Last night the Chiller channel showed a two-hour documentary called Killer Legends. The press materials for the program described how the two filmmakers behind the documentary, Josh Zeman and Rachel Mills, traveled the country in search of homicides that inspired or paralleled famous urban legends. Mills had contacted me several months ago requesting that I interview her and Zeman for my blog to promote the film, but for a number of reasons (including time commitments and the fact that I don’t generally promote something I haven’t personally viewed), I did not go forward with the interview. Still, I felt bad, so I tweeted this past weekend that some readers might find the film interesting in its effort to search out the “truth” behind urban legends.
If you follow my Twitter feed, you know that Zeman was not happy that I put “truth” in quotation marks, and he wanted to know why I assumed they were looking for the truth behind the legends. He also didn’t like my description of the film as low-budget, but he didn’t claim it was otherwise. It is the Chiller channel after all, and the last time the network tried a special like this one (from different producers), they spent most of their budget hiring UFO researcher Richard Dolan to sit in a rented RV and opine on the “truth” behind A Nightmare on Elm Street.
I used the quotation marks because I don’t believe that most urban legends emerge from specific incidents from the recent past; if they did so, they wouldn’t be folklore and could easily have been verified by the original tellers of the stories. I also, not unreasonably, assumed that the network’s press release was correct in saying that the film sought out “the true crimes that may have spawned these urban legends.” If that wasn’t the case, that’s on the network for false advertising.
To take an example: Zeman’s film explores the legend of the Killer Clown and, according to the press release, the film looks to explore Chicago’s killer clown legends in relation to John Wayne Gacy and coulrophobia, with special reference to alleged clown kidnappings from the 1980s and 1990s, the time of Stephen King’s It and the movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988).
But you can find killer clowns dating back much farther, though obviously not before the modern clown was invented in 180 by Joseph Grimaldi. Scooby-Doo had a villainous clown in 1969, for example: the “Ghost Clown” from “Bedlam in the Big Top” who tried repeatedly to kill Scooby and his friends through hypnosis—in fact, Ghost Clown was the first attempted murderer on Scooby-Doo. The Joker from Batman was a homicidal clown all the way back in the 1940s. Before this, the opera Pagliacci (1892) featured a killer clown, as does the still earlier play La Femme de Tabarin (1874). In fact, the first episode of the 1966 Batman TV series put Cesar Romero’s Joker in a Pagliacci costume to pay homage to the violence the campy series could not actually depict. Heath Ledger’s Joker would wear the same mask in homage to that episode. Even Scooby-Doo’s Ghost Clown wears a costume modeled on the famous Pagliacci costume design, derived in turn from Pierrot, the Commedia dell’Arte harlequin character, as interpreted under the native English name Clown by none other than Joseph Grimaldi. Pierrot, of course, had already become a figure associated with sin, vice, corruption, and chaos even before he came into his own as, yes, another murderer: Pierrot, Murderer of His Wife, by Paul Margueritte in 1881.
Whether the children who claimed that a white van driven by a clown in Chicago was trying to kidnap and murder them knew of the longer history of violent clowns, the stories that develop into urban legends almost certainly emerge from a wider body of folk memory and history than a single point of origin.
Other urban legends have their parallels in stories told long before as well. The film also discusses the legend of “The Hook” or “The Hookman,” the well-known story of the teen lovers parked in their car who hear on the radio that an escaped killer is on the loose, flee at high speed after the girlfriend freaks out with worry, and return home with chastity preserved, only to discover that they had come within inches of falling prey to the serial killer with a hook for a hand when that hook is left embedded in their car door.
Folklorists typically interpret the story as either a warning to teens to abstain from sex, or as a Freudian castration drama, with the hook representing the threat of castration for the horny male.
The story dates back at least to the 1950s in this form, and some have tied it to Lover’s Lane murders that occurred in Texarkana in the 1940s. If those murders gave the story its teenage coloration (despite the legend featuring no murders), the tale has striking parallels to myths and legends and fictions told of lovers since time immemorial. Fitz-James O’Brien’s famous poem “The Demon of the Gibbet” is only one such story, describing a pair of young lovers riding past a gibbet haunted by the spirit of a criminal who stalks the couple and seizes the young woman from her lover. While the outlines might seem superficially different, the only major formal difference between the stories is that poetic girlfriend is taken by the killer while the urban legend girlfriend survives. Otherwise the details are quite close: two (possibly illicit) lovers, transportation, kissing, awareness that an unseen criminal lurks nearby, a nervous female, etc. Noticeably, the idea of speed is also present, with the boyfriends making great haste in both tales, knowingly or unknowingly outracing the demon. This connects back to the so-called “riding poems” like Goethe’s “Elf-King” (a.k.a. Erl-King) or Bürger’s “Lenore” (likely influences on O’Brien) which also feature supernatural creatures stalking travelers, though not always lovers, ending in death for one of the travelers while another lives to tell the tale.
“Lenore” is well-known for its famous line that the dead travel fast, and the Elf-King legend goes back to the folklore motif of the supernatural entity that lies in wait to take revenge on the unsuspecting. In fact, the Elf-King stories, originally told of Woden, were visited on the Devil, and include variants where the Elf-King kills wayward travelers or where the daughter of the Elf-King seizes men to fulfill her lust for sex and revenge.
In this, these poems are closer to the urban legend called “The Boyfriend’s Death,” which ends with the titular event in what is otherwise a variation on “The Hook.” The modern tale, though, follows the modern convention of seeing the female as the protagonist of the horror tale, while Victorian writers saw the male as the protagonist and the female as the prize to be lost or won. The modern stories are riding poems applied to cars.
Now let me tie it together with a bow: the Elf-King, or Erl-King, mentioned above shares his name with Herla the King, who became known as Hellequin in medieval French passion plays, where he was a trickster demon involved in teaching moral lessons (again like Hook Man). As a trickster demon, this figure was incorporated into Commedia dell’Arte as Harlequin, the trickster clown and bosom companion of Peirrot, later the Killer Clown.
And you didn’t think I could make these random stories into something coherent.
The trouble with folklore, of course, is that it percolates in oral traditions, away from high culture and most written sources (which are produced by elites for the most part), making it hard to trace the origins of specific concepts and ideas. In The Legend of Perseus folklorist Edwin Sidney Hartland did an admirable job of trying to trace the motif of the supernatural birth, specifically that of Perseus, from the earliest variant in the birth legend of Sargon to the corrupt myth of the birth of Gilgamesh in Aelian (On Animals 12.24) down to nineteenth-century folktales. We can argue the details, but the larger point remains—folktales don’t emerge ex nihilo but are crafted from new material grafted on to a scaffold formed from the cultural background of the teller.
So, anyway, regardless of the merits of the film (which I have yet to see; it is not on demand on my cable system, and I had other things to watch last night), the tales we see today as urban legends are the latest expression of ideas that date back long before and contribute to the cultural streams that manifest as high culture forms—like Pagliacci—and low culture forms, like urban legends of killer clowns.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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