published. Several authors then championed Abbott's release before the parole board, with the assurance that Abbott was a "powerful and important writer." 

In 1981, Abbott got out and, like Unterweger, received numerous invitations to dinner parties and television talk shows. He was celebrated as a rehabilitated offender, thanks to his supposed ability to rechannel his thoughts into a more spiritual form. No one seemed to have noticed that he’d dedicated the book to Carl Panzram, an unrepentant rapist and killer who’d described himself as the "spirit of meanness personified."

Abbott disappointed his supporters when, six weeks after his release, he killed again. He fatally stabbed Richard Adnan, a twenty-two-year-old waiter over a trivial issue. Then he dismissed the killing in a sequel My Return as “necessary” and said publicly that Adnan didn’t have much talent, anyway. Clearly, art had not reformed Abbott.

In viewing these shows in retrospect, knowing these darker dimensions, it's instructive to see how easily these killers pass as normal, affable guys. With the proliferation of reality shows that seek mediagenic types and the spotlight's attraction to psychopaths, we can look forward to more clips of killers appearing as guests on TV. It's so much easier these days to get that 15 minutes.