I thought Cropsey was a stellar documentary. So I’m eager to watch Killer Legends, this filmmaker’s second documentary about Urban Legends and there possible sources. Check it out, now, streaming on Netflix!
For those unaware, like I was, but apparently, social scientists are trying to re-brand urban legends as “contemporary legends.” Well, whatever the label, what these legends basically boil down to is modern folklore or oft told tales — usually with a macabre element or an ironic twist to them, deeply rooted in popular culture, with just a hint of plausibility to keep the gullible hooked enough to keep passing them along. These tales are used as fables, parables, possible explanations for strange occurrences or events, but, more often than not, they are used as cautionary tales that usually happened to a friend of a friend of a friend or someone’s cousin’s uncle. And one of the prime examples of an urban legend is the tale of ‘The Hook.’
It begins with a young couple parked in a secluded lover’s lane engaged in some premarital necking. And as hormones rage, passions heat up, and few hickeys are born, the music on the radio is interrupted by a breaking news bulletin revealing an escaped mental patient / mad-dog killer has just escaped from a nearby asylum / prison; and this fugitive has one very distinguishing characteristic: one of his hands is missing, and has been replaced with a stainless steel hook — which he used to murder several people. The bulletin ends with the authorities encouraging everyone to stay indoors until this madman is captured. Of course, the girl is frightened and wants to head home. The boy, who was >this close< to getting to second base mere moments ago, scoffs, saying the killer is probably miles away. And as the minutes tick by while they argue about what to do, a sudden scraping outside her door frightens the girl so much the boy finally gives up and drives away. But when he gets to her house, ever the gentlemen, he exits the car and hoofs it around the hood to get the door for her. And there, caught on the passenger side handle, hangs a torn-off stainless steel hook covered in blood.
This tale has remained fairly consistent since it first started spreading around in the 1950s but there were a few variations as the word of mouth echo got a bit staticky, most notably deviating with the car breaking down after hearing the news bulletin on a secluded road in the middle of the night instead. Here, the boy leaves the girl behind and goes for help. (Or gets out to pee, again, depending on the teller.) Suddenly, she hears something scraping on the roof. And when she finally musters the courage to exit the car and investigate, either the killer is sitting on the roof, banging the boyfriend’s dismembered head on the hardtop, or the boy’s mutilated body is hanging from a tree and his knuckles or feet were scraping across the roof of the car (– other deviations have the boy’s blood dripping on the roof). Then, the girl learns too late this was all just an elaborate ruse to lure her out of the locked car. And while that’s how the story ends, where did it begin?
That is an answer documentarians Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills try to uncover in Killer Legends (2014). Kind of a follow up to Zeman’s Cropsey (2009), where Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio connect the disappearance of several local Staten Island children to an old urban legend about a murderous deviant roaming the ruins of an abandoned asylum — but further investigation leads to something more real and infinitely worse. And with this new documentary, Zeman and Mills try to uncover the nugget of truth from which a few more of these morality tales most likely sprung, zeroing in on a quartet of notorious real-life cases that might’ve served as ground zero for these urban legends, beginning with tale of ‘The Hook’.
Here, their investigation begins with the deconstruction of the story itself, which isn’t easy to do with something that has generally just been passed around by word of mouth over the decades. Again, the story originated in the post-war boom of the 1950s, where teenagers started to gain more independence, disposal income, and America’s car culture came to the forefront. But the first time the story really gained any national attention is when it was retold as a concerned letter from “Jeanette” in a Dear Abby column published in 1960 as a cautionary tale for horny teens to keep their dresses down and flies zipped up tight, which also served as the inadvertent inspiration for many a horror movie — especially the slasher boom of the 1980s. But Zeman and Mills propose the story’s true origin can be traced to a real killer from a true crime case that took place in Texarkana, Arkansas, in 1946.
What came to be known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders were committed by an individual the local newspapers dubbed the “Phantom Killer”. And over the span of several months, the Phantom terrorized the border town by attacking eight people, killing five of them. And what makes this case relevant to the urban legend is the first six victims were all couples attacked in their car on isolated roads; some of them makeshift lover’s lanes. The first two victims survived the attack, but the woman was sexually assaulted and was penetrated with the killer’s pistol.
No victim survived the next two attacks; and once again, the Phantom, after disposing of the men, sexually assaulted both women before killing them. The last attack credited to the Phantom took place at a farmhouse, where a man was killed but his wife was able to escape after being shot in the face. And while the killer was never caught, authorities felt their prime suspect, Youell Swinney, was the Phantom even though the only real evidence they had was a detailed but inadmissible confession from his wife. And so, justice was perverted a bit as Swinney, a car thief by trade, was instead sentenced to life in prison as a habitual criminal. And whether he was guilty of the murders or not, the attacks stopped after he was incarcerated.
Now, the tale of the Phantom Killer was famously — or infamously, adapted into a movie by Texarkana mini movie-mogul, Charles B. Pierce, as The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), where fact and fiction definitely blurred in the ersatz docudrama. Texarkana had also changed a lot since the killings took place, making finding the actual location of the murders rather difficult as Zeman and Mills try to get to the truth, interviewing several investigators, who weren’t sure if Swinney actually was the killer after all, and locals, who remember the events and are resigned to the fact their town will be forever linked to this terrible event. But is it really linked to the tale of ‘The Hook’? Well, the evidence presented is tangential at best but when one sees how badly Pierce’s film adaptation twisted the truth — I mean death by trombone, really?, one could accept how a deranged killer with a gun turned into a deranged killer with a hook as the story went from ear to brain to mouth. And like the killer, as the promotional materials for the movie so notoriously claimed, the story is still out there, roaming the streets today.
From there, the documentary moves to Houston, Texas, to get to the roots of ‘The Candyman’ urban legend, which officially ruined Halloween by spawning and spreading tales of poisoned candy and sabotaged apples stuffed with razor-blades just waiting for a bite by some unsuspecting trick-or-treater. As a kid, I remember at least three different cycles of tainted Halloween candy panic while growing up: two in the 1970s and one in the 1980s — and one of them got so bad Halloween was essentially cancelled. And yet according to Killer Legends, despite the media firestorm and overreaction, actual confirmed incidences of candy tampering are extremely rare.
In 1959, a California dentist was charged with the unlawful dispensing of drugs when he gave out candy-coated laxative pills to trick-or-treaters as part of a misfiring prank. In 1964, an annoyed woman from Long Island, New York, gave out inedible items — including steel wool, dog biscuits, and poisoned ant traps, to children she believed were too old to be trick-or-treating. And while no one was dumb enough to actually eat what obviously was not candy, the woman still plead guilty to child endangerment. And this incident caused a media firestorm, with reports of bubble gum laced with lye in Detroit and rat-poisoned treats in Philadelphia — none of which could ever be substantiated. And then in 1970, The New York Times threw more matches and fuel on a non-existent fire with an article that provided “specific examples of potential tampering” — stress on the ‘potential’.
Thus, our team of investigators dismiss the widespread belief that strangers have ever handed out poisoned candy to any children. But! The case could be made for non-strangers. Case in point, one Ronald Clark O’Bryan a/k/a The Candyman. Seems in 1974, O’Bryan’s 8-year old son, Timothy, died after consuming a giant Pixy Stix on Halloween night, whose sugary contents were laced with a massive amount of cyanide. And while O’Bryan claimed his son received the candy while out trick-or-treating, further investigation showed it was inside job and it was O’Bryan who gave his son the poisoned tube to collect on a brand new life insurance policy he’d taken out on his two children.
That’s right. O’Bryan had meant to kill his daughter, too, along with several of their friends who’d gone trick-or-treating with them to try and cover his tracks. (The neighbor he tried to pin it on wasn’t home on Halloween night.) Thankfully, no one else ate any of the poisoned contents. O’Bryan, meanwhile, despite his claims of innocence, was tried, convicted, and later executed for the heinous crime in 1984, officially closing the book on ‘The Candyman’ investigation but his lingering presence is still felt every Halloween.
And so, the investigation next shifts to Columbia, Missouri, and the urban legend of ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs’ — another well-worn tale, which always begins with a teenage babysitter putting her charges to bed upstairs, and then moving downstairs to watch TV until the parents return. Then, the phone rings and a man tells her she’d best go check on the children and hangs up. Dismissing the call, the teenager resumes watching TV. But then the stranger calls back, several times, getting angrier with each call when she won’t comply with his instructions. And so, the worried girl calls the police who promise to trace the next call, which they do. And then they call the babysitter back and frantically tell her to get out because the mystery caller is calling from inside the house! She complies, the police arrive. But the ensuing search of the house finds the killer gone but they’re too late; the children are dead, whose gruesome manner of death is usually up to the storyteller but they are usually hacked to pieces.
Like with the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, the true-life case they find doesn’t quite fit that mold but, essentially, it was as close as they could get to the actual scenario. Seems that on the evening of March 18, 1950, fifteen-year old Janett Christman was babysitting for the Romack family. And at some point after she put their only child to bed, an intruder broke into the home and began to assault her. Then, at approximately 10:35 pm the police received a jarring phone call: a girl was screaming on the line, followed by the sounds of a struggle, then “come quick” before the connection was broken. At that point, the technology wasn’t advanced enough to make a trace, so it wasn’t until much later that the authorities connected the call to what the Romack’s found when they returned home a couple hours later: Janett was dead. She was beaten bloody, raped, and then strangled with an ironing cord. The toddler was unharmed.
Evidence at the scene didn’t add up, as it appeared the killer tried to make it look like someone had broken in, when in all likelihood, odds were good Janett knew her killer and let them inside. The initial prime suspect was a Robert Mueller, a friend of the Romacks, who also knew Janett. In fact, he’d tried to get her to babysit his children that night but she was already booked. (So he knew where she was, and knew she would be alone.) And according to court documents he’d made lewd and skeevy comments about the girl, expressing “admiration for Christman’s figure and her mature development, and expressed the opinion that she was still a virgin.” Mrs. Romack also told police she thought Mueller had made unwelcome sexual advances toward Christman in the past.
There were even some tangential links to other sexual assaults in the immediate area but Mueller was never charged after passing a lie detector test, even though that doesn’t mean much according to the profiler Zeman and Mills consult on the case. And while they are convinced Mueller probably did it — the serial rapes stopped after he was drafted for the Korean conflict, the profiler reminds them hundreds of other men also left the area to join the service at the same time. Sadly, in an effort to close the case, an African-American man “confessed” to the crime and was quickly convicted and executed. And he wasn’t the only one as the investigators uncovered a startling pattern of cases closed in the exact same manner based on dubious confessions by minorities. Thus, even while the case of ‘The Babysitter’ is technically closed, this tragic crime essentially remains unsolved.
Now, while the first three cases were kind of fascinating and I was highly intrigued by the history and how they stitched it all together, Killer Legends kinda lost me in the last segment that concerned a rash of deviant clown sightings in the Chicago area, who allegedly tried to lure children into their suspect vehicles. And I’ll let you all draw your own conclusions from there. Anyhoo, they tie this outbreak of coulrophopia back to the arrest of John Wayne Gacy, a notorious serial killer, who killed at least 33 young men and teen-aged boys and then buried them on his property over a five year period (1973-1978). And although Gacy never actually killed anyone while dressed as a clown, they claim his infamy lit the fire so to speak. Yeah, the only point of interest in the whole segment is when they focus on a mass grave of clowns and circus performers at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, known as Showman’s Rest. Seems a tragic train wreck killed 86 members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus back in 1918 and most of the bodies were so burnt beyond recognition they were all buried in one massive grave.
Anyhoo, despite the fizzling finale I really enjoyed this documentary quite a bit and feel it’s well worth a look. In fact, my only real complaint is that Zeman and Mills (the first directing, the second producing, both serving as guides) skate dangerously close to the edge of making the documentary about them instead of the subject matter. I mean, Are these guys documentarians or are they amateur sleuths? As the old trope goes, Are they relating the story or making themselves the story? The line is definitely blurred here. A line that is blurred even further with Zeman and Mills’ next project: The Killing Season, a multi-episode hunt for serial killers for the A&E network.
In fact, after the success of Cropsey, Zeman approached the Chiller Channel about a whole series based on tracing urban legends to their source. And while Chiller was enthusiastic and signed on to finance the idea, at some point the decision was made to scrap the series and just make it another feature documentary instead. Regardless, Killer Legends is still pretty good. The film is a well researched and a well-executed study of social anxiety and mass-morbidity. It is both frank and fascinating and a tad unsettling at times. And while all of it is purely speculative, one sad truth rang out loud and clear: in the end, don’t worry about the story, but beware the storyteller.
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Killer Legends (2014) Gulp Pictures :: Gigantic Pictures :: Chiller Network :: Storyville Entertainment :: Gravitas Ventures / EP: George Plamondon, Betsy Schechter, Justin Smith, Thomas P. Vitale, Joshua Zeman, Shane O’Brien / P: Rachel Mills, Gregory Palmer, Ben Correale / D: Joshua Zeman / W: Joshua Zeman / C: Gregory Palmer / E: Aaron Crozier, Brian McAllister / S: Joshua Zeman, Rachel Mills