On the recommendation of a friend, I watched the Killer Legends documentary that is currently available on Netflix Canada. Like pretty much everyone I know, I am fascinated by urban legends. Killer Legends is directed and narrated by Joshua Zeman, who used his own film Cropsey - an exploration of an urban legend that transformed into a true crime documentary - as the template for this, his second documentary.
I have not seen Cropsey, but Killer Legends hooked me immediately. Granted, the music and narration tends more towards melodrama and less towards the subtler end of the spectrum, but once you get used to that, it's not too much of a distraction. The stories Zeman and assistant director/producer Rachel Mills have chosen to highlight in Killer Legends is solid enough to forgive those stylistic quirks.
Killer Legends addresses four different urban legends and examines what real life horrors may have inspired them, cleverly intercutting between Zeman and Mills researching and interviewing people and horror movie clips that traffic in the same kinds of narratives that feed the urban legends themselves: Lovers Lane stalkers, poisoned Halloween candy, babysitter murders, and creepy clowns. It's incredibly illuminating to discover the real-life events behind the reel life ones depicted on big screens.
It also reveals insights into the ways we process horror. The conclusion that Killer Legends eventually draws is that urban legends play a role similar to that of horror films: they help us deal with the horrors of real life. Early on in the film, Zeman remarks on how the annual screenings of pseudo-documentary The Town That Dreaded Sundown in Texarkana, the same city in which the Phantom murders that inspired the film took place, push the bounds of good taste. After all, he points out, the families of those murder victims still live in the same town.
I admit that it did give me pause, but then I started thinking about the reasons why I watch horror movies. I was always one of those people too scared to watch them. Oh, I saw plenty of horror movies in my life, but they often terrified me long after the credits rolled, giving me nightmares and anxiety attacks. An attempt at watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when I was in my late twenties freaked me out so badly I had to stop the tape right when Leatherface grabs Pam and throws her up on a meat hook.*
After I had a nervous breakdown in 2007 however, I embraced horror with a new-found, and perhaps alarming to some, passion. If I could make it through wanting to kill myself, I thought, I could make it through any horror movie, because those weren't real. Granted, I also found a lot of comfort in films like Let's Scare Jessica To Death because I related strongly to the characters, but horror films in general suddenly felt like a safe space for me to examine the politics of fear.
What disturbed me most in Killer Legends were the crimes that inspired the legends, especially the crime scene photos. These weren't stills from a movie set; these were real people who were raped, beaten, and killed. They weren't subjected to this brutality so that I could examine my relationship with fear; they were victims of horrible tragedies.
This is why I think it's acceptable, and in many cases even necessary, to examine such tragedies through the lens of horror pop culture. Perhaps the fictionalized versions of these horrors can provide the distance we need to process what we could not face otherwise.
*By the way, I finally watched all of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a few years ago and loved the hell out of it.