Interview: Rachel Mills & Joshua Zeman, Killer Legends

In 2009, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio unleashed “Cropsey” into the world. This documentary explored an urban legend (Cropsey) and a real-life case (that of killer Andre Rand) that was eerily similar in many respects. While looking at the link between true crime and urban legend, they also found some disturbing things out about history, society and mental illness. If you have not yet seen this film, buy or rent it immediately.

Zeman is back, and this time he has brought along Rachel Mills, who among other things has helped produce episodes of “American Pickers”. In the new documentary “Killer Legends”, out now from Breaking Glass Pictures, they explore not one but four different urban legends and real-life events that may have inspired them: poisoned Halloween candy, killer clowns, terrorized babysitters and the deadly Lovers Lane.

The dynamic duo were kind enough to share their time on July 16, 2014, and we talked about the film, as well as a few related things.

GS: Josh, when we last spoke following the release of “Cropsey”, you were in correspondence with Andre Rand. Are you still?

JZ: Yes, it’s been ongoing. It has tapered off recently. As more people see the film, more things happen. There’s been something of a movement to get Andre Rand released from prison, if you can believe that. He still has yet to see the movie, and that’s been one of my biggest goals, trying to get him to take a look at it.

GS: Along with the success of “Cropsey”, has there been an unintentional boosting of Andre Rand, perhaps making him more widely known, more notorious?

JZ: I don’t think he has personally developed a notoriety, simply because he is so far removed from society. Again, he hasn’t even seen the film, so it’s not like we’re in any way stroking the ego of a killer. If anything, any notoriety he has gained just points to the creepiness of the overall story. As you know, Ryan Murphy in season two of “American Horror Story” used “Cropsey” as its starting off point. So, it’s not that Andre Rand per se has gained a notoriety so much as its the creepy, mental institution reality that has gained notoriety.

“Cropsey” was a stand alone film, and one that we’re very proud of. Everyone thought we could make a very interesting show about the intersection between urban legends and true crime. So we were very excited about investigating that intersection. So, following “Cropsey”, we approached Chiller, and that’s how this new anthology happened. So that’s how we transitioned from one to the other.

GS: It’s interesting that you say “show” rather than “movie”, because “Killer Legends” feels very much like it was intended to be an ongoing series. How was it pitched to Chiller?

JZ: It was pitched as a series, and we were under the impression that we had the ability to go to series with it, but we learned subsequently that it won’t be going to series for reasons outside of the merits of the show, or how much anyone wants it. It was a decision that came down to business between parent company NBC and Chiller. The decision was in no way based on whether the show was good or not.

GS: Being from Wisconsin, where we have the Circus Museum, and having spent a fair amount of time in Chicago, I’m somewhat familiar with clowns and Chicago, and your segment on “killer clowns” still managed to cover plenty of new ground.

JZ: You can thank Rachel Mills for that. She’s the one that brought it to my attention.

RM: It’s interesting that, correct me if I’m wrong, but we never intended to do clowns. Josh and I were on the phone, talking about our research for hours on end, and I happened to be on the computer when I came across the phantom clown scare in Chicago. Then we find out there’s a clown cemetery, and this train that crashed in 1917. And Bozo. It kept layering upon itself, it was ridiculous. We knew we just had to go to Chicago.

GS: And I’m glad you did. Because as good as the Staten Island and Texas explorations are, I think Chicago will really hit home for a lot of people in the Midwest.

JZ: Every place has their own legends, and we’d love to keep exploring more.

GS: You mentioned the intersection of urban legends with true crime, but there also seems to be a strong overlap with horror films. Was this part of the pitch to Chiller, or did it just come naturally with the material?

RM: I think that was something we knew all along was just such a huge component of society. Horror movies and urban legends, in some sense, are both an offshoot of sitting around the campfire and telling a ghost story. Whether at a fire or in a theater, it’s an experience we share. We knew that horror was a continuation of urban legends from the project’s start, so it had nothing to do with Chiller.

JZ: And in the Texarkana case, it was a movie that perpetuated the legend, with “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”. So now there are also legends about the making of the film, and we were drawn to the story in part because of the movie. With their annual screening, you have a whole town that is collectively “legend-tripping” and actively sharing in a ghost story as told through a movie. And they’re watching it in a park where one of the murders happened.

GS: It strikes me as odd how the town is so accepting of their dark history, rather than protesting the film or trying to distance themselves.

RM: I think there are still some people who are not comfortable with it, but I think it’s their way of trying to embrace their history. It’s something that happened over fifty years ago. Stories are told, and tragedies happen in every community, it just depends on how you choose to deal with it. For them, they embrace it.

JZ: I think it’s actually a healthy way to embrace that storyline, it’s cathartic. You can see people saying how horrible it is, but that’s actually an outdated way of looking at it. It’s really forward-thinking of the community to be doing this. It’s great. It’s not that they’re making light of the tragedy — they’re not — they’re dealing with it on a sociological level, which is fascinating.

GS: What I find most interesting, and possibly disturbing, about Texarkana showing “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”, is that the killer was never caught. It’s not just past history, but something that was never resolved. The killer could very well have watched the film based on his exploits.

JZ: It could very well have happened, and when you go into the folklore about the making of the film, the police were very concerned that the killer was around while they were making the film. And that only adds to the creepiness of the film. It’s the snake eating the tail: where does it end? The fact that the case was never solved only perpetuates the mystery, the legend, and allows it to continue. Now Ryan Murphy has actually come in and has done another movie, which is about the watching of the movie. So his remake takes the town today and creates a killer from their tradition. It demonstrates something called ostention, the technical term for legend tripping, which Rachel will tell you more about.

RM: Ostention is essentially playing out the narrative in your own life. So, the tragedy happens, and you put yourself or your community into that storyline. This is what happened recently with Slender Man. That was your state, right?

GS: Yep.

RM: So, you have these 12-year old girls and an urban legend that has come true. I’m going off on a tangent, but those girls are a clear example of ostention, because they’ve inserted themselves into this narrative and played it out to its tragic end.

JZ: And they’ve made the urban legend real. It’s the whole thing of making the legend real by acting it out. This was also the case with the “candy man”. There was no documented case of anyone being seriously injured or killed eating Halloween candy until this guy used the urban legend as an alibi for committing his crime. Now, we can say there really has been a case where such a thing has happened.

GS: I’m not sure the polite way to put this, but it seemed like the Slender Man incident broke just at the same time publicity was starting for “Killer Legends”, giving you something of an online boost in fans.

JZ: Yeah. It’s unfortunate. We were actually going to do Slender Man as our next segment, but there was no true crime to link it to. And then suddenly it happened. We were on the “America’s Most Haunted” radio show a couple months ago and we were talking with Eric Olsen, telling him that we thought Slender Man was the first Internet-created urban legend. There are parallels to other urban legends, with his long, tentacle arms, which is very much a metaphor for the long, tentacle reach of the Internet. The Internet gives us the feeling we know everything, but with it comes the power to manipulate images and what we think is real might not actually be real. He’s very much a monster of the digital age. Eric Olsen just had us back on the show, saying he thought we had “called it early” with regards to what happened. It’s unfortunate, but you can see all the signs.

I was reading a Stephen King article yesterday, where someone was talking about how a kid reenacted his short story “Rage”. Somebody went into a high school and killed someone based upon “Rage”. It’s very much what happened to the guy with Creepypasta. King said evil is indifferent, it’s universally stupid and will happen no matter what the medium is. Whether it’s a novel or the Internet, evil will happen, and we can’t blame the creator of Slender Man. If it’s not Slender Man, it’s something else. Evil is always going to happen.

With Slender Man, that’s the power of the Internet. It typically took ten years and a column from Ann Landers to make an urban legend. You needed teenagers and drag racing for an urban legend. And in this day and age, it’s so immediate, it only takes a couple days. Look at the idea of “my dead girlfriend keeps Facebooking me”. It happened on Reddit only a couple days ago, and almost immediately people were calling it an urban legend. The immediacy is sort of the antithesis of what makes an urban legend, but now, not really.

GS: Let’s step back to the film for a minute. With the babysitter murders case, you discovered that the police likely knew who the killer was but arrested another man anyway. Has your film caused anyone, either police or newspapers, to sort of look at the situation again?

RM: Now, that we’ve gone and uncovered things, I don’t think it’s a matter of reopening the case or dusting off files. What we did was bring up some emotions, especially with the family, that haven’t been touched upon in a while. And it’s really sad, a really sad case. We actually interviewed the sister of Janett Christman, one of the victims, though that didn’t make the cut. One of the problems was that so much evidence was lost a long time ago. So, in that case, it will never be solved. What we did do, though, is give Janett a voice and gave the story a voice, and hopefully in some small way that can provide closure for people.

JZ: The crime happened a long time ago. And the man arrested wasn’t just imprisoned, he was executed. So there’s much more pressure not to open the case. If the man was sitting in jail, and we were working with the Innocence Project, that might be one thing. With a guy who has been already executed, it’s a little bit tough. And while he was in jail, the same crime was committed a few years later. In retrospect, he obviously was not the perpetrator.

RM: Unlike in the movies, it was very hard to find anything that has ever happened to babysitters. When I first found the case, it was pretty straightforward. But then we started digging and Josh got a little obsessed with the fact that there was something going on in Columbia, Missouri at that point. Probably across America at that point it was easy to blame African-Americans for crimes against young, white girls. The police wanted to solve the case really fast, and I don’t know all the facts, but it seems they went for the easy target to clear the case.

GS: For those who have seen the film and want a little bit more, does the DVD offer something extra for them?

RM: The DVD has six or seven great deleted scenes, and I believe we’ll be releasing them digitally in the near future, as well. So, yes, there is more content out there that people will want to see.

JZ: The film this weekend was the #1 horror film and #1 documentary downloaded from iTunes. We’re very proud of that, and think this may be a new way to embrace the horror genre — not necessarily from fiction, but reality. The world is ready to look at horror in this way. So please, rent the film from iTunes, or get the DVD from Breaking Glass.

GS: Even though Chiller may not be the outlet, should we be expecting more investigations from you both?

JZ: Yes, absolutely. That’s definitely something we’re working on. It’s an exciting field, and the way we do it by exploring stories we’ve all heard as kids, I think there are plenty of opportunities out there for us to investigate stories like these.

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