Texarkana's Phantom Killer is one of four frightening, fascinating urban legends explored in the new two-hour documentary "Killer Legends," airing at 7 p.m. Sunday on the Chiller TV channel.
Directed by Joshua Zeman, who directed the horror documentary "Cropsey" about four years ago, with Rachel Mills as researcher, "Killer Legends" visits the idea that the Phantom Killer here may have influenced "The Hook" urban legends that appeared in the decades following the 1946 so-called "Moonlight Murders."
Other film sections give an idea of the other urban legends explored: The Candyman, The Baby-Sitter and the Man Upstairs, and The Killer Clown.
Zeman and Mills visited Texarkana in July of last year, interviewing locals about the murders, visiting Spring Lake Park and poring over microfilm versions of old newspaper stories from the time that detailed the grisly killings, which terrified the town and became national news. While here, they shot footage for the documentary.
Both Zeman and Mills are intrigued by the Phantom Killer and the way Texarkana handles legends surrounding the real-life story.
"I think obviously a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to figure out who the Phantom was," Zeman said. But their interest rests in more than who committed the crime. "We're looking at it from the lens of urban legends," he said.
Texarkana is both wrestling with and embracing the legend, which is seen in the annual movie screening of the original "The Town That Dreaded Sundown. "Which to me is just the coolest thing in the world," Zeman said, comparing it to visiting the scene of the crime but in this instance through a movie. It's legend tripping, he said.
"It's what everybody does," Zeman said about this human impulse we have. In some sense, he says, legend becomes the truth for people.
"It's totally true. That's exactly how I feel about this," Zeman said about the Phantom. To the director, what's scariest in horror movies isn't when someone jumps out at us. What makes things scarier is how the facts morph into something else.
"For me, scary is creepy, and I find that creepy goes a long way," Zeman said.
What's creepiest about the Phantom Killer? "For me it's the mask," he said, noting the masks allow people to do things they'd ordinarily not do.
Mills thinks what's interesting is how a whole new generation is learning this legend in a different way, thinking of things from the movie, like the trombone used in one murder, as part of the truth when that's not the case. This is what happens when popular legend becomes part of the picture.
That twist to the story when it was retold was strong here in Texarkana, Mills said. "It wasn't necessarily around the campfire," she said about the story changing. And it was also "meta" when film crews, just weeks before Zeman and Mills were here, shot footage for the remake of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown," she said.
"Stories on top of stories is what really fascinates me," Mills said.
While here, they spoke with people like Dr. Jim Presley, who's written a book about the 1946 murders, Mark Bledsoe, who talked with the main suspect, and Jereme Ray Kennington, who's part of a younger generation intrigued by the subject.
"I'm completely happy with the project," Mills said, emphasizing that this isn't a reality TV show. They went out and actually researched the true crime for this documentary.
Texarkana has embraced the topic, she said. And with their documentary and the new "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" film, the fascination will continue. In that way, no one will forget what actually happened.
Zeman said it always seemed to him that Texarkana wrestled with how to treat the Phantom Killer. Embrace it as an attraction? Put it behind us? But when it comes to these stories, the public's fascination can't be controlled, he said.
"I think at some point, you just have to embrace it," Zeman said.
(Chiller TV is channel 199 on DISH Network, channel 257 on DirecTV. More info: ChillerTV.com.)