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.