What is it about serial killers that people find so fascinating? And, even more broadly, true crime? From Dexter and You to Ted Bundy documentaries and Jeffrey Dahmer dramatizations, true crime now captivates audiences in a way it never did before. As for why true crime is so popular these days, plenty of theories exist, but there's no general consensus on the matter.
For me, it fits squarely into strange and unusual stories. It's not every day that you hear about a gruesome premeditated murder, and even less so that you hear about a serial killer. After all, it's pretty unlikely that your neighbor is a serial killer, or that you'd ever meet one at all, or even see one outside of the context of a true crime article or documentary—especially before the world knows they are one.
But back in 1978, a man named Rodney James Alcala did just that: he appeared on The Dating Game, broadcast on national television in the United States—and no one knew he was in the midst of a murder spree.
Serial killer, spree killer, mass murderer
I've used the term "murder spree" loosely above, primarily for dramatic effect. 🎭 There are actually clear distinctions between serial killers, spree killers (as it relates to a "murder spree"), and mass murderers. Read all about it in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's What is the difference between a serial killer, spree killer and mass murderer?
America Meets Rodney Alcala
September 13th, 1987: American audiences settled into their comfy couches and chairs, tuning into a hit game show called The Dating Game. The show's format was broken up into segments or "games." Each piece, or "game," was pretty short and consisted of three contestants answering questions given by a single person of the opposite sex to "win" a date from them. There was a wall that separated the three contestants from the person asking questions, so they didn't know what each other looked like.
The show's host, Jim Lange, welcomed the studio audience and the viewers at home and presented three male contestants to kick off the show. The first eligible bachelor introduced to America: "Bachelor number one is a successful photographer who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of 13, fully developed. Between takes, you might find him skydiving or motorcycling. Please welcome Rodney Alcala."
The bachelorette for the segment was introduced, Cheryl Bradshaw. The host laid out the rules: Cheryl could ask anything of the men except for their name, occupation, or income. The entire point of the game was for the bachelorette to find someone she connected with—or, if looked at in a slightly different light, for the bachelors to charm their way into being the one chosen.
It just so happens that some serial killers, like Ted Bundy, are incredibly charming if they want to be. Rodney Alcala was no exception. It was normal in The Dating Game, especially in that era, for contestants on both sides to make heavy use of humor and sexual innuendo. So, questions and answers that might have come across as strange or even creepy in everyday life could instead be funny or witty.
I think this might have been fueled a bit by the studio audience, who provided a live version of a laugh track. I find this whole phenomenon intriguing, and you can see more of the same type of psychology at work if you watch a modern sitcom where the laugh track has been edited out. With the social signaling of "funny" removed, the lines from characters take on an entirely different meaning, often becoming cringy or just flat-out mean. (Check some out here.)
After a few rounds of Q&A, the bachelorette, Cheryl Bradshaw, picked Rodney Alcala as the winner. The host introduced Cheryl and Rodney to each other, and then they proceeded backstage to get to know each other better before going on an actual date set up by the game show—tennis lessons and a trip to Magic Mountain.
There's, of course, no footage of Cheryl and Rodney's interaction backstage. But I can speculate that without the social signaling from the live studio audience, whatever passed between the two took on a very different feel because Cheryl refused to go out on the date with Rodney. Cheryl later said that she found him "creepy."
Her instincts may have saved her life because, by the time America and Cheryl met Rodney Alcala, he had already been placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, convicted of child molestation, and was both a serial rapist and killer.
It wasn't just Cheryl Bradshaw that felt something was off about Rodney Alcala, either.
She wasn't the only one to find his presence unsettling. "Bachelor No. 2," Jed Mills, could barely stand to be next to him.
"He was creepy. Definitely creepy," he told CNN.
"Something about him, I could not be near him," he continued. "I am kind of bending toward the other guy to get away from him, and I don't know if I did that consciously. But thinking back on that, I probably did."
Mills said he disliked Alcala before they even went on the air. His disdain grew as they waited in the green room before the show started.
"He was quiet, but at the same time he would interrupt and impose when he felt like it," Mills said. "And he was very obnoxious and creepy — he became very unlikable and rude and imposing as though he was trying to intimidate. I wound up not only not liking this guy … not wanting to be near him … he got creepier and more negative. He was a standout creepy guy in my life."
Rodney Alcala's Fatal Mistake
He kept on killing, often using the cover story of being a photographer in order to lure underage victims to secluded locations before beating, raping, and ultimately killing them.
On June 20th, 1979, a twelve-year-old girl named Robin Samsoe disappeared on her way to ballet class in Huntington Beach, California. Twelve days later, her body was found—dumped in the foothills of Los Angeles. Robin had been beaten, raped, and stabbed to death. She was missing her earrings. Police tracked down some of Samsoe's friends, who said they had been approached by a stranger asking to take their pictures in Huntington Beach on the same day. A sketch of the suspect was created and circulated in the area.
A parole officer in the area—Rodney's own parole officer—immediately recognized the sketch. Police searched Rodney's mother's house in nearby Monterey Park and found a rental receipt for a storage locker in Seattle, over 1,000 miles away. The storage locker was searched, and Robin Samsoe's missing earrings were inside. It wasn't the only pair of earrings in the locker.
The Many Trials of Rodney Alcala
In 1980, Rodney Alcala was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Robin Samsoe. Eventually, his DNA was taken against his wishes, and police were able to directly link him to two unsolved rape/murders in Los Angeles, four more rape/murders—and one of the victim's DNA matched the other pair of earrings that Rodney had stashed in his locker. From there, investigators conclusively linked him to 8 murders but suspected him of at least 130.
Rodney kept a collection of photographs he took, many of which were the last known images of his victims. The collection numbered over 1,000, many of which police believe may be cold cases. In fact, in 2016, Rodney Alcala was charged with the 1977 murder of a woman identified from his photo collection.
In addition to the number of victims Rodney killed, there are some shocking coincidences from when he was actively killing. In 1971, Rodney worked in an office with another serial killer named Richard Cottingham (New York Ripper / the Torso Killer / the Times Square Killer). In 1978, Rodney was interviewed by a criminal task force in Los Angeles because they suspected him of being the Hillside Strangler (cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr.).
As with most serial killers, there are lots of books and documentaries written about Rodney Alcala, and there's way too much to cover in a short article like this. I'll link to some of them below.
Where Is Rodney Alcala Now?
That's not all good news, though, because so many victims are yet to be identified. Police worked with news outlets to get 110 photos posted online, hoping the general population could identify at least some of the people in the photos as they might be linked to unsolved murders.
Check them out here: Serial Killer Rodney Alcala's Photos Released: Can You ID Any Of These Women?
At this point, all of these photos are now decades old, but you never know what might turn up.
It's easy to look back on serial killers and think you would know one when you see one. But, if that were the case, they'd probably have far fewer victims. They aren't easy to spot and might even be charming given the right circumstances.
Knowing that should leave you wondering about nearly everyone you've ever met.
Relevant & Related
- You can watch clips of Rodney Alcala's actual appearance on The Dating Game here on YouTube.
- For some heavy reading, check out Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators by the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It includes some interesting serial killer myth-busting and models on motivations.
- Read More Than Just a Pretty Face by Victoria Best, which provides more detail on the crimes.
- Tubi has an episode of Murder Made Me Famous about The Dating Game Killer, free online.
- Even more reading is available in The Big Book of Serial Killers: 150 Serial Killer Files of the World's Worst Murderers (An Encyclopedia of Serial Killers 1). One hundred fifty? Yep. Think about that.
- I couldn't find where to buy or stream it online, but in 2017 a biographical film was released titled Dating Game Killer.
- Real Crime on YouTube has an excellent ~45-minute documentary that includes interviews, evidence photos, and a whole lot more: Serial Killer Goes On A Dating Show?! | World's Most Evil Killers | Real Crime
- CBS has made an episode of 48 Hours freely available to watch online: Rodney Alcala: The Killing Game
- Want to read more about true crime throughout history? Check out these: Keillers Park Murder | Antron Singleton, aka Big Lurch | Gilles de Rais (World's First Serial Killer?) | Tamám Shud Case: The Mystery of the Somerton Man | The Isdal Woman of Norway
Originally published in my weekly newsletter, Into Horror History - every week, I explore the history and lore of horror, from influential creators to obscure events. Cryptids, ghosts, folklore, books, music, movies, strange phenomena, urban legends, psychology, and creepy mysteries.
About the Creator
J.A. Hernandez enjoys horror, playing with cats, and hiding indoors away from the sun. Also, books. So many books—you wouldn't believe.
He runs a weekly newsletter called Into Horror History and writes fiction.