Many of us love gory horror movies and unsettling true crime videos – harmless enough, right? But what if the serial killer on the screen is real . . . and closer than you know? Notorious killers like John Wayne Gacy, B.T.K., and Rodney Alcala all had character flaws that set them apart from everyday people like you and me. Being aware of certain telltale personality traits and disorders might allow you to discover whether your neighbor is a pathological murderer.
It’s tempting to write off serial killers as inhuman monsters or demons, easily recognizable to anyone paying even just a little attention. But this isn’t always the case. In fact, such people (yes, they’re sadly just people) can seem to be rather, well, normal – or at least relatively normal. Sometimes they might even be your neighbor.
“Not my neighbor,” you say. But think about it.
Depending on how you interact with them, the person next door can be a blessing or a curse. A good neighbor not only lives nearby but can be helpful and reassuring in many ways. They wave hello when you pull into the driveway, stop by for a cup of coffee, keep an eye on your home while you’re on vacation. When things go wrong, they’re the first to offer assistance. Most importantly, you trust them – sometimes too much.
After all, the same neighbor who’s lived next door or across the street for years might have a dark and very secret side at odds with the one they share with us. (We all have our secrets, don’t we?) They can be a little too friendly. They know our daily routine, have a view into our windows. We might even give them a key to our home – just in case of an emergency, of course.
And then something happens.
Imagine this: There has been a string of unsolved murders in your town. Naturally, this is extremely disturbing, as your neighborhood has always been pretty peaceful and quiet. All your neighbors are decent people (as far as you know), but you can’t help looking at them a little differently these days, as if through a magnifying glass. Bob next door seems to have a ton of wine bottles in his recycling this week. Harry down the street sure has been getting his car washed a lot this summer. Was that a bag of cement I saw Peter hauling out of his SUV just before he closed the garage door?
To sort all the data you’re collecting, would it be advisable to create a serial killer checklist with all the behaviors and patterns that those guys (yes, mostly men) have in common? It could help you keep track of all the neighbors, and differentiate between potential vicious murderers and folks who are just a little, you know, weird. Sorry, Jim across the street, we aren’t sure about you yet.
Who knows, maybe there really is a killer next door. And, with every check of a box of suspicious and mysterious behavior, you could get closer to discovering the culprit.
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Gary, your neighbor, has been living in the house adjacent to yours for the past year. He’s polite, quiet, minds his own business, and has never been a trouble to you or your family. Truly an ideal community member. But, you’ve started to take a closer look at him and his habits recently, and you’re beginning to wonder what makes him tick. And, as you put him under the magnifying glass, something feels a bit off.
Lately, you’ve developed a passion for gardening. You find yourself out there every day planting and tending to your happy little plants. Gary comes out of his front door, and you gesture to your flowers and ask him for his opinion on your progress. He shrugs and offers a backhanded compliment, something about “not bad for a beginner.” Then he leans over to smell his fresh roses and takes out his shiny shears to trim his hedges, glancing at you with a smirk before returning inside.
Gary’s always seemed more than a bit full of himself, and you can’t recall the last time he said something nice to you ... A lightbulb switches on in your head: Narcissism is a key and common trait in serial killers and psychopaths alike.
Dennis Rader (Image Credit: Eldorado Correctional Facility)
You suddenly remember something you read about a guy named Dennis Rader, also known as “the B.T.K. killer.” B.T.K. stands for Bound, Tortured, and Killed, which is literally what he did to 10 people in Kansas from the mid-1970s into the early ’90s.
As the number of Rader’s victims rose, he began to send anonymous letters to media outlets, complaining that he hadn’t received the attention he deserved. He even wrote, “How many people do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national attention?” And then he proceeded to offer some possible nicknames for himself that could be used to refer to him in news reports. Talk about self-obsessed.
Even more frightening to all who knew Dennis Rader, he seemed like an average family man and colleague at ADT Security Services. His wife reported him to be attentive, but others noted that he had a “Napoleon complex,” that he was methodical to the point of being a control freak.
In case you think the serial killer can’t possibly live next door, consider this: Rader actually did kill his neighbor, a woman named Marine Hedge, in 1985. So, think again.
Rader was caught in 2005 and, when being interrogated, was as narcissistic and egocentric as you’d expect. He even referred to the police as “fellow law enforcement officers,” as he had once served as a neighborhood security officer for a time. He also seemed to enjoy listening to himself talk about his crimes during his entire interrogation.
Sure, Gary is a little self-interested, but you’re having your doubts whether he fits the profile. So, let’s talk about prime suspect #1, Chris from next door, the self-centered guy on the other side of your house. He makes a mean casserole, but he is just the worst. Chris let his dog do his “business” on your front lawn for the third time, and you finally went over to confront him, but calmly. He responded with sarcasm and a half-hearted apology. It was obvious that he couldn’t have cared less. He just shrugged and walked away, probably without giving the encounter another thought.
This seems all too familiar. You don’t need a magnifying glass to realize that serial killers are notorious for their lack of remorse or empathy. They’re almost always psychopaths, after all, and such people essentially have no conscience. As serial killers, psychopaths can and do inflict incredible pain and suffering, over and over again, without the least little bit of concern for their victims. After all, that’s the hallmark of a “serial” killer – not just the number of victims but the inability to see their victims as even human. In the end, the only thing they ever regret is getting caught.
John Wayne Gacy (Image Credit: Des Plaines, Illinois, Police Department)
Between 1972–1978, 33 murders were committed in Chicago by John Wayne Gacy – yes, the creepy clown guy who is the reason for your coulrophobia. Gacy was a contractor and a part-time clown for children’s birthday parties. He was also involved in local politics and was generally regarded as a “good guy.”
What his clueless neighbors didn’t know was that Gacy would lure teenage boys back to his home with the promise of work, before raping and murdering them. Once he was finally caught, he ranted his confessions and joked that his only crime was “running a cemetery without a license.” Not only did he joke about the brutal and gruesome murders of his victims, his final words before his execution in 1994 weren’t an apology or a plea for forgiveness. It was a revealing and chilling, “Kiss my ass.”
The most dangerous people aren’t always the monsters under your bed or even the ones who take candy from babies. Sometimes they’re the ones you would trust any given day. Have you looked at that charismatic neighbor, Tony, yet? He’s the one that always gives you a polite smile or wink. He seems always to be there to help bring in the groceries or drop off some fresh cookies he’s baked. He is such a nice and charming guy. There’s no way there could be anything wrong with him...right?
Rodney Alcala (Image Credit: Orange County District Attorney's Office)
In 1978, three well-dressed, good-looking young men appeared on a blind date show called The Dating Game. One contestant in particular, Rodney Alcala, charmed the bachelorette and outwitted the other players so well that he actually won a date with the woman. But Alcala didn’t ride off into the sunset with her. The producers of the show said he was a little creepy, and the bachelorette backed out – she said he gave off weird vibes, behaved very strangely towards her, and made her very uncomfortable. Her decision literally saved her life.
It turned out that the not-so-charming Mr. Alcala was a serial rapist and murderer. He was in the midst of his killing spree when he appeared on the show and, by the time he was caught, he had murdered at least ten people.
Superficial charm is a key component of many serial killers’ personalities, and Alcala was able to project such charm well enough on The Dating Game to win a date. But off-screen, his behavior came across as egocentric and grandiose. He may have gone on the show to get the attention he craved by showing off how attractive and charming he could be, but psychologists who analyzed Alcala determined that he had a serious personality disorder.
Murderers like Alcala often try to mask their abnormal behavior, but they end up revealing these traits through megalomania, rampant egocentrism, and a pathological sense of entitlement. In short, they believe their victims’ lives are not nearly as important as their own depraved fantasies.
The world can be a scary place, and serial killers are quite real. But many people exhibit some combination of these traits, whether they’re murderers or not. In the end, there are no boxes to tick or lists to check that you can use to diagnose your neighbors, peers, or even Tinder dates to determine whether they might kill you.
Don’t get me wrong – Gary, Chris, and Tony are definitely not the neighbors of your dreams. But, no matter how annoying guys like them can be, don’t call the police unless you’ve got some hard evidence – or an advanced degree in forensic psychology. After all, we’re not cops or doctors; we’re just trying to solve some mysteries.
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