The Orem Phantom Dumper Haunts Me Still
There I was, in the middle of the worst year of my life, in the middle of the worst street in Orem, when I looked up—and saw—
Well, a lighted billboard. Emblazoned with the image of a truck, the Grim Reaper, and the phrase "The Phantom Dumper: Seeping while you're sleeping". Most puzzlingly, though, was that it directed the viewer to a URL for orem.org, the official website of the city.
Of course I immediately went online. I learned that there was an unknown party illegally dumping large quantities of fibrous material into Orem's sewer system. Apparently it was messing up the water treatment plant and costing the city $4000 a week to clean up, so the city was looking for tips—but most importantly, they were also selling t-shirts.
Yes, for the low, low price of $17.99, you could be the proud owner of a fully illustrated Phantom Dumper long-sleeved tee. I ordered one immediately.
How did we get to this point? Who decided the best thing to do to stop a Class B misdemeanor would be to hire an illustrator and start a public awareness campaign? Imagine this with me for a minute. You are a member of the city council of Orem. At your weekly council meeting you hear the news—there has been another illegal dump into the sewer system. The waste water plant is in turmoil. How can the perpetrator be stopped? Should cops be patrolling the streets, on the lookout for tanker trucks? The discussion becomes heated. Then, from the back, someone quietly clears their throat. You turn. A council member is standing. They smile, spread their hands. "I know how to stop the Phantom Dumper," they say. "It's simple: We need to make t-shirts."
The Phantom Dumper quickly caught hold of the public imagination. Or at least the comments section on KSL, where suddenly everyone was an expert on catching spectral perps.
The genius of turning an ordinary rule-breaking cheapskate into the Phantom Dumper relies on the human affinity for myth & story. The city of Orem created a legendary villain, a face for a faceless threat. Now the criminal wasn't simply an overlooked line in the newspaper; they were a character to be woven into the stories of our lives. For a public awareness campaign looking for tips, I can't imagine a more effective strategy. We are each the hero of our personal story, and what hero doesn't want to each the bad guy? I applaud the city of Orem for their ingenuity. I still don't know why Orem decided to go all-in on this particular crime, but I’m grateful for it.
In the end, they never caught the Phantom Dumper. But its spectre haunts me still. This suburban absurdity came into my life when I needed it most—a moment of levity during a time when I struggled to feel any sort of joy. I am in a much better place now, but the Phantom Dumper remains a part of my psyche. I still tell people every chance I get about the mysterious villain. I still have the shirt, too—I wear it every night as pajamas, a reminder that light can come from anywhere—and that the Phantom Dumper is still out there somewhere, seeping while we’re sleeping.