KILLER LEGENDS (2014) dir. Joshua Zeman

Director: Joshua Zeman
Producers: Rachel Mills, Gregory Palmer
Writer: Joshua Zeman




Every town has a legend, Joshua Zeman (CROPSEY [2009]) tells us once more in his latest documentary, KILLER LEGENDS (2014). We know his own from CROPSEY: that a maniac who steals children prowls around every corner. Zeman reminds us that the Cropsey legend is loosely based on true events (Andre Rand’s abduction and murder of two children in Staten Island). In KILLER LEGENDS, Zeman extends his analysis to four more prominent urban legends: “The Hook,” the Candyman, babysitter killings, and the mythology behind a fear of clowns.

As a quality documentary film, KILLER LEGENDS is only so-so. Many of the scenes of Zeman’s—and fellow researcher Rachel Mills’—investigations take place at night for dramatic effect (we can only assume), sacrificing a clear image for blurry scenes of Zeman and Mills making awkward conversation as they visit the scenes of various crimes related to urban legends. Inexplicably, they rarely have much to say in these instances, causing one to wonder why they bothered to visit decades-old crime scenes in the first place … staring at a tree where townspeople believe a murder occurred or pointing out a gravestone adds nothing to the exploration. These scenes are mundane in comparison to the informational portions, which are dense and fascinating.


Director Joshua Zeman and Producer Rachel Mills check out the scene of a murder by night. (Image courtesy of Joshua Zeman and Gregory Palmer.)

Luckily, Zeman brings in experts to speak on the history and cultural context of the urban legends, as well as to present their theories on the legends’ roots. In comparison to Zeman and Mills especially, these experts shine. Local historians, professors, lawyers, authors, and former police officers weigh in with important historical context, all responding thoughtfully and thoroughly to Zeman’s queries. Many provide, in addition to their experiences, a theory on what the legend could mean for society—for example, “The Hook” is a transparent warning against adolescent sexuality, whereas the fear of clowns might be traced to Americans “losing their innocence” in the wake of the sweep of kidnappings and violent crime in the eighties and nineties.


A memorable image of a clown included in KILLER LEGENDS. (Image courtesy of Joshua Zeman and Gregory Palmer.)

The legends that Zeman chose to delve into are compelling and universally accessible—everyone has heard of the legend of “the hook” (and the “escaped lunatic” attached to it, who attempts to murder a young couple on Lover’s Lane) and has endured a parent’s paranoia about razors in Halloween candy. It’s fun to bring your own experience to the film as a spectator and evaluate what such urban legends mean to you with fresh knowledge of the grain of truth found within each legend and, on the other hand, the hysteria that twists the facts beyond recognition.


A cartoon from the 1960s warning children of the danger of “the Candyman,” a manifestation of Americans’ collective fear of poisoned Halloween candy at the time. (Image courtesy of Joshua Zeman and Gregory Palmer.)

Spectators are guaranteed to learn something from watching KILLER LEGENDS, whether it’s the inspiration for a favorite horror movie (like the feared babysitter killings that manifest in films like THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL [2009], WHEN A STRANGER CALLS [1979], and URBAN LEGEND [1998]) or about an obscure crime that may have sparked rumors in the first place—rumors that became the wild stories we know today (like John Wayne Gacy’s influence on the nation’s attitude toward clowns). There are bright spots in the filmmaking—Zeman’s inclusion of newspaper clippings, old news footage, and reenactments of the crimes he discusses shape a colorful film—although the documentarians themselves are underwhelming. Either way, the information packed into this film is so compelling that no amount of filmmaking blunders could obscure the fascinations of the subject.


An image from SCREAM (1996) used in KILLER LEGENDS. SCREAM is one of many films that uses the trope of the killer on the telephone, which originated in the legend of the murdered babysitter. (The calls are coming from inside the house!) (Image courtesy of Joshua Zeman and Gregory Palmer.)

Gore: ★★★★

Horror: ★★★★

Suspense: ★★★

Terror: ★★

Quality: ★★★

Overall: ★★★


(Note: We will be including the triggers in the text of the review, rather than exclusively in the tags for easier access.)

  • Sexual assault mention
  • Childhood sexual assault mention
  • Crime scene photos

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