Joshua Zeman, the director who made Cropsey is back with a new documentary about the origins of urban legends, Killer Legends.
I’m not sure why I’m so obsessed with urban legends. Part of it is probably my steady diet of Cropsey stories I grew up hearing in Staten Island. I discovered the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series when I was six or seven, quite possibly the greatest series of books to ever emotionally scare kids with their uncanny illustrations and stories of skin-stealing scarecrows. Plus, I grew up in New Jersey, the home of Weird New Jersey magazine. I lived within driving distance of the Devil’s Teeth at the Watchung Reservation, Demon Alley, Thirteen Bumps Road, and Devil’s Tree. Damn, there was a lot of devil-naming going on in central New Jersey in the 80s and 90s.
I thought I’d briefly go through the legends movie discusses and the real-life cases they link up with.
A couple goes to Lover’s Lane to make out. The boyfriends presses the girl to go farther but she’s not comfortable. He drives her home and turns on the radio, where there’s a report about an escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand. The guy gets out of the car to let the girl out and there’s a HOOK hanging from the door handle. I’ve heard about a dozen versions of this urban legend, including a particularly gory version where the guy gets out of the car to investigate scraping noises coming from outside, leaving the girl alone. Then she starts hearing a scraping noise coming from above her and her boyfriend has been HANGED and it’s his heels making the scraping noise.
Zeman and researcher Rachel Mills link the Hook story with the Texarkana Moonlight Murders from 1946. The killer, known as The Phantom, wore a white hood with holes cut out for his eyes and mouth, and attacked couples in isolated areas. You might be familiar with this case because Charles B. Pierce made a fictionalized slasher about it, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a full two-years before Halloween was released. The Town That Dreaded Sundown became a late-night cult classic and featured a memorable scene where the killer attaches a knife to a trombone and kills his victim by trombone-stabbing.
Anyway, it’s believed the Hook legend comes from these killings. Interestingly, my original thought was the Zodiac Killer, who had a similar MO to the Phantom.
The Candy Man
If you’re a certain age, then you probably don’t remember a time where your parents didn’t search your Halloween candy. Everyone knows there are psychos poisoning candy and putting pins in razor blades in apples.
Believe it or not, there is but one case of someone poisoning Halloween candy. In 1974, Ronald Clark O’Bryan’s son, Timothy, got deathly ill after eating some Pixy Stix he got for Halloween. He died en route to the hospital. Suspicion fell on Ronald when it was realized that he had taken out a hefty life insurance policy on his son. So there aren’t random strangers trying to kill children on Halloween, just their own parents.
A young woman is home alone. Sometimes she’s babysitting. She starts getting gross, threatening calls. She calls the cops and phone company and ask them to trace the call. The pervert calls back and the cops successfully trace the call. They frantically call the girl and tell her to get herself and the children outside because the calls are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE.
A similar scenario happened to Janett Christman, who was babysitting in Columbia, MO. in 1950. She was just thirteen when she was raped and murdered while babysitting for three-year-old Gregory Romack. Janette got no warning though, and was actually part of a rash of killings in the area. There was a suspect but he was never charged and actually sued the sheriff’s department.
It must be hard for people of a certain age to understand the kind of anonymity we used to have. Before cell phones, caller ID, and star-69, you could really prank call anyone. You can really see the fear of the unknown and fear of strangers in this story. But, statistically, children being babysat are more likely to be injured by their babysitters than babysitters being hurt by random killers.
Why So Serious?
Everyone knows not to trust a clown because you don’t know what’s under his makeup. When I was writing for horror-writers.net I noticed a trend of people dressing up as clowns and just walking around. When did people become so scared of clowns?
John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer from the Chicago-suburbs who killed at least thirty-three young men, was notorious for dressing as Pogo the Clown for his charity work, but he didn’t use the clown to lure his victims.
Clowns have always been dark, they were just sanitized in the fifties and sixties for children’s television and commercials. So maybe the fear of clowns is just the clown mythos coming back full circle? Look at Pagliacci, the murderous opera-clown.
What I liked about the documentary was that it made connections that I hadn’t made before and actually taught me the origin of a legend that I hadn’t heard before.
That being said, it felt constrained by time limits. Each legend gets about twenty minutes to examine the story and then go into its origins. I’m not sure a movie is the best format for this. I would have cut the “Why So Serious?” portion because John Wayne Gacy’s crimes are only tangentially related to the scary clown legends whereas the other legends have more solid footing.
The movie was definitely entertaining but I think I’d love to see it as TV show or miniseries. There are so many legends with killer roots that you could probably do a solid hour-long episode per legend. I definitely recommend this to anyone who like urban legends and creepy real history.