Exclusive: Joshua Zeman Talks The Killing Season, Scary Clowns, Police/FBI Conflicts, and Lots More


One of the most unsettling aspects about the world in which we live is that a huge number of murders will always remain unsolved. Director Joshua Zeman has a fascination behind uncovering how such horrific crimes are never accounted for, despite the fact that we live in an age where the government is supposedly able to track our every move.

He previously bought us the crime documentaries Cropsey and Killer Legends and just finished work on “The Killing Season” (official website), which was produced by Oscar winner Alex Gibney and examines the unidentified Long Island Serial Killer (or killers).

I talked to Joshua about “The Killing Season” on Skype and typed up a transcript of our conversation below. The series will premiere on A&E on November 12th.

Dread Central: Can you start by giving us an overview of the new series?

Joshua Zeman: Basically, the police found four sex workers in Long Island, and then they found six more dead sex workers, all on the same stretch of road, and when you have that many bodies, you think that the case is gonna get solved, and then year one goes by, no suspect, year two goes by, no suspect. You know, there was a similar case in the UK in 2006…

DC: You mean the Ipswich murders?

JZ: Yes, in the UK there was such a concentrated effort to find the women, and it opened up everybody’s eyes to the plight of the sex worker, while over here there’s so much stigma attached to these women. So we wanted to show the truth behind these serial killer cases. It’s not like you see on television.

DC: I remember during the time of the Ipswich murders, the news aired a vox populi segment where a woman said that if the killer isn’t caught, he might stop killing prostitutes and start killing “normal” women. I thought it was really insensitive.

JZ: Yeah, that’s the whole idea. Throughout the whole world, with the advent of the internet, it’s no longer “Do women have to walk the streets?”  Now with the internet you can take a selfie and recognize the hotel in the street. It’s lowered the barrier of entry, so you have a lot more people engaging in sex work. It’s also bought on the killers from the back alleys of the cities to the suburbs.

What’s so interesting here is that it’s very much like a modern-day Jack the Ripper case, I say that because not only do you have similar murders, but with the Jack the Ripper case, a lot of it had to do with the press stirring up a frenzy about it, and the other interesting thing is that in the Jack the Ripper case we had two killers. The experts seem to be quite sure that there were two killers working in competition, and that’s what we have here, probably. Two killers working in completion. Again, our goal was not to solve the case, as you see in a lot of shows, but to let the public know what a true crime investigation’s really like. And what we discovered is that it’s completely horrific, and killers are going after sex workers in record numbers.

DC: Can you talk about the format of the show?

JZ: It’s a docuseries, like “Serial” and “Making a Murderer.” I tend to do stuff that’s a little bit more creepy, a little bit more horror. Like my film Cropsey. It was considered one of the first horror documentaries. I looked at an urban legend come true in my home town of Staten Island. After that we did a film called Killer Legends, about the intersection between true crime and urban legends. There was always some form of truth behind them. It was relevant because it looked at the phantom clown scares of the 1980s. In America, Scotland and the UK. Kids would see clowns driving around in white vans. There was no internet, unlike today. For some reason, clown scares of today have really taken on a life of their own, it’s gone viral, and the question is why?

DC: Yeah, I was wondering about that myself. It seemed to come out of nowhere.

JZ: Well look, urban legends are created by cultural anxiety, they reflect cultural anxieties of the time. So the question is, over the last few months, why have the clown scares become global hysteria? Number one: A lot of people like dressing up as clowns. But there’s something else at play here. The clown phenomenon is out there because it represents our fear. There’s a lot of anxiety about the current state of politics. We have Donald Trump…

DC: And he’s dividing people.

JZ: Yeah, he acts buffoonish, he wears a lot of makeup, he chips away at the foundations of our society. He tells us that we don’t need to pay taxes, that only fools pay taxes. He tells us that the Russians aren’t so bad, he wants to upend the system.

DC: He also wants to open up the libel laws to limit freedom of speech. He even tried to sue The Onion over a satire article.

JZ: (laughs) So you’ve got this clown, who’s basically saying that he wants to watch the institutions of politics burn. He’s very Joker-esque. He even makes ‘Why So Serious?’ kinds of faces. But he still became the Republican nominee. And what does that tell you?

DC: And the other Republican candies were also terrible. Ted Cruz wanted Christian theocracy.

JZ: But Ted Cruz hides it better. When it’s wrapped in some sort of religious garb, y’know, it seems like there’s some sort of Judeo-Christian theory behind it. But Trump wants to upend the foundations of society. He’s creating chaos. We’re seeing these representations of the Joker. The clowns are men who just want to watch the world burn.

DC: You know, it’s funny because I wrote a recent article about the clown epidemic, where I said that they might just feel emboldened because Trump, who is the biggest clown of all, became the Republican nominee for President.

JZ: Absolutely. There’s also a big discussion in the United States about the relevance of law enforcement and transparency and community policing. We’re at a point where we like to poke and prod the law enforcement. It’s like the equivalent of pulling the alarm at school. Dressing up as a clown and watching the adults, the law enforcement, checking and saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, there are no clowns.”

DC: You live in New York, right?

JZ: Yes, correct.

DC: New York is a deep blue state. It’s Democrat country. Does that mean the effects of Trump are felt less over there?

JZ: I think so. Very much so. Here we see more of his chicanery. You know, he was a reality star. There’s always a sense that he is a character, not really acting as his own.

DC: So… back to the documentary, are you interviewing people who knew the victims?

JZ: Yes, the families. The police have not been transparent at all.

DC: Do you think that’s because they’re hiding something?

JZ: You know, a lot of people create a lot of conspiracy theories. Interestingly enough, in Long Island, we found that there was actually some truth to that. The police did not want the FBI to come into the case because they were doing a lot of nefarious activities that they did not want the FBI to know about. And as a result, at one point they even prevented the FBI from coming into the case, even though the detectives had asked for help. In a lot of cases, the police aren’t conspiratorial, but here they were. We were looking at the Long Island case, and they kept telling us to look at all these other cases of murdered sex workers around the country. And when you have cases that aren’t solved, people like to draw patterns. They were thinking that these cases were connected. We eventually found out that they were connected, just not in the way you might think.

DC: How were they connected?

JZ: They were connected in the way that sex workers were being murdered all over the country, and the victims were the same. And that’s because in the digital age, we live in a very traceable society. Our lives are very trackable. If you went online, you could see where I was an hour ago, two hours ago, three hours ago. In the digital age, serial murders are going after sex workers in record numbers because sex workers spend much of their time trying to evade law enforcement. So they end up becoming the perfect victim. We don’t want to blame the victim here, as a lot of the media ends up doing, especially when it comes to sex workers because of the profession that they were engaged in. That’s not what we’re doing; we’re just saying that serial murderers, in an effort not to get caught, choose sex workers because they don’t have that public face.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZQHafcKQcI]

DC: Do you think the real killer of killers will ever be bought to justice?

JZ: That’s a good question. In the Long Island case, five of the victims are still unidentified. Hollywood puts out this idea that the government puts all our information into supercomputers, and that they know everything about us. The reality is that law enforcement is inept at data-gathering, at least for domestic crimes. The result is that we have over 20,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, and none of them work well together, and none of them share information together, and none of them have databases that are linked up to see the connections that are there. As a result, they do not do a good job of joining the dots outside of their jurisdiction.

We do live in a hyper-surveilled society. However, most of it’s only being used on domestic terrorism and international terrorism, and while we may be very good at finding terrorists, we are inept at finding sex worker murderers with the same data. What we discover is that out of the 20,000 law enforcement agencies that exist in the United States, not one of them is federally mandated to send their data to a centralized FBI database. The idea that law enforcement agencies are not required to send murders to be counted is unfathomable to me. The fact that there’s not an accountability with all the murders in the United States being sent to one centralized database. There are many different reasons why murders may not be sent. Law enforcement agencies are underpaid and overworked. Data entry is really not a fun thing to do. So for whatever reason, that information is not being sent out there, and that prevents even the best law enforcement agencies from getting the information they need.

So we wanted to dispel the mythology behind the Hollywood tropes, behind serial killers, to show this kind of underbelly of America. We even talked to a serial killer or two… about this. It’s a real life nightmare.

DC: Which serial killers did you talk to?

JZ: I spoke to one serial killer by the name of John Robert Williams. A long-haul serial killer. And he explained to us that he worked with a group of individuals; they would kidnap women and torture them and share them, or sell them, between each other in long haul trucks. We wanted to show people the real horror that’s out there. If you want to see something really scary, I can show you. Serial killers aren’t evil geniuses that you might want to have dinner with.

DC: And when’s the release date?

JZ: In the US on November 12th on A&E. This is a very interesting time, so I want people to watch it to get an understanding of what a real serial killer case is like.

DC: And Trump’s down in the polls, so it looks like we won’t have to worry about him becoming President.

JZ: We won’t have to worry about the ultimate killer clown.

About “The Killing Season”:
A&E Network’s gritty new docu-series “The Killing Season” from executive producer Alex Gibney (Going Clear) follows documentarians Joshua Zeman (Cropsey) and Rachel Mills (Killer Legends, “American Pickers”) as they investigate one of the most bizarre unsolved serial killer cases of our time — ten dead sex workers discovered on Gilgo Beach, Long Island. Authorities believe these killings are the work of the Long Island Serial Killer, who after five years remains at large. Forging relationships with cyber-sleuths, journalists, and the victims’ families, Zeman and Mills uncover connections that suggest Long Island is just the beginning.

“The Killing Season” premieres with back-to-back episodes on Saturday, November 12th, at 9PM ET/PT.

‘“The Killing Season’ takes viewers on a chilling ride through the unknown and is a perfect example of impactful storytelling that drives the cultural conversation,” says Elaine Frontain Bryant, EVP and Head of Programming, A&E.

Working with amateur cyber-sleuths, Zeman and Mills uncover a web of eerie connections to unsolved murders from Atlantic City to Daytona Beach and beyond — revealing that serial killers are targeting sex workers in record numbers, while using the Internet as their virtual hunting ground. Many of the victims, often referred to as the “Missing Missing,” are never accounted for, and their murders are far less likely to be solved.

This gripping eight-episode series is a deep-dive into a world of serial murder rarely seen before, going beyond pop-culture stereotypes to expose a real-life American nightmare. However, with the help of Websleuths.com and data journalists, Zeman and Mills learn that everyday citizens can make a difference — by uncovering clues that police cannot, in hopes that one day “The Killing Season” will end.

“The Killing Season” is produced for A&E Network by Jigsaw Productions and Gigantic Pictures. The series is directed by Joshua Zeman. Executive producers for Jigsaw Productions are Alex Gibney, Joshua Zeman, Rachel Mills, Stacey Offman, and Dave Snyder, and co-executive producers are Brad Hebert, Richard Perello, and showrunner Ben Parry. Executive producers for A&E are Shelly Tatro and Brad Abramson.




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