Every community has a closet full of skeletons. For Texarkana, it’s the unsolved Moonlight Murders, a series of slayings committed by the Phantom Killer during the spring of 1946. In lieu of shying away from the macabre tales, local artist, Michael Ulmer, Freelance Digital Media Artist and Filmmaker, brings them to light, creating short films and other products to help tell the local horror story that tends to be forgotten.
Ulmer was born in San Antonio, Texas, with his family moving to Texarkana shortly after his birth. While in Elementary school, Ulmer remembers visiting the library and witnessing the shiny, laminated original newspaper articles covering the serial killer from the Texarkana Gazette.
“Pretty dark stuff for an elementary student,” recalls Ulmer. “But then I remember thinking, ‘oh wow,’ this big, horrible thing happened in my hometown. Why doesn’t anyone talk about it?“
Intrigued and mildly horrified, he eventually watched the Town that Dreaded Sundown, a film created in 1976 by local, late legend, Charles B. Pierce, leading to Ulmer’s desire to create around this unusual story about a rather usual, normal town.
“The Town That Dreaded Sundown was a huge deal,” said Ulmer. “I feel like it was a rite of passage back in the day to watch that movie as a kid,” he laughed.
The tales of the Phantom Killer are still whispered about to this day as locals visit Spring Lake Park or stroll down the sidewalks of Downtown. Those stories and the early memories of those news headlines left a strong impression on Ulmer. It wasn’t until he began dabbling with media and technology that he began commemorating local landmarks and the history of Texarkana.
When Ulmer was in the seventh grade, he began filming and editing videos with equipment from his youth group at church. He was a natural, innately drawn to the art. Starting with VHS and having to edit manually by recording, stopping, rewinding, and repeating, he eventually upgraded to a computer.
By the time Ulmer entered high school, he had acquired enough experience to commence making short films with his friends for entertainment. He immersed himself in the skill, reading every book and source of information he could find his hands on.
“I just really liked making up and telling stories, and I was obsessed with movies so filmmaking made sense,” he explained.
Ulmer’s media talents combined with the immense history of Texarkana led to his discovery of how infamous the Texarkana murders are outside of the community. He found novels based around the Phantom Killer or landmarks in Texarkana, such as James Presley’s Book The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror and The Dark Inside, historical fiction, a noir thriller by British author Rod Reynolds. The Town that Dreaded Sundown and the tales of the Phantom Killer fed Ulmer’s interest in the macabre and human psyche, eventually carrying over into his artwork.
“Themes I incorporate vary from project to project, and vary in whatever moment in my life I’m in, but one theme I like to explore in almost everything I do is the duality of people-how people are good and bad, and sometimes who the villain is, is just a matter of perspective.”
His niche led him to explore other mediums, such as t-shirt printing and exploring and pushing those boundaries with his art. Ulmer used spray paint, bleach, sharpies, stencils and whatever tools he could put his hands on. After fine-tuning his work with apparel, he created the Sleep Tight TXK design. Ulmer initially stamped his designs onto the clothing, eventually upgrading to screen printing with the collaboration from Dan Shanks from Shanks Signs.
In the last year, Ulmer has partnered with brands like Bissel and Melitta Coffee to do commercial work. Locally, he has created commercial work for companies like Freeman Landscaping and Chicken Express in Texarkana. This fall, Ulmer will create a documentary for Colors of Heroes where he will work remotely for a week in Montana. The organization arranges hunts and outdoor activities for combat veterans and gold star families to aid in their recovery.
“It’s an amazing thing to be a part of. I get to sit down and interview veterans and tell their story and document how Colors of Heroes is making a difference in their lives.”
Ulmer has hopes to create his own film involving the Phantom Killer in East Texas. He emphasized that the project is not a Town that Dreaded Sundown remake, but something authentic and new. Ulmer is still marveled by the fact that people don’t realize what a cult classic the Town that Dreaded Sundown is, laying the archetype and foundation for slasher films.
Despite all the commercial work and documentaries Ulmer has the opportunity to work on, he is still drawn to what initially inspired him, horror films, never fully deviating from the impressions of Texarkana.
In his youth, he was obsessed with classic old films and tv shows, absorbing all he could. In his teenage years, directors like Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, and M. Night Shyamalan had an immense influence on his artistic style. Now, he strives to create work like the legends he still idolizes.
For Ulmer, filmmaking is about telling stories in a new way, in his own voice. Whether it’s commissioned work or artistic relief, Ulmer is discovering new methods of storytelling, narratives that are engaging, provocative, and thought-provoking. Whether it’s facilitated through media, apparel, or some new medium, Ulmer will continue to tell tales.
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