Wichita — Wade Hampton superimposed the jailhouse mug shot of BTK suspect Dennis Rader onto an image of "Star Wars" villain Darth Vader, making his e-mail attachment an instant hit as it was countlessly forwarded around town.
In Manhattan, Kan., about 150 miles northeast of Wichita, Grant Reichert, a columnist for Kansas State University's student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, turned the state's recently adopted slogan, "Kansas: As Big As You Think," into this suggestion: "Kansas: BTK-free since February!"
And in New York, comedy writer Jake Novak poked fun at news reports that Rader's pastor was not throwing the suspected killer out of the congregation. "He still hasn't done anything really terrible, like support gay marriage," Novak quipped on his Web log.
With Wichita's most feared serial killer allegedly behind bars, laughter -- induced by everything from crude jokes whispered among friends to postings on the Internet -- has become a powerful tonic in putting to rest the city's long nightmare.
The BTK strangler terrorized Wichita for decades, even coining his own nickname, which stands for his killing method, "Bind, Torture, Kill."
Wichita psychologist Howard Brodsky, who was consulted on the BTK case in the 1970s, noted that mothers here, prompted by the killer's tendency to cut his victim's phone lines, taught a generation of the city's young women to pick up the phone when they first walked into a house to make sure it worked.
"I've had this discussion with a group of women who thought everyone did that universally," he said. "They didn't know it had to do with BTK. That may be one of the most long-term, profound effects on the community."
Since last month's arrest of Rader, 60, of Park City, however, the mood here has lightened. Rader is charged with 10 murders between 1974 and 1991 in the Wichita area.
"Good comedians know there is a sense of timing," Brodsky said. "There are things you can't joke about when it is too fresh. But after a time, it does become acceptable, and I think it is the way by which people cope."
He considers the phenomena now unfolding in Wichita a "social coping mechanism."
"Once you find it safe to kid about something, you are absolutely safe," Brodsky said. "It is a real passage of emotionality."
Ryan Burgardt, a clerk at Finley's Hobbies in Wichita, said his gun sales went up after the BTK serial killer resurfaced in March 2004 with a letter to the local newspaper after 25 years of silence. After Rader's arrest, gun sales slowed to almost nothing, Burgardt said, and some of his customers even started cracking jokes about the case.
"A lot more people are a little more relaxed because of him being captured now," Burgardt said.
Hampton, the Wichita artist who created the "Darth Rader" image, said he did so as an experiment to see how far the e-mail would go.
Hampton said he was inspired by a photo he saw that played off a Wichita State University billboard campaign that touted famous graduates. The fake ad was emblazoned with the words "I am Wichita State" over a photo of Rader, who graduated from the university in 1979. That parody has been popular on the Internet and has showed up on T-shirts around the city.
It's not the only BTK-related T-shirt showing up in Wichita.
Hampton recently spotted a man and his young son wearing identical T-shirts with the words "I caught BTK" and Rader's photo on it.
"Something like this that has been haunting the community for as long as it has ... people can laugh at it and do a collective sigh of relief," Hampton said.