The Famous Movie Inspired By The Texarkana Murder Mystery

The residents of Texarkana have been haunted by the events known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders since 1946. That year, a masked murderer killed five people and seriously injured three others in a series of attacks that shook the town to its core. According to Texas Monthly, the presence of a serial killer (before the term was even coined) so spooked Texarkanans that they stocked up on guns and guard dogs, booby-trapped their homes, and even slept in hotels for safety after police failed for months to bring in the man the Texarkana Gazette christened the Phantom Killer.

Although some believe that a man arrested for stealing cars was most likely the person responsible for the attacks, most of which were carried out on couples looking for a little alone time on lover's lane, the case remains unsolved to this day. Perhaps because of this uncertainty, people have let their imaginations fill in much of what they fear about the unknown. For example, the murders are believed to have inspired an urban legend known as the "Hookman," in which a pair of high school sweethearts find a bloody hook hanging on the door handle of their car after a night on lover's lane. And three decades after they scared the bejeezus out of Texarkana, the murders were used as the basis for the 1976 thriller film The Town That Dreaded Sundown, much of which, like the Hookman legend, is more fiction than historical fact.

The movie is only loosely based on the Texarkana Murder Mystery

The Phantom Killer's crimes were indeed grotesque. For example, the New York Daily News reports that he used the barrel of his gun to sexually assault one of his first victims, a 19-year-old woman named Mary Jeanne Larey. She was one of the few to survive the attacks, but most were not so fortunate. The film is faithful to some basic details from the actual murders, such as the fact that the killer wore a white sack over his head, but even that one isn't pulled off exactly right. Larey said he had cut out holes for his eyes and mouth, but the filmmakers felt it would be creepier to leave the movie murderer's mouth covered. Naturally, they took a few other artistic liberties when bringing the events to the big screen.

Unlike the killer in the movie, the real Phantom Killer was not as over-the-top as his representation on the screen. In real life, he killed all his victims by shooting them at close range. But in The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the murderer gets a bit more theatrical when killing his victims. In one scene, he leaves a woman tied to a tree with her skin covered in bite marks. One of the victims was a young saxophonist, but in the movie they changed her to a trombonist and had the killer attach a knife to the instrument, stabbing her with it while pretending to play it.

Watching the Texarkana Murder Mystery movie has become a city tradition

Although the town of Texarkana initially had some qualms with the film based on the murder spree that occurred there — namely, that the poster claimed that the killer was still on the loose — time has proven to be the ultimate healer, and residents have a different view of the situation now. According to the Texarkana Gazette, people there have grown so fond of the movie that it has become a tradition to show The Town That Dreaded Sundown each year around Halloween. To make the viewing as creepy as possible, it takes place in Spring Lake Park, near the spot where the Phantom Killer killed two of his victims in April 1946. City recreational specialist LeShanda Mitchell said that "a lot of people look forward to it close to every Halloween."

The tradition has become so popular that it was the basis for a meta-sequel of the same name that was released in 2014. According to Cinema Blend, the remake is set in Texarkana in the 21st century during an annual screening of the original movie. A copycat killer ends up trying to recreate the murders from the original movie, once again plunging the town of Texarkana into a fear-fueled panic. The film was met with mixed reviews. Variety called it "too self-reflexive (and insufficiently scary) for the date-night crowd," adding that "it isn't artful enough to pass muster as cinephile-oriented specialty fare."