"The Monster of the Andes" has claimed some 300 victims, and his whereabouts are unknown.
While most people would recoil from these facts, Erica Messer dives in. After all, the showrunner of Criminal Minds knows a great character when she sees one. That real-life slayer loosely inspired the 300th episode of the CBS drama, which kicks off season 14 on October 3.
Messer, who has been with the series since its pilot, deftly weaves the unthinkable and the familiar, having spent more than half of her career delving into the worst of humanity.
Still, she remains surprisingly sunny, crediting her conversations with the show's real subjects — FBI agents in an elite division profiling serial killers. Over the years, as she came to know various agents, she sought their advice: how do you prevent the killers' depravity from darkening your worldview?
"They would give these pointers that you always look for the light, always look for the good," she says. And Messer's takeaway was that the good flourishes in the heroes who spend their lives nabbing the felons.
"My older brother is assistant chief of police in Bradenton, Florida," Messer says. "A lot of my family is in the [U.S.] State Department. They are the real heroes. I am just writing about that stuff. My brother puts on a bulletproof vest and a gun to go to work, and I grab a laptop."
Messer often mentions leaning in; she leans in to listen to the show's eight other writers, the actors and, at home, to her children. With the writers, the goal is to continue scaring the audience and revealing more about the agents.
Not all showrunners are open to actors' suggestions, but Messer says, "We are counting on the actors to bring our outrageous ideas to life. If they don't believe in the scene, the dialogue or whatever, they are not going to be able to bring the scene to life."
So she writes and rewrites until all are happy. "I don't know if that is part of my disease to please as a middle child."
Like many working parents, Messer sometimes returns to work at night, after spending time with her son, 14, and daughter, 11. She devotes weekends to their tennis matches and has found a way to use L.A.'s traffic to her advantage. Driving her children to school offers "invaluable time for talking, laughing or discussing struggles."
Having worked her way up through the writers' rooms of Party of Five, Alias and The O.C., Messer now has an exclusive production deal with ABC Studios. She's developing a drama, "godmothering" another and wants to do a documentary — in addition to overseeing a hit series.
Still, Messer remains clear on her primary goal: "As parents it is our job to raise responsible, kind citizens of the world," she says. "That is the most important work we do."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9. 2018