A Survivor’s Story: Life After Encountering a Serial Killer

Countless stories are told about the victims of grisly murders, but it’s not as often that we hear tales about those who experienced similar brutal attacks, and were able to survive. Whitney Bennett was beaten with a tire iron and nearly strangled to death by the Night Stalker. Bryan Harnell was stabbed repeatedly by the Zodiac. Rebecca Garde escaped the Green River Killer after he lured her into the woods, and Kathy Kleiner survived a savage beating at the hands of Ted Bundy.

Each of these individuals narrowly escaped death by a notorious serial killer, but did they really get away?

Enduring any traumatic experience is only the beginning of a survivor’s horrific nightmare. As we’ve seen time and again in episodes of Serial Killers, the psychological damage sustained from trauma is long-lasting and challenging to overcome.

To better understand the impact of such an experience, we can look to the survivors for insight. In quotes taken from several interviews about her encounter with The Railroad Killer, Holly K. Dunn has often described what life was like after she was attacked along a railway as a college student:

“The thought that [he] was still out there somewhere kept me awake at night... I knew that he knew I was still alive...I thought he would come back and get me...The night before my court appearance, I woke up screaming. I was petrified of facing my attacker…[in court] my body started shaking so violently that I had to be carried from the witness box.”

Holly Dunn went back to class and tried pretending nothing happened, but it didn’t work. In the time leading up to the one-year anniversary of the attack, Dunn had panic attacks triggered by reminders of the experience, and her grades began to slip. Although she persevered and graduated a week before testifying against The Railroad Killer, rebuilding her life took years.

Dunn has said that having a good experience with law enforcement and the judicial system really helped her along the path to recovery. She found closure in her attacker being caught, tried, and executed, but the process took a long time. Even after finding closure, she still had plenty of days where she felt barely functional, and according to researchers and psychologists, that’s not unusual.

Below are lists of common physical and emotional reactions survivors have to trauma compiled by Dr. David Baldwin, a psychologist specializing in emotional trauma from Eugene, Oregon. Dr. Baldwin stresses that “these are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.” He also notes that some of the listed reactions may appear totally unrelated to the trauma experienced, likely because the symptoms match common ailments.

Physical Reactions

  • aches and pains, such as headaches, backaches, and stomach aches
  • sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations
  • changes in sleep patterns, appetite, and interest in sex
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • easily startled by noises or unexpected touch
  • Increased susceptibility to colds and illnesses
  • increased use of alcohol or drugs and/or overeating

Emotional Reactions

  • shock and disbelief
  • fear and/or anxiety
  • grief, disorientation, and denial
  • hyper-alertness or hypervigilance
  • irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage
  • emotional swings
  • nightmares
  • flashbacks
  • feelings of helplessness, panic, and feeling out of control
  • tendency toward isolating oneself
  • feelings of detachment
  • emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings
  • difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • feelings of self-blame and/or survivor guilt
  • shame
  • diminished interest in everyday activities or depression
  • suicidal thoughts
  • loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future
  • anger towards religion or belief system; loss of beliefs
  • desire for revenge

Reactions to trauma can last weeks, months or sometimes many years - every survivor is different. But no matter the duration, there are a number of helpful coping strategies on a survivor’s road to recovery, once they are ready to seek them out. A few examples include hard exercise, committing to something personally meaningful every day, and mobilizing a support system.

Dr. Baldwin explains that connecting to other people is the key to healing. Trauma survivors can benefit so much from gaining support, understanding, and by finding opportunities to talk through their situation. That support system often comes in the form of family, friends, therapists and other trauma survivors. Everyone heals at different rates, and it’s detrimental to push someone to “move on” before they are ready. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

According to Dr. Baldwin, survivors fully engaged in recovering from trauma often reap unexpected benefits. “As they gradually heal their wounds,” he says, “survivors find that they are also developing inner strength, compassion for others, and often the most surprising -- a greater ability to experience joy and serenity than ever before.”

Now a co-founder of Holly’s House, an advocacy center for victims of intimate crime, author and a public speaker, Holly Dunn would probably agree.

“I think I’m changed because of what happened but I think that I’m probably better. I’m stronger, more independent and more aware...Bad things can happen and life can go on after [they do]. You can get through anything with help and a good support system.”