Origins blogfest: The Serial Killers Next Door

As a participant of the Origins blogfest (hosted by the wonderful DL Hammons, Alex J. Cavanaugh, and Creepy Query Girl Katie Mills), I am posting an article I actually wrote for a UK crime blog back in December. It may be cheating, but it fits!


There is a very specific reason why I write serial killer novels. 

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The Serial Killers Next Door
By Jennifer Hillier
Originally published in the Falcata Times, December 22, 2011

Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka
on their wedding day in 1991.
When I was 15, all I could talk about with my friends was murder.

In the early 1990s, my hometown of Toronto, Canada had its very own serial killer. His name was Paul Bernardo. He was young – around 26 at the time – and quite handsome. His victims were girls our age, and because of this, his crimes hit close to home.

Rumors were rampant at my high school. There was ongoing speculation about who might have unknowingly come into contact with Bernardo. One rumor was that a friend of a friend's student ID card had been found at his house after his arrest. The girl had supposedly lost her wallet at the local shopping mall a few weeks earlier. Did this mean that Bernardo had followed this girl and stolen her wallet?

We hung out at that shopping mall all the time. Had we passed right by him without being aware of his eyes on us? How close had we come to a killer? How close had we come to being snatched?

Over French fries and Diet Coke in the cafeteria, it's all we could talk about.

Updates about Paul Bernardo, and his wife and partner-in-crime, Karla Homolka, were on the news every day. Nicknamed by the media as the Ken and Barbie Killers, I remember following the trial that was to come with both fear and fascination. After all, Bernardo had lived close by. How could my hometown have produced a monster? This was the kind of thing that only happened in books or movies. This was the kind of thing that happened somewhere else.

I started reading books on serial killers and was genuinely shocked to realize how many there were in the world. There were the names I'd already heard about, like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Zodiac Killer, the Son of Sam. But there were also killers I had never heard of, like Aileen Wuornos (a prostitute who murdered her johns) and Robert Hansen (who supposedly let his victims escape into the woods so he could hunt them).

I've never been a huge fan of horror movies like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. They're scary, sure, but I can watch them without getting nightmares because to me, the villains aren't real. They're clearly fictional, even cartoonish. I don't expect Freddie or Jason to live next door.

But author Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter could be my neighbor. So could Chelsea Cain's Gretchen Lowell. Ethan Wolfe, the creep in my own novel Creep, could most definitely be someone who lives next door.

The scariest monsters are the ones we don't know are monsters. The ones who live among us, who could be our neighbors, our friends, even our family members. Judith Mawson never knew that her husband of twenty years, Gary Ridgway, was the Green River Killer. Ridgway confessed to murdering 48 women, though he's suspected of killing more than 70 in the Seattle area. Paula Rader was married for more than three decades to Dennis Rader, also known as the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Killer, who was a church-going father and an Air Force veteran. During their marriage, he murdered ten people. When he was arrested, she was stunned.

As someone who writes fictional serial killers, there's not much I can write about that hasn't already happened. The darkest sides of human nature have already been covered in real life. The challenge is making this dark nature – and the evil deeds that occur because of it – believable to the reader, because as Mark Twain said, "It's no wonder truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense."

In a sensational trial in 1995, Karla Homolka, the Barbie half of the Ken and Barbie Killers, testified against her husband in exchange for a twelve-year prison sentence. She served her time and has since been released.

Paul Bernardo is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He spends over twenty-three hours a day in a cell in a maximum security prison outside Toronto. He can no longer stalk, rape, or murder anyone.

But yet he lingers with me, as he does for all my friends. One of my best friends asked me what I was writing about today, and I told her I was working on a post about Paul Bernardo. Instantly she remembered him. Of course she would. She and I went to the same high school. We were bombarded by the same news stories and rumors about him, and we talked about him endlessly. Bernardo was her Bogeyman, too.

When people ask me now why I chose thrillers as my genre, I usually answer that it's because I like the adrenaline rush. I enjoy the quick pace, and the challenge of creating fear in my readers that seeps deep into their pores and lingers.

But the real reason might just be Paul Bernardo. The terror I felt in my teens was very real, and if there's one lesson I learned from back then, it's that you never really know who your neighbors are.

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Thanks for this blogfest, guys! Can't wait to read how everyone else became a writer.  

97 comments:

  1. Wow! What a riveting write! I wondered how it was you started writing in this genre. Now I know. Serial killers have always fascinated and scared me at the same time. Ted Bundy could be anyone we know. As you say, our neighbor. Bleh, maybe this wasn't the best thing to read right before bed. :)

    You're wickedly talented! I'm so glad I know you. -even if it's only virtual.

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  2. This is a fantastic origin story. I don't think it's cheating at all. =)

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  3. What an amazing story! I could just imagine how frightened you must've been as a teenager. I'm surprised that your parents ever let you out of the house. Glad you found your calling, and you do it so well. Julie

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    1. My mom worked for the local police department at the time, and it made her very paranoid about my safety! I was never allowed to be anywhere by myself.

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  4. Wow, it must have been so scary, living so close to a murderer. This is an amazing story, Jennifer, certainly one of the most interesting I have read today!

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    1. It's crazy where inspiration comes from, isn't it? Thanks, Kyra!

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  5. Ooh, that's interesting about Aileen Wuornos, turning the tragically-seen-way-too-often trope of serial killers targeting prostitutes on its head. Also, I really love the nickname the Ken and Barbie Killers. That's both creepy and cool that you had a serial killer targeting girls your age in your area when you were younger, dang.

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    1. Creepy and cool, for sure - only a fellow writer and lover of books would think so! :)

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  6. I can't imagine what that felt like. It didn't have the same impact when you lived on the other side of Canada. What was scary, as you pointed out, was that they looked so normal, so good looking. Not the kind of individuals you usually fear.

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    1. It's hard to trust strangers when you know what people are capable of. *shiver*

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  7. Oooh, love your real life story that inspired you to write in your genre. And that barbie and ken couple is downright creepy! I can imagine why you and your friends were fascinated. thanks for shring your origins!

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  8. Cool story. I'm into watching all those true crime shows on TV, but I don't remember hearing about the Ken and Barbie killers. Creepy.

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    1. I'm not sure how much publicity it received outside Canada? But it was big news in Toronto at the time (and still is).

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  9. Fantastic, fantastic post. And I have to agree with you--the monsters we invent are merely reflections and shadows of the ones who walk the earth on two legs, and sometimes live next door. Fortunately, they are anomalies! Still fascinating, though.

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  10. You know I used to work in a jail and dealt every day with people who murdered and raped. The weirdest part of the job some days was finding myself in a conversation with one of these people and thinking "they're so normal." At least on the outside. :(

    Thanks for sharing your story.

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    1. Did I know you worked in a jail? How have I not talked to you about that? When I visited one last year, some of the inmates seemed quite normal, which only made the experience even more jarring.

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  11. Oh-ho, now I see what inspired you to write Creep. I never knew there was a real-world correlation to your antagonist(s) in the novel. Wow, mind officially blown! Cool story, Jen. I can definitely see how such an event would have a huge impact on a teenager's mind.

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    1. It's the kind of thing that sinks into your pores. I was near the penitentiary where Bernardo is housed a couple of weeks back - hard to believe he's in there.

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  12. Wow...amazing story!!! It is creepy to have that in your background, but...inspiration comes where it comes. Thanks for sharing. Came here from Origins fest.
    Stuart H. Nager

    BornStoryteller www.bornstoryteller.wordpress.com/

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    1. Nice to meet you, Stuart! Thanks for stopping by.

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  13. I LOVE serial killers! Well, love isn't the best word I guess. But serial killers are one of my obsessive Special Interests. I have read that there are so many serial killers out there that all of us will have at least an indirect 'encounter' with one.

    Mine is that my mother's psychologist, with whom I was also in therapy for a while, as a young shrink worked at the Wisconsin state asylum and at lunchtime he ate lunch with the patients, including cannibal serial killer Ed Gein (inspiration for the movie Psycho). One year he asked his family if it was OK to bring a patient home for Thanksgiving dinner, and when they said yes, he said 'it's Ed Gein'. (At the time everyone in Wisconsin knew that name.)

    I came here for the Origins blogfest and am glad I did. Thanks for the story.

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    1. Ooh, I love hearing people's experiences with real serial killers. Thanks so much for sharing that!

      Ed Gein... YIKES.

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  14. This is an interesting post. It must have been frightening to have so much going on near your home.

    Monti
    Mary Montague Sikes

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    1. It was a crazy time, that's for sure. Nice to meet you!

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  15. I was turned to crime through real life cases also and at a very young age. Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, David Berkowitz and the ever haunting Zodiac Killer. They weren't commendable individuals, but they had a foot somewhere I never went and that made me curious.

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    1. Yes, I totally get what you mean. It's the same reason why my stories are always so villain-centered - I find villains to be the most characters in any book.

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  16. Wow that is haunting reading. Do you watch Criminal Minds? I love that show and the villains are nearly always serial killers. BTW - just because someone goes to church doesn't mean they're good people. Church is often used as a camouflage for all sorts of people - whom aren't genuinely seeking God - I call Pretenders! Great post.

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    1. I love Criminal Minds - it's my weekly dose of serial killers, haha.

      Growing up Catholic, I think church is too frequently used as camouflage for truly weird people.

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  17. Great post! So interesting. I agree that serial killer stories are much more terrifying than other scary movies.

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    1. They're terrifying... and that's probably why they're my favorite. Sigh.

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  18. That's frightening you had those killers right there in your town.
    Real life monsters are far more terrifying than anything fictional or supernatural.
    Thanks for participating in the blogfest!

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  19. It is strange to wonder what goes on in a person's head for them to become a serial killer. They've existed all throughout history... no matter how many are caught, there will always be more. *shivers*

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    1. When I was writing CREEP, I got way into my serial killer's head. It was a... dirty place to be. I can't even imagine what it would be like for real.

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  20. It really is frightening to think about who might be living among us. When I was living in Utah I met some people who actually knew Ted Bundy. I can't imagine that.

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    1. Wowza, Ted Bundy! Crazy stuff. We're only degrees away from a serial killer.

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  21. Oh my God, I can't really believe that guy from the picture was a serial killer!! *shudders*
    And I can't believe he lived in your town. EEEEK!
    Anyway, thanks for sharing the story with us!

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    1. They look so normal, don't they? You just never know...

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  22. Ethan had psyche issues and needed help. His wall totally grosses me out. I know it was his pride and joy though.

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  23. It's interesting what we're fascinated by and how events that don't directly affect us still can have a huge impact. Great post!

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  24. I remember those lunchtime conversations very well. Living in Niagara, we weren't far from the victim's homes, where they were slain, or where they were found. It was a creepy, edgy, unsettling time.

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    1. If you were in Niagara, then you were definitely knee deep in those conversations like I was, Bob.

      Thanks for stopping by! Nice to meet you.

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  25. Hi jennifer!
    Never heard of those two, but I'm certainly going to look them up now. Thanks for sharing your Origins story!

    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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    1. I don't know if you should... there's some disturbing stuff there! But thanks so much for stopping by. :)

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  26. Chilling, Jennifer! It's true, real horrors lie in faces and facades we often trust. Frightening as it is, your Origins most definitely gave you a place to voice your real life fears.

    Fascinating story!

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    1. Great comment! I will have to quote you on that! :)

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  27. Thanks a lot, Jenny. You know I have issues with my neighbors. They all look like serial killers to me.ha

    This was an awesome story. Creepy but awesome.

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    1. Have I made you more paranoid? Hee hee. My work here is done. :D

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  28. Wow. I remember when Son of Sam was on the loose. I was 11-going-on-12 and thus highly unlikely to end up in his crosshairs, but we were close enough to the city that the panic was spreading out our way. A truly creepy sort of thing to live with. It's amazing to think that some of these people can live what appear to be such normal lives, and that they can keep these things secret. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Ooh, Son of Sam. So evil. And the panic, yes. It never got that bad with Bernardo, but damn, we were all so paranoid for awhile.

      Nice to meet you, Jeff!

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  29. That is QUITE the unique inspiration to write! Yes, trying to get into our killer characters' heads is a tricky thing to do, I'm finding. Anyway, I think I'm already a follower, but I'll look for you on twitter now. Great being in the fest w/ya!

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    1. Thanks for finding me on Twitter! Happy to follow you back. :)

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  30. That is very specific ORIGIN and one that totally makes sense. Under similar circumstances I can see myself doing the same thing.

    Thank you for re-sharing your story today! :)

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  31. Ooh, creepy. I remembered those guys. They do look like Ken and Barbie. Brr. I'll never look at dolls the same way again...

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    1. I always thought Barbie was a little bit evil... :)

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  32. wow! horror so close to home! what an inspiration!
    you turned it into something positive. hard to do with that kind of tragedy.

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  33. What a totally interesting Origins story. I never knew this about you. I, too, am inspired by the bogeymen around us, but I never had to worry about a serial killer. Rapists, yeah, never a murderer. Oh sure, living in the Bay Area, we had the Zodiac, the Nightstalker, and a host of others, but I was never concerned about them personally. How scary that must have been for you as a teenager. I think I've enjoyed your Origin better than anyone else's so far. Chilling. And I so can't wait to read what you've come up with next because of it!

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    1. Rapists... yikes! Bernardo was at first known as the Scarborough Rapist, but then he obviously decided to kick it up to full blown killer.

      Thanks for the sweet words, as always. :)

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  34. That was seriously creepy, but good that you were able to turn it around into something creative.

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    1. Thanks - I'm glad something good came out of all the paranoia (though I still totally have the paranoia).

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  35. Wow, that's crazy...a serial killer in your town? Geesh. But that's awesome you used him as inspiration!

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  36. Ooh, yeah, we had John Wayne Gacy in these parts, but I think I was a bit too young to really understand how close to home that was. Still sticks w/ me though.

    I'm guessing you've read Devil in the White City? If not I recommend it as a retelling of the real life Chicago serial killer who's now widely believed to have been Jack the Ripper.

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    1. Huge thanks for the book recommendation, Nicki! Adding to my cart in 3...2...1...

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  37. And sometimes you don't even know who your loved ones are until people are dead and you're all, "WTF just happened?" This really resonated with me. And I remember these two as well! I read a book about them too during my heavy true crime reading phase. I couldn't agree more about the Freddy Krugers not being remotely scary but the Paul Bernardos of the world (or the Ethans!) are absolutely terrifying. Excellent, excellent post!

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    1. I can imagine you would have heard something about these two, as you're not too far from Toronto. Crazy what influences us! Thanks, Lisa. :)

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  38. There are so many horrible things about the whole Bernardo/Homolka case, but one of the things that really shook me was that their first victim was her younger sister. I really think she should have gotten the same sentence that he did. I wonder how her relationship is with her parents? Oh, I shouldn't have read this before bed!!! I used to read story after story on the Crime Library website. Two peas in a pod, we are. How did I not end up writing mysteries and thrillers? What am I doing writing YA??? I don't know.

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    1. Yes, the younger sister is just NUTS. I mean, that is a special kind of psychopath, if you ask me.

      I can't find too much on Homolka these days. She seems to be keeping a very low profile - last I read she was thought to have moved to Antilles. She became fully bilingual in French while she was in prison.

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  39. It's strange how we get interested in the things we do. I LOVE true crime stories. Ann Rule is one of my favorite authors and I watch Court TV (now Tru TV) almost every day.

    When I was a teenager, we had 2 serial killers within a 5 mile radius of my hometown.

    Rodney Alcala and Richard Ramirez (google them). Although, I didn't know about Rodney at the time, I certainly remember Richard Ramirez. A friend's neighbor was attacked in her home by him and I slept with a knife under my pillow til he was caught. It was really scary!

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    1. Oh wow! Hadn't heard about Alcala, but Ramirez? SCARY! Thanks for sharing that!

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  40. "The scariest monsters are the ones we don't know are monsters." True that. My parents still live on the street where I grew up, and just last year, one of the neighbors (whose pitbull knocked me down once while I was mowing our front lawn as a kid -- should have been some kind of clue) carved up his wife in their home. Awful stuff.

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    1. I think the best part of telling this story is hearing stories like yours, Milo! Insane.

      Carved up his wife... that's sick.

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  41. Let me start off by saying how glad I am that I found your blog. I am a new follower from the Origins blogfest and I just purchased your debut thriller (Kindle edition)-it will be the very next book I read. I am an avid reader and prefer thrillers/mystery/suspense. I am also a writer working on my debut legal thriller. I feel the same about "Nightmare on Elm st., Friday the 13th. etc.) I only fear real monsters.

    I loved your story. You line about "The scariest monsters are the ones we don't know are monsters..." is extremely similar to the first line of my opening statement in the first murder case I prosecuted, a serial killer who was in his 20's, a handsome young man who looked just like any other college kid. It is frightening.

    I am delighted to be your newest follower & eager to read your book.

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    1. Thanks so much, I hope you enjoy the book! Very happy to meet you. :) Sounds like we write about very similar stuff - awesome.

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  42. Oh, wow! A great way to come into writing, I suppose. And serial killers do give a writer a lot to consider.

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    1. It's a creepy thing to be inspired by. I'm actually surprised I never wrote about this before!

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  43. Let me start off by saying how glad I am that I found your blog. I am a new follower from the Origins blogfest and I just purchased your debut thriller (Kindle edition)-it will be the very next book I read. I am an avid reader and prefer thrillers/mystery/suspense. I am also a writer working on my debut legal thriller. I feel the same about "Nightmare on Elm st., Friday the 13th. etc.) I only fear real monsters.

    I loved your story. You line about "The scariest monsters are the ones we don't know are monsters..." is extremely similar to the first line of my opening statement in the first murder case I prosecuted, a serial killer who was in his 20's, a handsome young man who looked just like any other college kid. It is frightening.

    I am delighted to be your newest follower & eager to read your book.

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  44. What a great origins story, Jennifer. I was sitting on the edge of my seat reading it. I was in college in the 90s and going to some of the very same bars Jeffrey Dahmer when to in Milwaukee when his crimes came to light. I remember watching his trial on Tv back then. Your story totally took me back to that time.

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    1. Yikes, Dahmer! One of the worst monsters in a world where there are so many monsters. Thanks for sharing that with me, Susan.

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  45. Super creepy! You are right that it's the ones that seem totally normal that are the scariest. About a year ago one of my best friends at work was arrested (at work!) for possession and distribution of child porn. I considered this person a buddy and we'd laughed together so many times, and I was in utter shock and disbelief when it happened. It kind of altered my world view.

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    1. Oh jeez. That's horrible. Sorry, Alexia. That's icky and awful. :(

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  46. Was it hard to find a date if all you could talk about was murder hahaha. I remember this story as it was on the news and detective TV shows. mazing how some of these killers blend right in with society.

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  47. Jennifer, what a great origins post. I can see how being so close to this in your teen years could stay with you. Even though I love paranormal too, I agree with you that some of the most frightening villains are real people.

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  48. I'm back! You've been tagged, my friend. I hope you participate: http://nancysthompson.blogspot.com/2012/02/really-you-wanna-know-that.html

    (But it's okay if you don't)

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  49. DOH! Jennifer, if I'd only known yesterday that Nancy had gotten a hold on you first! You've been *tagged* by a fist-timer... over at my place.

    Seriously want to know your take on Muppets, and the evil that may just lurk within.

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