11 Oct

Based On A True Story: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Posted by Bryan White | Tuesday October 11, 2011 | Based On A True Story

The Town That Dreaded SundownSerial killers are utterly fascinating to me. It’s an incomprehensible kind of horror that is deeply unsettling seeing that the motive for the murders is known only to the killer. There’s some kind of obsessive, primal drive to kill that transcends typical motives like anger or money. Murder is always awful but when we see them, there’s always some kind of motive that we can understand. It’s shitty, yes, but we can grasp the reasons for murder, no matter how petty. When serial killers go to work, it’s usually to fulfill some kind of baseless desire that comes from the reptilian brain. To twist the knife, so to speak, they develop a very specific ritual that becomes their calling card when the inevitable homicide investigation begins. The ritual becomes an integral part of their process. It’s as important to the murders as the murders themselves. If they stray from their script at all – which almost always happens and leads to their capture – the murder becomes moot. It loses its power. It’s fucking crazy! Totally fascinating, I tell you. The pathology of these maniacs is something I can’t resist researching. I really want to know what drives them.

What really spooks me, though, are the guys who manage to get away. Few killers ever totally stop. Murder becomes a drug to them and they are addicted. They will never stop killing. So when a trail goes cold and the body count ceases, it’s often reasonable to assume that these guys either died or wound up in jail on some unrelated charge. Sometimes they slip below the radar and stay free, but like BTK or The Green River Killer, the law eventually catches up with them. There are a few notable unsolved serials, though. The Zodiac still remains at large even though there are some pretty strong suspicions on who he actually is or was. Jack The Ripper was never caught, either. These guys, the unstoppable serial killers, provide ample source material for the masked mass murderers that are so popular in horror today and the early proto-slashers such as this, The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Black Christmas would serve as the forerunners to a category of horror that would shape the entire genre in the 80’s and beyond. The Town That Dreaded Sundown was loosely adapted from the true crime reports of a series of murders that took place in Texarkana, Texas in 1946, a time when a serial killer with a serious eye for details could get away with their crimes for a good long time.

Popularly known as The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, the killings took place in Texas beginning in 1946 with an assault on a couple parked in their car on lover’s lane. This scenario would later infiltrate popular culture through word of mouth and inspire some of the more popular crazed killer urban legends. Unfortunately, this one was true. Jimmy Hollis was bludgeoned several times with an unidentified blunt object and his girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey was chased down after the attacker ordered her to run. When he caught up to her, she was sexually assaulted with the barrel of his gun. On the bright side (I guess), both victims survived their attacks and were the only ones to ever give a description of the attacker since his victims to follow this attack would never be so lucky.

Phantom KillerThe killer was described as 6 feet tall and wore a bag over his head with holes cut out for eyes and a mouth. What skin the couple could see was either a dark skinned white guy or a light skinned black guy. In the case of serial killers, it was far, far more likely that he was a white guy. There have been black serial killers but statistically speaking, it is much more common that serial killers are white men.

The second couple to be murdered was Richard Griffin – obviously not Cinema Suicide’s favorite indie horror director – and Polly Ann Moore, both shot in the head and left for dead in their car even though blood near the car suggested an execution style murder whereupon their bodies were thenĀ  moved back into the car. Less than a month later, teenagers, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were found in similar fashion. Paul was found, shot to death in his car even though forensic evidence at the scene suggested that he was killed elsewhere and moved to the car later. Betty Jo’s body was recovered hours later, also shot several times and showing signs of sexual assault. Finally, married couple Virgil and Kate Starks were attacked in their home when Virgil was shot through the parlor window of their home. He died from his wounds. His wife, Kate, ran to his aid and was shot twice in the face butĀ  managed to not only survive the attack but also escape and get help in a neighbor’s home.

The Texarkana Moonlight Murderer came to be known to the press as The Phantom Killer and the panic that came as a result of these murders was substantial. Texarkana was not a large community and a killer running wild in their town was the sort of thing that made the townspeople feel like rats in a maze. There was nowhere to hide. Nobody knew who this guy was. It looked like he could get you on the road but this final attack proved that you weren’t even safe in your home. However, the MO of this final attack casts some doubt on whether the attack was carried out by The Phantom Killer. Ballistic evidence gathered at the scene of the Starks’ home was a .22 caliber bullet fired from a semiautomatic pistol where the other attacks features a .32 caliber revolver. Remember what I said about the ritual? The weapon was probably an important component to these killings and the attacks were almost definitely serial killer related since they had a sadistic sexual component to them often found only in serial murder cases.

Like I said before, The Phantom Killer was never caught and what’s even creepier is the parallels between this case and the unsolved Zodiac case. Both killers attacked couples parked in cars. Both killers used guns. Both killers wore masks. The Zodiac added the strange component of symbolic significance to his costuming, though, and had the cyphers that he used to bait the cops and the media. The Zodiac killer struck twenty years after The Phantom Killer, which could have possibly been a dry run for his much more evolved murders in California. A twenty year cooling off period, after all, isn’t unheard of. Also, distances between murders aren’t unheard of, either. Some believe that the killer in the Black Dahlia murder and The Lipstick Killer are the same person.


  1. October 12, 2011 9:22 pm


    Your posts are really well-researched and well-written. This one especially was a great read. The Zodiac killer has fascinated me for some time, so thanks for informing me of this case.

  2. October 12, 2011 10:17 pm

    Bryan White

    Thanks! I appreciate you checking it out and the kind words.

  3. March 7, 2015 3:44 pm


    Just watched the Town That dreaded Sundown the 2014 movie. Is this story real or fiction

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