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Pop CultureOctober 5, 2023

Remember when the Ferndale Strangler terrorised Shortland Street? 


Tara Ward looks back on Shortland Street’s most memorable era, when a serial killer stalked the halls of the hospital.

It was June 2007. Apple had just launched the first iPhone, Suzanne Paul foxtrotted her way to glory on Dancing with the Stars NZ and Emirates Team New Zealand beat Luna Rossa 5-0 in the Louis Vuitton Cup. And, most importantly, New Zealand’s favourite soap was about to unleash it’s most epic storyline.

Shortland Street’s “Ferndale Strangler” drama ran for eight long months and involved a secret serial killer, the shocking murders of several beloved characters and a climax that saw a piss-covered villain plunge to his own death. And we couldn’t get enough of it.  

When Joey Henderson (Johnny Barker) arrived at Shortland Street in June 2007, he was nothing more than a keen but socially awkward nurse who had no luck with the ladies. Shortly after his arrival, local women started being murdered, their naked bodies discovered in skip bins and hidden in bushes near the hospital. The first victim was young receptionist Claire Solomon in July, and over the next few weeks, nurses Meg and Beth and bar owner Jay were also mysteriously killed, with no clue as to why or who was responsible. 

The Ferndale Strangler was on the loose, and with each new death, the medical geniuses at Shortland Street became more worried. Everyone was a suspect. Five arrests were made, but the Ferndale police have always been a bit shit. Solving the crime was left to sassy teen Sophie McKay, who wrote a cool blog called “The Day I Met a Serial Killer”, and nurse Brenda, who made a jazzy spreadsheet of likely killers. Just as she cracked the case, Brenda was injected with a lethal drug by a man wearing a George Bush mask. “Do you think this is funny?” Brenda gasped in her final moments. No, Brenda, we did not. 

As the end of 2007 neared, Shortland Street promised viewers that the killer’s identity would be revealed. The mystery deepened when videos of three different cliffhangers featuring three different murderers were leaked to YouTube, and while South Pacific Pictures ordered their removal and denied it was a publicity stunt, none of the leaked videos featured the actual killer. Was the leak the latest cunning move from The Ferndale Strangler, or perhaps the furious Ghost of Brenda? In hindsight, both options seem likely.  

Either way, 2007 became one of the biggest Christmas cliffhangers Shortland Street has ever delivered. An astonishing 45% of all viewers aged 5+ (won’t someone think of the children?!) tuned in to see nurse Joey Henderson lurk behind Tanya Jeffries with an ominous piece of IV tubing gripped in his homicidal hands. Ding-dong-merrily on high, New Zealand. The Ferndale Strangler had been Joey all along, proving once and for all that it is the quiet ones you have to watch.

The whodunnit was solved, but there was more horror to come. In March 2008, Joey made his most daring attack when he kidnapped nurse Alice, locked her in a storage unit and performed an appendectomy on her. Alice escaped by throwing a full bedpan at Joey and stabbing him in his evil thigh, while Craig and Keiran frantically searched the storage unit maze. The nightmare ended in the now-iconic roof scene, where an ashen-faced (and entirely remorseless) Joey was cornered by police as he teetered on the edge of the building. 

“I am Joseph James Henderson, gone but never forgotten,” Joey told the nation, before slowly falling back into nothing. We watched him plummet several stories to the ground. We heard him make an awful splat, and we stared into his dead eyes. He must have stunk of Alice’s piss, but after eight thrilling months, The Ferndale Strangler’s reign of terror was over. 

Can smell him from here

Looking back, a storyline where innocent women were stalked, assaulted, tortured and killed for being “cheap slags” is a hell of a vibe for a 7pm soap. Yet no matter how sinister it got, we lapped Shorty’s serial killer drama right up, with over 600,000 of us watching Joey’s shocking death. The Ferndale Strangler storyline was a ratings winner, and the slow burn of that deliciously dark storyline took audiences to places Shortland Street had never taken them before. 

And it seems likely that we won’t ever go there again, with Shortland Street now combatting shrinking audience numbers by creating big drama all year round, rather than in a single extended storyline. The Ferndale Strangler helped make 2007 Shortland Street’s greatest year, and 16 years later, Joey Henderson’s legacy lives on. Barker later made a short film about the realities of playing a serial killer, there’s a band called the Ferndale Stranglers, and some of us have never stepped foot in a storage unit since. Gone but never forgotten, indeed. 

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