“The fiction became reality.”
Documentarians Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills follow four urban legends to their sinister roots and posits that the storytellers – not the stories – are the most dangerous parts of tales.
The Texarkana Phantom
In the 1940s, a masked killer nicknamed The Phantom murdered several couples in Texarkana – the area marrying the states of Texas and Arkansas. As Joshua and Rachel discover, this masked madman shared similarities with an urban legend called The Hook. The key similarity involved the sexual assault of a woman with a “foreign metal object,” which in the case of the phantom was a gun. Killer Legends speculates that the origin of The Hook lies within the perceived dangers surrounding teenagers and their budding sexualities.
Every Halloween, at least one person has a story about how they heard that someone in the town over knows someone whose kid found a safety pin in their candy after Trick-or-Treating. It is not clear entirely where this urban legend came from, but the fear probably evolved from the notion of letting kids take candy from strangers – something parents teach them specifically not to do, except on Halloween.
It turns out that a man named Ronald Clark O’Bryan actually did have a child that was poisoned via his Halloween loot. The child, his son Timothy, died almost instantly from cyanide poisoning. What made this tale all the more chilling is that the culprit turned out to be Ronald himself, not a stranger giving out poison Halloween fare. Killer Legends suggests that though this is the only concrete story they found involving tainted Halloween candy, the urban legend re-emerges every year, possibly cemented in American culture because of the tragic passing of Timothy O’Bryan.
Personally, this is my favorite urban legend of all time and the reason is simple: It scared the living daylights out of me. A young woman is babysitting and she keeps getting frightening phone calls, only to discover that the calls are coming from inside the house where she is babysitting. This urban legend was the reason why I refused to babysit as a kid (and subsequently, don’t have an impressive savings account).
Killer Legends discovers that, like the Halloween prankster, this urban legend has roots hidden deep in the heart of country, though instances of something evil befalling babysitters are infrequent. It turns out that a small town in Missouri holds the origin of this widespread spook story. When she was babysitting in the 1950s, Janett Christman was attacked and killed; four years before her murder, Marylou Jenkins was also attacked and killed while her mother was out of the house. The murders were never solved, though residents of the town have their suspicions.
Of all the explorations done by the film crew, this one feels like a stretch. Instead of taking a specific urban legend, Zeman and Mills examine a phobia that has clung to American culture for decades – Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns. My Windy City friends know that this fear grips us particularly hard, probably because of that incident with that serial killer who sometimes dressed like a clown (John Wayne Gacy). Killer Legends also brings up a less-known event commemorated in Chicago as Showmen’s Rest.
Of course, the explosion of Joker partly speaks to this clown craze. The Joker’s infamy became even darker following the mass shooting during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises and following the death of the man behind the makeup mask, Heath Ledger. Even after all the chaos he brings, we are still morbidly obsessed with all-things Joker and he’s not the only clown we crave. The massive popularity of the remake of Stephen King’s It also proves our cloying fanaticism with something that really scares us.
Urban legends, like stories of old, enjoy massive popularity via word-of-mouth and retellings. They serve as warnings about safety, but they may serve other purposes beyond playing the role of a cautionary tale. Stories about vulnerable young babysitters (always women) being taunted by menacing strangers; anecdotes about the kid in the next neighborhood whose candy had razor blades in it; teenage sex scares; and Joker-mania all pay tribute to a cultural mesmerization regarding the macabre.