The Town That Dreaded Sundown

“If we ever do catch him, it’ll be a miracle.” 

Determined Deputy Norman Ramsey, (Andrew Prine) is in pursuit of a masked man known as The Phantom Killer. A series of couples-slayings alert towns outside of the tiny community of Texarkana to assist in the search. Veteran cop, Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) joins the case, only to discover that this Phantom is full of deadly tricks. Attacks continue until a police-led hunt culminates in the resolution of Texarkana’s terror.

A Note on The Video:
Rather than the standard clip from the film, the video is a full BuzzFeed Unsolved episode that focuses on The Phantom. I am a longtime fan of Ryan and Shane, so this video comes highly recommended. Since this post touches on the idea of word-of-mouth and how non-fiction can intermingle with fiction in retellings, it makes sense to throw in a video from a few present-day storytellers.

Full disclosure, The Hearty Boys (because they are lovable and make a satisfying show) do use colorful language.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging…

The Storyteller
An unwitting viewer might believe The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a documentary; however, the stylized version of this tale is misleading. First, as described in the actual documentary Killer Legends, one of the more gruesome deaths in the picture is inaccurate – involving the use of a trombone as a murder weapon. Second, the comedy around a cop known as “Sparkplug” (Charles B. Pierce), as well as the directness of the sexual innuendo in the film downplay just how horrifying the situation was for Texarkana at the time.

Stranger Than Fiction
Though events depicted in the film are not accurate, many residents of the town itself, as well as outsiders, think that the myth is actually the truth. This too was a theme touched on in Killer Legends. Some might file this under the moniker of “fake news,” but maybe it is more accurate to call it “misunderstood news,” for those that spread the fakery often believe the incorrect retelling. 

One of the most chilling aspects of the story is that The Phantom was never caught (or was he?). The man that was believed by some to be the culprit is still thought by several others to be innocent. The idea that “he could be anywhere and anyone” plays on the thrill of an unsolved mystery. The story also sexualizes danger in some ways, alluding to the notion of “not getting caught” with your lover in a private situation. The dangers of Lovers’ Lanes echoes through classic American urban legends such as The Hook and it has been suggested that the homicides in Texarkana were the basis for some such stories.

Laugh in the Face of Danger
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an underground horror classic. In fact, residents of the town still commemorate the slayings by viewing the film in Spring Lake Park, the location where many of the murderers took place. While opinions vary about this memorialization of the events, it might be a town’s collective catharsis in reliving the terror by making it a time to gather with friends and to pay homage to the dead; it’s a way of laughing in The Phantom’s face, by demonstrating that through community, Texarkana survived its 15 minutes of maim – and even capitalized on it.

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