Monday, July 6, 2015

Killer Legends: Where Do Stories Come From?

Have you ever heard urban legends like about a guy with a hook with a hand who assaults kids on "Lover's Lane?"  Or a madman who hands out poisoned candy at Halloween?  Or a babysitter who gets a call from a psycho inside the house?  Some of those have been made into movies and the like so you might remember them more from the silver screen than around the campfire.

Back in May I watched a documentary on Netflix called Killer Legends.  In it two hipsters from New York hit the road to investigate the legends mentioned above to try to find the source for these stories.  Whether they find the actual source or not is probably debatable, but it is pretty interesting.

The hook hand myth takes them to Texarkana, Texas and the case of "The Phantom" who murdered several young couples back in the mid 1940s.  He didn't use a hook but in one really gross instance he raped a girl with the barrel of a pistol.  Nasty.  The movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown is based on the case; ironically there's a remake of it also on Netflix.  Besides the raping a girl with a pistol thing, what's scary is that the guy responsible was never caught.  It's some small relief to think that after nearly 70 years he's probably dead or at least not murdering anyone anymore, but still that means all these years he has still been out there.

Which really begs the question why killers like this or Jack the Ripper or so forth just stop killing.  They go on a rampage for a while and then just quit.  Is it because they get bored?  They drop over in the street from a heart attack or choke on a piece of shrimp?  Or do they simply decide not to press their luck?  The latter seems weird since you'd think it'd be the kind of addiction one simply can't turn on and off like a switch.  It does make for an unsatisfying conclusion.

The poisoned candy thing is something you probably heard about when you were a kid.  Your mom and dad probably limited how many pieces of candy you could eat and didn't let you eat any homemade treats from someone you didn't know.  Maybe you've even done that with your kids.  Anyway, it turns out to be kind of sad because research in the movie indicates the whole poisoned candy thing is pretty much a myth.

But there was one instance of poisoned candy, also in Texas, only in the 70s.  Basically this guy poisoned his own kids for the insurance money.  How fucked up is that?  I mean to give your own kids cyanide so you can make some money?  Oh and a couple of neighbor kids too who were apparently just collateral damage.  Unlike "The Phantom" this guy got a lethal injection.  Yay, Texas!

Still, isn't it funny to think every Halloween you hear about this shit and yet there's really not much to back up the actual story?  One researcher suggested that any stories you hear about are probably just kids who want to get attention.  Not that I'd want my nieces to eat the Rice Krispy treats baked by some creepy looking dude they don't know, but we can probably stop X-raying the candy.

Another story with almost no factual basis is the idea of a killer calling to terrorize a babysitter from inside the house.  As the movie points out, movies have long used that for fodder.  Yet about the only story the hipster detectives could find was in Missouri back in 1946 and 1950 when a babysitter was raped and murdered by some dude--who again was never caught.  The sad thing is this being Missouri in the 40s and 50s they just accused some random black guy each time and threw him in jail.  Round up the usual suspects!

Why then do we have so many babysitters terrorized in movies?  I guess because it's a pretty dramatic scenario.  I mean you have some pretty young girl (who for some reason despite being hot doesn't have a boyfriend to go screw on Lover's Lane where they'd be terrorized by Hook Hand guy) virtually alone in a house and then you have the bump in the night when the phone rings and some jerk starts calling.  It pretty much just writes itself.

Anyway, the larger point is that these stories like the crazy shit in the Bible and a lot of the old fairy tales have some slight basis in reality but also serve the larger purpose of providing moral lessons:   Don't screw out on Lover's Lane!  Don't Take Candy From Strangers!  Let Parents Watch Their Own Fucking Kids! (or alternately:  Make Sure You Have Caller ID!)

But really you can kind of see an evolution of a story with these examples.  There's some real-life incident and then details start to get embellished as people pass the story on.  You remember that old Telephone game, right?  One person whispers something to another and eventually you get to the end of the line to come up with some warped version of what you started with.  But that's how a lot of stories are created.  In part as I said because of the need for moral lessons, but also because people like to feel important and so when they tell a story they add stuff to make it seem more interesting.

Even today with all the social media and such this still happens.  About the same time I watched that documentary, I read about some guy who took a selfie with a Darth Vader cutout and was then accused of being a pedophile by some lady and it all snowballed into a big, nasty thing.  Thanks to Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all that shit now the game of Telephone can be a lot bigger, to pretty much cover the whole freaking world!  And it goes a lot faster too.  Eventually the lady who accused the guy of being a pedophile wised up, but there are probably still a lot of people who believe it, just like there are still a lot of people who worried about poisoned Halloween candy or a killer lurking inside a babysitter's house.

The documentary features a fourth subject:  killer clowns.  Like the others there's really no basis for why people in some cities suspect clowns of kidnapping and murdering children.  A tenuous connection is made then to the Dark Knight Rises shooting in Colorado.  This was really the weakest of the four segments.

I found this documentary a lot scarier than most of horror movies out there.  I guess because so much of it is real.  It's basically like "Unsolved Mysteries" crossed with one of those ghost hunting shows.  I could have done without the unnecessary nighttime crime scene explorations.  You could say they were trying to recreate the same ambiance, but I think it's just they thought it'd be more dramatic than going to those places in the daytime.  Anyway, if this is still on Netflix at this point you should watch it.


  1. I'm not really a fan of horror, but sometimes I get interested in those Dateline episodes where they drag things out (of course) before they reveal what really happened. Killer Legends does sound interesting. I will have to check it out.

  2. Texas is a great as far as no state income tax, but you do the crime we kill you back better.

  3. io9 has launched a blog that's all about serial killers. I think you'd probably like it. The blogs are all very well written.

  4. I had no idea the poisoned candy thing was a myth. I'll look for it because I love things that expose commonly held beliefs! Way to go making such a most excellent review, and I wish you a dope morning Pat

  5. I'm off to watch Killer Legends. After that, I'm on the lookout for the local Killer Gnomes who have been into a bit of Goblin....

  6. I remember hearing about the guy with the Darth Vader selfie, but I didn't hear the end of the story. Of course, probably more people heard about the accusation than the retraction, more's the pity.



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