Warning: Some descriptions of physical and sexual violence
Is there anywhere more casually vulnerable in American popular culture than a parking spot on a dark road meant for making out? Lovers’ Lane, Make Out Point; urban legends have told us since the mid-1950s that these spots are where your boyfriend goes to check on a suspicious sound, and then you find him hanging from a tree just above your car, his feet barely grazing the roof. Or a breaking story comes on the radio of an escaped madman with a hook for a hand, and you hear a scraping sound and leave just in time, only to find a bloody hook on the door handle once you arrive safely at home.
Murder legends aside, lovers’ lane is already a symbol of vulnerability, and in a wide range of ways. Teenagers are vulnerable to police officers and to angry parents, of course, out past curfew in their station wagon. But they are also engaging in more serious intimacies, often for the first time. What’s more vulnerable than that? Not to mention the feeling of the wilderness around the car, the dark woods, the ledge overlooking the city, the gravel of an abandoned lot, far away from other people, in the dark, with someone who undoubtedly makes you at least a little nervous. Then of course, there is American culture screaming at you both to do it and not do it, pushing you out to the fringes of the society. The mixture of pressure and condemnation, it’s a lot for a teenager.
This is, of course, one of the reasons urban legends tend to center lovers’ lanes as a nefarious location. Urban legends give narrative to our subconscious fears, and the fear of sexuality among teenagers is high on that list. But this isn’t just the stuff of stories. Lovers’ lanes have actually been host to a number of real murders, some as high profile as the Zodiac and Son of Sam. There are enough unsolved lover’s lane murders that Listverse was able to create a list of ten.
The earliest example of lovers’ lane as the target of a serial killers comes with the unsolved murders of the 3X Killer who struck in Queens, New York City in 1930. A man described as “shabbily dressed” and about 40 years old, attacked two different couples in secluded locations, killing the man and then ordering the woman out of the car, sexually assaulting her, and then letting her go near a bus stop with a letter for the press. These letters, which read like manic delusions, claimed that the murderer had killed the first man because he possessed secret documents, and that the killer himself was an agent of an international secret order. He was never caught, and in 1937 another double murder was possibly connected to him, but this time the victims were both found dead and with red lipstick circled on their foreheads.
Then in 1946, a string of double-murders terrified a small town in Texas. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, as they had come to be known by the media, caused a hysteria so intense that gun stories sold out of weapons and ammunition, and the streets were completely empty by nightfall. Eight people were killed over less than three months, all couples that hard parked at local lover’s lanes, all assumed to have been killed by the same masked man. This man would come to be known as the Texarkana Phantom. More reckless teenagers turned themselves into vigilantes and sought to bait the murderer themselves by parking together and waiting with a weapon.
The first two victims were Jimmy Hollis, 25, and Mary Jeanne Larey, 19. It was around midnight on February 22 that a man approached the couple as they were parked on the local lover’s lane. He shined a bright flashlight into the face of Jimmy and told him "I don't want to kill you fellow, so do what I say." He ordered them out of the car and then ordered Jimmy to take down his pants, which he did, and was then hit over the head with a hard object, cracking his skull. He attempted to steal money from Jimmy’s wallet and then from Mary, hitting her over the head as well. He then told her to run, and while she did she could hear him continue to beat Jimmy. Her high heels gave her so much trouble running that the man was able to catch back up and then sexually assault her. Both victims survived the attack and gave descriptions of a man who appeared to be under 30 years old. Mary saw something that Jimmy had been unable to see due to the binding flashlight: the man was wearing a white mask with eye and mouth holes cut from the fabric.
The next attack came almost a month later. Richard L. Griffin, 29, and his considerably younger date, Polly Ann Moore, 17, were parked on Rich Road, another lovers' lane in the area. A passing driver noticed the car and thought the couple had fallen asleep, but upon inspection saw that they had been shot and killed, with Richard’s pockets turned inside out. Both had been shot in the back of the head and were fully dressed.
The next double murder took place on a remote dirt road in Texarkana. Sixteen-year-old Paul Martin and fifteen-year-old Betty Jo Booker were killed on a remote road. And then a couple in their thirties were murdered in their home. The killer has never been identified.
These murders spawned the famous 1976 horror movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which claimed to retell events exactly as they happened, with only the names changed. In reality, the film did not follow events very closely, and led to more sensational recollection of these murders. The posters claimed that the killer still stalked the streets of Texarkana, and though neighboring cities protested to get the tagline removed, it remained, sparking a new wave of anxiety for the area.
It was at a lover’s lane in Benicia, CA in December of 1968 where the still-unknown Zodiac killer apparently murdered his first victims. High school classmates David Faraday and Betty Lou Jenson had stopped on Lake Herman Road, a popular spot for “parking” at the time. This was around 10:15 pm, and less than an hour later the couple would be discovered shot to death, lying on the ground beside the car.
In July of 1969, Darlene Ferrin, 22, and Michael Mageau, 19, were shot multiple times while parked in a secluded parking lot of the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, CA. Darlene did not survive the attack, but Michael did, despite being shot in the head. Darlene was married and engaged in an affair with Michael, and so initially police believed Darlene’s husband to be the murderer. He provided an alibi though, and was not charged.
Though the Zodiac has never been caught, we do have some insight into this motive. He did write to several major media outlets in the Bay Area, including a letter detailing the murders of both couples and a cipher to be printed on the front page. The only decoded cipher the Zodiac sent authorities stated simply at its beginning:
“I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUE ANAMAL OF ALL TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERENCE IT IS EVEN BETTER THAN GETTING YOUR ROCKS OFF WITH A GIRL THE BEST PART OF IT IS THAE WHEN I DIE I WILL BE REBORN IN PARADICE AND ALL THEI HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME BECAUSE YOU WILL TRY TO SLOI DOWN OR ATOP MY COLLECTIOG OF SLAVES FOR MY AFTERLIFE. EBEORIETEMETHHPITI”
David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam as he named himself in strange, occult letters to police, also attacked several of his victims on lovers’ lanes. His year-long murder spree began in July of 1976 with the shooting of two women who were parked in a parking lot. He would kill six people, injuring seven more in total, often approaching parked cars with couples inside.
The incredible 2014 horror film It Follows sets a kind of lovers’ lane as it’s initial scene of revelation. It is there that the female protagonist, Jay, and her date have sex in his car while parked in dirt lot beside an abandoned parking garage. It is after they have sex that the Jay contracts a sort of “curse” in which she is followed constantly by a malevolent force that takes the form of random people. “It” continues to follow her where ever she goes, a slow walk, but a steady one that never ceases. Critics have been quick to name the metaphor as an STD, as the loss of childhood, as time. Of course it could be any or all of these things. But whatever it is, it is something to fear. And so the legend of lovers’ lane continues in horror films today. But it isn’t right to call it a legend. It is a mixture of fact and folklore, of fears of both growing up and of dying before you get the chance to.