In 2010 Joshua Zeman’s Cropsey investigated the point where folklore and real life merge. Killer Legends builds on Zeman’s fascination with the true-crime origins of urban legends, exploring how such tales are manufactured and perpetuated.
From the start it’s a far more accomplished piece of investigatory work than Cropsey, the scope and depth of analysis provides genuine insight into what kind of circumstance can queue the inception of contemporary folklore. For such purposes, Zeman picks the most popular urban legends: the hook handed killer on Lover’s Lane, the babysitter and the call from inside the house, the razor blades in the Halloween candy, etc. For each of these popular folk tales Zeman, and his research partner Rachel Mills, strip back the façade to find the real and often-unsettling truth behind the legend.
That’s not to say that investigating legends exposes how false or innocent they really are, quite the opposite in fact. The cosy nightmares we’ve all heard a hundred times over are actually direct products of an inability to put a reality to rest. Unsolved crimes – too seditious or brutal to forget – cover uncaught perpetrators and miscarriages of the law in a kind of nostalgic anonymity. Yet, as Zeman points out, by reducing these legends to the mysterious products of an imaginary else-when, we run the risk of institutionalising stupidity. When it comes down to the grit of it, Killer Legends is as much about exposing the cock-ups of law and society as it is about looking at where we get our favourite horror films from.
One of the biggest issues with Cropsey was its overt reliance on spook-tactics: Zeman’s overuse of graphic real-life footage can easily tarnish his ability as an unbiased documentarian. Though Killer Legends is a far more legitimate study, it’s not exactly free from that gimmicky kind of gossip-whoring. At one point, Zeman near-gleefully informs an elderly woman of the horrors that once took place in her house. One can’t help but feel as Mills does, uncomfortable with a disappointing need to hound reactions from quiet townsfolk. When the stories can speak for themselves, Zeman will have cut this problem from his work.
Interesting, entertaining, well-paced and planned, with a great choice of clips from classic horror to highlight the importance of urban legends to the popular psychology, Killer Legends is an impressive, if sensationalist, account of the formation of contemporary folklore.