Welcome to Behind the Screams! In this article, we will be taking a look at the true stories that inspired some of our favorite horror films. Each month, we will dive into the stories behind these films and see that, sometimes, the truth is far more horrifying than fiction.
The war is over. Finally. It’s been four months since the Japanese made their surrender official on the deck of the USS Missouri, and life in Texarkana, Texas is finally starting to seem normal again. Hundreds of young men from town went off to war, and many of them didn’t return. This made every interaction feel rushed, and every relationship feel bloated and strained under the pressure. It’s as if the city’s young people were trying to fit entire romances into just a few dates, or just a few hours.
“Someone was watching from the bushes, waiting for the right moment to strike […] he would be called the Texarkana Phantom”
Marriages were rushed, young ladies blushed, and dalliances were hushed. To escape the crushing weight of their own mortality, these young couples would file out of darkened theaters and drive off to isolated places. Finally, after hours of sitting through the latest comedy to come out of Hollywood, they were able to be alone. They were able to be themselves, they were able to be together. Hands would search in the dark and minds were taken away from the horrors of war, if only for a little bit. They would roll down the windows and hear nothing. For the first time in years, nothing. Their world was filled with only the heavy breathing of their partner, and they were alone.
Unfortunately for the young men and women of Texarkana, there was someone else interested in their late-night acts of love and lust. Someone was watching from the bushes, waiting for the right moment to strike. His sour breath flew away on the February breeze as he watched the windows of their father’s sedan fog over. Over the next several weeks, as the bodies piled up and the terror reached a fever pitch, he would be called the Texarkana Phantom, or the Texarkana Slayer. What he will never be called, however, is by his own name.
“The incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened; only the names have been changed.”
So begins The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 film that attempts to tell the story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, as they have since become known. The film follows the exploits of Deputy Norman Ramsay as he attempts to track down the man responsible for attacking eight people in the Spring of 1946. Norman and the Texas Ranger’s best man, Captain J.D. “Lone Wolf” Morales, are accompanied by bumbling idiot A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson as they try to stop The Phantom from continuing his reign of terror.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of the first handful of horror films that can be classified in the “slasher” sub-genre, coming out just a few years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas. Its unique blend of horror and comedy made the film a box-office success in 1976, and has made the film a cult classic.
While the film claims that only the names have been changed, there is actually quite a bit of license taken with both the killer and the actual crimes he committed. To be able to understand those differences, however, we have to know what really happened.
The True Story
Sometime close to midnight on February 22 1946, Jimmy Hollis and his girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, were parked on the side of a secluded road after seeing a movie together. After about ten minutes, there was a blindingly bright light and a knock at the driver’s-side window. Thinking that he was being pranked, Jimmy told the man outside his window that he, obviously, had the wrong guy and to move on. Still blinded by the flashlight, Jimmy and Mary Jeanne heard the man’s voice for the first time.
“I don’t want to kill you, fellow, so do as I say.”
Jimmy and Mary Jeanne got out of the car and noticed that the man was holding a gun. He told Jimmy to take off his pants, which the young man did. That’s when Mary Jeanne heard the loudest crack she had ever heard. She looked at the man, standing over Jimmy’s body, and felt sure that he had shot her paramour. He hadn’t, but he had hit Jimmy over the head with his pistol. What Mary Jeanne heard was the sound of Jimmy’s skull cracking in three places.
“…Mary Jeanne was frozen with fear. ‘Run,’ the man told her…”
Having no money to give him and no longer any partner to protect her, Mary Jeanne was frozen with fear. “Run,” the man told her, which she did. She ran down the road, hoping to get away as she heard the man continue to beat Jimmy. She saw a car parked further down the road, and sprinted in her low, 1940’s heels toward it. When she got there, she realized that it was unoccupied, and heard the heavy breathing and pounding footsteps coming up behind her. “Why are you running?” the attacker asked her as he caught up with her. “Because,” Mary Jeanne stammered, unable to understand the reason for the question, “you told me to”. The man then threw her to the ground and said, “You’re a goddamn liar”, before sexually assaulting the 19-year-old girl with the barrel of his gun.
This is the first attack attributed to the Texarkana Phantom. We know so many details because both Jimmy and Mary Jeanne somehow managed to survive their brutalization. While it was a shocking crime, it wasn’t a massive story. You see, Texarkana wasn’t a stranger to crime in the middle-1940’s. The town borders Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana (that’s where they get Tex-ark-ana) and Oklahoma, so criminals often crossed its streets going from one jurisdiction to another to avoid arrest.
The police in this case were suspect of Mary Jeanne’s story, too. They felt that there was no way that she didn’t recognize the man that attacked them. She said that he wore a mask, but they didn’t believe her. She said that he was a stranger, but they didn’t believe her. It would be decades before the term “serial killer” would be coined, and they just didn’t believe that someone like this could be lurking in their town. They felt like this was a one-off crime committed by a former lover, jealous of her new beau.
Unfortunately for the police of Texarkana, and for its young citizens, they were very wrong. A few weeks later, on March 24, the bodies of Richard Griffin and his girlfriend Polly Ann Moore were discovered in Griffin’s car that was parked on a well-known lover’s lane. Griffin had been shot twice inside the car, and once in the back of the head while he was outside the car. Moore had also been shot in the back of the head. Both were then placed back into the car, and they were fully clothed. Due to a clerical mix-up, autopsies were not performed on the couple, so it is unknown if Polly Ann suffered a sexual assault at the hands of the attacker.
“The killer was ramping up both his violence and his brutality, having murdered for the first time.”
Unlike the first attack, this killing sent the town into a frenzy. The killer was ramping up both his violence and his brutality, having murdered for the first time. City officials called in everyone at this point, including the Texas Rangers and the FBI. One of the men who came riding into town was the famed Texas Ranger, Captain Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, so named because of his propensity for entering gun fights alone, and also walking out alone. He was rumored to have shot and killed over 70 people, and he carried pearl-handled revolvers on his hips. If anyone in the state would be able to bring in this crazed maniac, it was Captain Gonzaullas.
Two more bodies were discovered on April 13, bringing the Phantom’s confirmed kills up to four. Betty Jo Booker was found behind a tree, having been shot once in the chest and once in the face. Her boyfriend of six-weeks, 16-year-old Paul Martin was found along the side of the road nearly 2 miles away from Betty Jo. He was shot four times and managed to crawl hundreds of feet before succumbing to his wounds. Three weeks after this grisly find, another couple was attacked, this time in their home. On the night of May 3, Virgil Starks was shot dead from outside his window as he listened to the radio. His wife, 36-year-old Katie was shot twice in the face by the attacker. As she hid in the kitchen, bleeding from the face and spitting her teeth onto the floor, she saw the knob on the back-door turn, and a man’s leg come through the kitchen window. She gave up trying to hide and ran out of the home, surviving by reaching the safety of her neighbor’s house.
The entire populace of Texarkana went into hiding. They bought every gun, lock, and attack dog in Bowie County, Texas. They boarded up their windows, enforced curfews, and slept with loaded guns under their pillows. They were terrified, for good reason. You might even say that the town truly did dread sundown.
While the film claims to be an exact representation of the crimes as they were committed, you can plainly see after reading the previous section that they were stretching the truth. There are moments in the film, like the Starks’ killing, that match pretty closely with the way the crimes were actually committed. There are other times, however, that could not be more wrong.
The filmmakers added the trombone-killing for shock value. In reality, Betty Jo Booker played the saxophone, but it’s hard to stab someone by playing the alto sax. They also added the misguided humor brought by “Sparkplug” to try to lighten the film, when in fact the town didn’t see anything funny in the deaths of these five young people. They never tracked down the killer and chased him through the sand pits or train yards. While there was a “Lone Wolf” Texas Ranger, he never got a shot on the killer.
“[The Texarkana Phantom] is a true-crime story that will never die, much like the horror film that it inspired.”
The killer, as portrayed in the film, was hooded and had the physicality of an animal. He was truly terrifying. In reality, however, only his first victim, Mary Jeanne Larey claimed that he wore a hood. Jimmy Hollis, the man who was attacked with her, claimed that the killer did not wear a hood at all. The rest of the victims were either killed or escaped without seeing the shooter like Mrs. Starks. The addition of the hood makes for a classic horror film, but the truth of the killer perhaps not hiding his face is far more disturbing than fiction. The film also claimed that the killer covered his female victims’ breasts with bites, but this is not true. The idea of the killer chewing on his victims was just a rumor that floated around town at the time.
As you can see, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is far from the “True Account” that it claims to be. It did get the most important fact about the case correct, however. The Texarkana Phantom was never caught. Some believe that he was picked up on a separate charge, accounting for the end of the killings. Others still believe that the killer is still out there, perhaps sitting in Spring Lake Park as the town shows the film for free every October. Either way, this is a true-crime story that will never die, much like the horror film that it inspired.
What do you think of Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown? Do you have any tips that might help shed some light on this horrific cold case? Hit us up on Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook and let us know. While you’re at it, go ahead and check out our previous Behind The Screams articles and learn about the true stories that inspired some of your favourite horror films.