Netflix’s latest true crime thriller, The Good Nurse, has brought widespread attention to the true story of Charles Cullen, the man believed to be America’s most prolific serial killer. An ICU nurse, Cullen worked at various hospitals across Pennsylvania and New Jersey before a long-running trail of mysterious patient deaths was traced back to him.
Directed by Tobias Lindholm and starring Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne, The Good Nurse hones in on Cullen’s friendship with Amy Loughren–a fellow nurse who played a key role in Cullen’s confession to murdering 29 patients. (Experts have since estimated Cullen’s victim toll might be as high as 400.) Though the film illuminates many lesser-known elements of Cullen’s story, there are some unanswered questions that might have left viewers reeling. One of the most prominent ones being: Why did he do it?
Wilson-Cairns says that, while adapting Charles Graeber's biography of Cullen into The Good Nurse, she didn't even want to try to understand Cullen's motives, "because there is no understanding it." She told Esquire last month, “We've thought a lot about this, and I think the reason people want to know why he did it's because it makes us feel safe, because we can put it in a box. You can say, ‘Oh, that's what was wrong with him and that's why he did it,’ whereas the truth is much messier.”
For those who have seen the film, which debuted at #1 on Netflix over the weekend, you’ll know from context given in the final scenes that Cullen never explained the motives behind his crimes. According to New York Magazine, Cullen once told detectives that he originally began killing patients (by administering lethal doses of medication into IV bags) to end their suffering. However, many–including Loughren herself–have since denied this “whitewashed” narrative. Cullen’s victims included many patients who were generally healthy and not terminally ill in any way.
When Loughren first inspected the medical records of Cullen’s medication withdrawals, which he used to kill patients, she told Esquire that “there was absolutely no reason that he would've taken out the medications that he took out except for something sinister.”
It was in that moment that Loughren decided to aid investigators in arresting him, leveraging her proximity to Cullen and their close bond to eventually prompt him to confess to his crimes. “The only reason he's behind bars right now is because I did adore him,” Loughren says, “and because he felt safe enough to say, ‘I need to stop. I don't know how. And now I have someone that can just sit next to me, and hold my hand, and I don't have to do this alone.’"
It’s thanks to the work of Loughren, along with detectives Danny Baldwin and Tim Braun, that Cullen is now serving 18 consecutive life sentences in New Jersey State Prison. And, while his motives and total victim count might never be known, the story of Loughren the “Good Nurse” will be.
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