Murder in the Moonlight

Most horror genre fans have heard of and/or seen the film THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, especially those who live in Texas. Since the film’s release in 1974, viewers have been fooled into thinking it was the recounting of a true story, when in all actuality it was only loosely based on the real-life murderer Ed Gein (who lived and committed his crimes in Wisconsin). Otherwise, it was a work of fiction. However, there is another film set in the south, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, which gives account of the true story of The Texarkana Moonlight Murders – murders which remain unsolved to this day.

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is an American slasher film released in 1976, directed by Charles B. Pierce. It is based on the unidentified serial killer referred to as the Phantom Killer who attacked eight people (five of whom were murdered) during the spring of 1946. Although some artistic license is taken, the general outline of the film follows the real-life tale of horror.

Just before midnight on a cool February night in Texarkana, a young couple parked on a lovers’ lane were interrupted by a six foot tall man with a white sack mask over his headand holes cut out for his eyes and mouth. He walked up to the driver’s side window, blinding the couple inside with the beam of a flashlight. Brandishing a pistol and ordering the couple out of the car, brutality ensued. This began the first of the Phantom Killer’s recorded attacks. These victims survived.  

Four weeks later, the bodies of another young couple were found dead in a car parked on a different lovers’ lane in Texarkana. The female victim had been taken out of the car and was shot in the back of the head while on a blanket in front of the car, then was placed face-down in the back seat. The male victim was shot in the back of the head while in the car. His body was found positioned between the front seats on his knees, his head settled atop his crossed hands, with his pockets turned inside out.

After the first reported murders, a city-wide investigation was launched, led by the Bowie County Sheriff. Around 200 suspects were brought in for questioning, investigators looking into over a hundred tips and leads that ultimately left them running in place. Evidence was scarce at the scene and rain had assuredly washed away all possible footprints left by the killer.

Three weeks later, two childhood friends (possibly mistaken for a couple) were murdered. The bodies were found roadside, approximately two miles apart. The murder weapon was exactly the same as the first double murder, a .32 automatic Colt pistol. The investigation continued, but puzzled police and investigators as they looked into every rumor and clue that might lead them to a break in the case.

Another three weeks later, a chilling encounter took place at the home of a welder and his wife out on a 500-acre farm just northeast of Texarkana. What seemed like a quiet, ordinary night at home quickly turned into a gruesome scene – a nightmare come to life.  Moments after discovering the murder of her husband in the living room, the wife was shot twice, but managed to run through the house and down the street to a neighbors’ residence for help, with blood blurring her vision and the Phantom Killer hot on her trail. As soon as she made it to the neighbors’ house, they took her to the hospital, and she survived. The Phantom Killer had vanished.

The investigation continued, this time with more evidence: bullets, a flashlight, and bloody prints. Forty-seven officers were on the case. Neighborhoods and lovers’ lanes were being patrolled and curfews were set. The town of Texarkana was in complete panic. Stores began to sell out of guns, locks, and various items used for protection. At night, the town was on high alert. Although the farmhouse murder was considered the last for the Phantom Killer, another body of a man was found in Texarkana next to a train track just four days later. It was only speculation that he could have been another victim.

It has now been over 70 years since the Moonlight Murders occurred. Suspects have been questioned and released, circumstantial evidence has been collected and filed away, false confessions have been recorded and dismissed, but the identity of the Phantom Killer remains a mystery. Every Halloween the town of Texarkana shows Pierce’s THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN as the final public viewing of “Movies in the Park” in Spring Lake Park, the location of one of the Moonlight Murders. A metafiction sequel by the same name was released in 2014, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon with Ryan Murphy as one of the producers. Once again the legend of the Phantom Killer has been unearthed, reminding us of the potential terror waiting in the night.