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“Fear and Intrigue: The Perfect Marriage” by Kerry G.S. Lipp


I’ve asked a number of authors I admire to answer the same question–why do criminals fascinate us so much?–and I will be posting each response here on my blog. It’s a question all writers–especially crime writers–should consider every once in a while. In my debut novel, Toxicity, I’ve dug deep into the minds of criminals. I have written about the bad guys. The ones we love but hate at the same time. If you haven’t purchased a copy yet, I highly recommend you doing so for purely selfish reasons.

And now that you’ve done that, we will pass the time hearing what other writers in the industry have to say about the posed question.

After an unjustified delay, I bring this series of articles back with Kerry G.S. Lipp’s fantastic essay that will probably hit us all hard, considering recent events in Isla Vista.

Kerry teaches English at a community college by evening and writes horrible things by night. He hates the sun. His parents started reading his stories and now he’s out of the will.  Kerry’s work appears in several anthologies including DOA2 from Blood Bound Books and Attack of the B-Movie Monsters from Grinning Skull Press. His story “Smoke” was adapted for podcast via The Wicked Library episode 213, and pioneered TWL’s inaugural explicit content warning.  He’s pretty proud of that.  KGSL blogs at www.HorrorTree.com and will launch his own website www.newworldhorror.com sometime before he dies. Say hi on Twitter @kerrylipp or his Facebook page:  New World Horror – Kerry G.S. Lipp.


Fear and Intrigue: The Perfect Marriage

By Kerry G.S. Lipp


I think I was about 13 or 14, I can’t remember my age, but I do remember walking through Waldenbooks (do they even still have those?) in a mall and seeing a display of true crime books.  One caught my eye.  A simple cover, a black background with screaming red capital letters.  The title was Helter Skelter.  The subtitle was: The True Story of the Manson Murders.

I read that book, read it twice actually, within a couple years.  As a naïve barely-teenager, I went in totally blind.  Sure, I’d heard of Charles Manson before, but like most people, or at least most uneducated in the school of serial killers, (however you choose to define the term) I assumed he was like the most brutal killer of all time or something.  I based that assumption solely on the social stigma attached to him.

What I learned was that, at least according to Helter Skelter, he wasn’t exactly a murderer.  There was a hell of a lot more to the story.  Looking back on it now, I realize that it’s all about the story.

Everything is about the story.

Which is why every time something violent or crazy happens in America there are rampant conspiracy theories and “documentaries” immediately posted to YouTube.  We love our stories.  And we love making stories even if there isn’t much of one.  Especially the violent ones.  There’s always an angle and no matter how absurd, people will be interested.

There are a million elements to the Tate/LaBianca murders.  Manson, his followers, his ties with different musicians, his theories on race, drugs, authority, Spahn Ranch, how the whole thing unraveled over the years and the list goes on and on.  It’s as complex as any fiction out there.  But this, ladies and gentlemen, ain’t no fiction. This, this is reality.

And reality is more terrifying than werewolves or swamp monsters or any other dreamy bullshit.  I often hear people argue while trying to define horror or terror.  I’ve got a solution to that.  Get a time machine and live in Los Angeles at the beginning of August in 1969.  People in that area at that time know a thing or two about terror.  A gorgeous, pregnant, young movie star and a house full of quasi-celebrities one night.  Some normal folks the next night.  Both murder scenes chock full of undeniable similarities.  Utterly chilling.

Bring it forward to the present.  If you’re anything like me, you followed the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt about a year ago.

More horror, more terror, but it was hard to look away from it all wasn’t it?  Everyone watched!  It was the first manhunt captured on live television.  At least I think it was, and we all ate it up.

Go look at some of the pictures of Boston, one of the busiest cities in America and then go look at pictures during the manhunt.  It’s a ghost town.  I get a sense of dread just looking at those pictures.

This is something that books and movies can’t quite recreate because as horrible and scary as books and movies might be, they are safe.  You can close them or turn them off at any moment.  I suppose you can do the same with true crime, but it’s still a part of your world, your reality, and you never really know who’s on the other side of your front door do you?   Better keep reading, keep watching, just to be sure they got the guy.


It’s manufactured entertainment.  While true crime might be entertaining, it’s also real. The stories in the here and now like Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado remind you that it’s real.  And it scares you and it breaks your heart and it pisses you off.  Sadly, you never know what’s coming next, at least not in America.  Just when you think you’ve seen everything, some fucking lunatic will show you something new and leave you wondering why.

There’s a sense of intrigue here.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve probably all dreamed of shooting up a building or setting off a bomb.  You can disagree with me here, but I don’t believe most of you.  We’ve all seen how people have done it and wondered, in the safety of our own minds, just how we might do it, where we might do it, and how we might do it better.  But it’s safe because we know we’d never act on it.

Here lies the reason that we are so attracted to reading and watching stories about violence, murder, crime, terrorism and tragedy.

We’ve all THOUGHT about it, even if only for a fleeting moment.  Ever play a video game? I’ve heard games called a controlled murder fantasy, and I’m cool with that.  Fine.  I enjoy them.  The more violent the better.

Hell, like those video game designers and those moviemakers, us fiction writers have even planned it ourselves and ordered our characters to carry it out for us. But these sick, real world motherfuckers are actually following through.

Why?  What’s the difference between them and us?  What exactly have they done? How did they do it? Why did they do it? Etc. Etc.

And as soon as the first shot is fired, the hypnotic media makes it irresistible to look away.  Fear sells and so does intrigue, just go look at how movie trailers are put together, and the news has done a fantastic job of marrying fear and intrigue to the brilliant point where a simple red font on a black book cover with a catchy hook can suck the average person into devouring 800 or so pages of Helter Skelter or a million other true crime books.  And that’s just reading.  The sensational headlines of Fox or CNN or whatever require zero effort.  Murder documentaries are all over prime time television.  Lay on the couch, eat chips and try and stay awake as they interview victims and bring in “experts” to speculate motives.  It’s hard to get away from this stuff, so we find a way to enjoy it.

The news pulls us in with it every day and I guess in a way I’m glad, because I can read it and watch it and wonder how I would do it if it were me.

But it never will be.

Jesus, I’ve never even shot a gun and about shit my pants when someone let me hold an unloaded one for the first time.

So instead, I give that to my characters for an hour or two a day and pray that someday I write something good enough, scary enough, and honest enough that it can compete with the cutthroat reality constantly shoved into our faces and so hard-wired into our brains that we seek it out for pleasure.

And when it’s a slow day for news we’ve got all kinds of books, movies, and games to, as Stephen King eloquently puts it in an old essay, “keep the gators fed.”