New York filmmaker Joshua Zeman is not timid about confronting urban legends. His acclaimed 2009 documentary Cropsey (co-directed by Barbara Brancaccio) was an effective blend of myth and true crime investigation focusing on a notorious urban legend in his native Staten Island. The vague moniker “Cropsey” was assigned to a “boogeyman” figure blamed for a series of missing children around Staten Island in the 1970’s. The real life template for Cropsey was the convicted rapist and suspected child murderer Andre Rand. Rand was the boogeyman made flesh, the nebulous lore created around him reverberating beyond the community he terrorized and manifesting as a spooky campfire tale. Cropsey was a frightening look at this urban legend, successful for Zeman’s zeal in confronting horrific history in his own backyard.
Capitalizing on Cropsey’s success, Zeman’s returns to sinister folklore with Killer Legends, a special that aired recently on Chiller TV (soon to be released on DVD). Killer Legends’ anthology format is aimed at connecting other infamous legends to their true crime counterparts. Together with co-host Rachel Mills, the duo embarks on tackling four distinct and timeless urban legends: The Candyman; The Baby-Sitter and the Man Upstairs; The Hookman; and the Killer Clown. The result is a creepy and engaging look at the roots of common urban legends viewed through Zeman’s zestful lens.
Killer Legends puts viewers face-to-face with familiar fears using a combination of archival news footage, crime scene photos, and official reports. Scenes from narrative horror films, inspired by real life urban legends (When a Stranger Calls, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, Candyman), are interspersed throughout the segments contextualizing the impact urban legends have on widespread popular culture. The strength of Killer Legends, however, is offering compelling first-hand anecdotes from locals rooted in the communities from which these legends were born. These folks are, after all, responsible for perpetuating the stories, often vaguely aware of the actual crime details.
Zeman has no delusions of cracking unsolved crimes, and that’s not the purpose of Killer Legends. The anthology’s focus is examining the penetration of macabre crimes into the consciousness of society. Zeman demonstrates that urban legends endure as universally shared experiences handed down through generations of storytelling. The purpose is two-fold: they’re designed to act as cautionary tales warning teens against sex or discouraging children from talking to strangers; and, more importantly, they prevail as a means of processing communal trauma. As Zeman puts it, “sometimes we just need to put a face on our fear.”
Killer Legends takes viewers from the small town of Texarkana where a mysterious “Phantom” murders couples in a lover’s lane deep in the woods, to the urban ghetto of Chicago’s poverty-riddled Cabrini Green, an unlikely location for the sighting of scary clowns. It’s important to note these environments because the term “urban legend” is not limited to large cities; small towns and rural communities are obviously not immune to their own notorious crimes. Each chilling figure—from the “Halloween Sadist” who poisons children’s candy during Trick-or-Treat, to the “Moonlight Murders” rumored to be committed by a hook-handed killer—are the culmination of multi-faceted factors both real and imagined. Zeman and Mills demonstrate that each exist as a complex blend of attention-seeking behavior, playful pranks, and the desire to understand a darkness inherent in humanity.
Lest we forget that real murder is not entertainment, Zeman provides insight into the historical circumstances of the victims. Timothy O’Brien was a young boy who succumbed to cyanide-laced candy given by his father Ronald O’Brien, given the nickname “Candyman” while in prison; Janett Christman was a babysitter strangled with electrical cord by someone she possibly knew and who may have committed similar atrocious acts of violence. Zeman is clear to point out that though urban legend lend themselves to playful fright, they serve a deeper purpose: to help a mind cope with these types of incomprehensible acts of cruelty and violence. Zeman illustrates his point with a segment featuring the city of Texarkana’s ceremonial screening of the film The Town that Dreaded Sundown, based on actual murders in the area, as a cathartic means of release for the community. Zeman interviews residents of the Cabrini Green housing project, who have larger problems than creepy clown appearances that merely provide an eerie distraction in the troubled neighborhood. Both points-of-view inform the viewer of the function of urban legends—where fantasy, however sinister, is a form of escapism.
When it comes to true crime documentaries, success often relies on the degree of tact applied to the subject. Some viewers may have reservations in this regard due to a sensationalist approach to the material inherent in entertainment-driven documentaries like Killer Legends. Zeman and Mills do tread a fine line by featuring themselves prominently in footage as if they are a contemporary Mulder and Scully pursuing an X-File. The two brazenly stir up emotions in the neighborhoods where horrible crimes were committed. This cavalier attitude might turn some viewers away; others may find their fervor a welcome component that offers the viewer vicarious involvement in the investigation. Those familiar with his work in Cropsey are already aware of Zeman’s similar approach in that film. One could argue that when examining morbid subject matter like torture and murder, the kid gloves must be removed and replaced by those of the forensic scientist.
True crime aficionados are likely already familiar with most of the urban legends covered in Killer Legends; that should not discourage seasoned viewers from watching. The anthology is packed with fascinating observations on popular culture, folklore, and social psychology. The atmosphere is suitably chilling, and despite the familiarity of the legends, these timeless tales still have the ability to disturb. Zeman and Mills do dig up intriguing tidbits that a traditional documentary may overlook as tangential, but here serve to drive in the overall point. Killer Legends is solid enough to warrant an ongoing series, hopefully something Chiller TV is pondering for development. With Zeman and Mills at the helm, one can be assured of an engaging and even enlightening experience on a journey through familiar haunts that are oddly therapeutic.