“Oh the dead
Even more, they were boys, with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God
Ooh, are you one of them?
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid.”
— “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” by Sufjan Stevens
“Hey, we’re not in the business of changing futures, Ma’am
But we think we could help him do less time
Now just a few experts are going to tell you that it’s not too late
They don’t pay me enough to make that call
And you won’t find them working down at the District anyway
Hell, all these killers have to learn to crawl”
— “Chief of Police in Chicago” by Doug Burr
A young woman is driving down a highway at night when a nondescript car signals her to pull over, presumably due to some malfunction on her car that the other driver noticed. She pulls over, as does the other car. The driver gets out and strides toward her window, she rolls it down hesitantly. The man, obscured by shadows, states that her wheel looked like it was loose and offers to tighten it for her. She says yes and the man goes back to his car to get tools and proceeds to fix the wheel. The woman turns to the passenger side of her car and quiets a stirring infant and covers it in its swaddling blanket. The man comes back and states that the wheel has been tightened and for her to have a good night.
She pulls back onto the highway, as does the man. All is fine for a few minutes until the car begins to jerk and rattle violently. The young woman pulls her car to the side of the road once again, as does the man who helped her. He walks up to her window and apologizes for not getting the wheel tightened enough and offers her a ride to a gas station. Once again, not seeing many options, she accepts the offer. She gets in the passenger seat of his car with the infant in her arms.
“Oh, I thought you were alone.”
“I’m sorry, is that going to be a problem.”
“No,” he states matter-of-factly.
They pass the gas station. Her fear is rising. Her worst fears drip down from between his lips:
“I’m going to toss the baby out the window before I kill you.”
Fade to black on the terror-stricken face of the young lady.
This scene marks a narrative shift in 2007’s Zodiac from the visceral and intimate depictions of the Zodiac Killer’s confirmed murders to the paranoia that would lay over the San Francisco area for several years from the late 60s to the 70s. The suffocation and dread is palpable with the greys, blues and earth tones that make up the films palette. David Fincher is interested in giving us perhaps the greatest serial killer film ever made about one of the most notorious mysteries in recent American history. And, from the perspective of this writer, he succeeds.
I recount the story of Kathleen Johns as portrayed in the film because it stands as a master stroke, conceptually, by Fincher. The blood thirst built up in the first hour of the film is then starved for the remainder of the two-and-a-half hour film, because the blood and gore of horror has never actually been the scary part. The scary part comes when the film imprecates the audience with an idea, a situation, or a reality that they will carry away from the darkened screen into their cars, homes, and communities. Zodiac carries this mantle by taking the threat of the killer out of time and space and dragging it against the sidewalk concrete down the street.
The Kathleen Johns story represents the beginning of the cases the Zodiac Killer took credit for, but investigations were never able to confirm. In the realm of serial killers, the Zodiac had a fairly low body count. Instead, he ruined the lives of a whole region by the mere suggestion of violence and mayhem. He no longer had to do anything except threaten to blow up parts of the city or snipe kids after they hopped off their school buses. These suggestions gave the people the sense of his omniscience; the omniscience of evil. He could strike anyone at any moment, anywhere. His modus operandi had shifted enough within the slate of confirmed kills and the development of the concept of a serial killer was still years away, the newspapers and police force didn’t know how to stay two steps ahead of him.
While the Zodiac took credit for the terror that Kathleen Johns went through (and survived), it seems unlikely that the Zodiac was behind it. The film seems to make an even clearer statement that the man who gave Johns a ride was someone else entirely. Another menace in the night. Another doer of evil under the cover of “the greater threat.” Pay attention to the progression of Zodiac and one might get the sense that society has a potential horde of killers lurking all around us, weaving a blood-soaked tapestry of evil.
In order to build in this sense that those alive during this time felt–and, by extension, his audience, Fincher uses three separate men to play the Zodiac killer. On repeat viewings, one can note the difference in stature, height, weight, etc. of the Zodiac during each murder scene. This nice little casting touch only bolsters the sense that the existence of one serial killer entails the propensity that lies in human DNA. When a city is so concerned with the central threat of the Zodiac, they don’t recognize the extent of the saturation in society: Bill, you know, the guy next door, he has naked bodies under his porch.
Zodiac is able to walk the tight wire of telling true crime narratives. On the one hand, many true crime books, documentary, podcasts, and films become too intrinsically–sickly– infatuated with the killer to the point of a misguided empathy. We want to know what makes them tick and so we linger on them in order to find the humanity. Yet when all the attention is on the killer, the victims become little more than real-time slasher fodder. We forget the human and traumatic cost involved in the acts of these people. Halloween (2018)’s depiction of Laurie Strode as she tells her true crime podcast guests to get out of her home after re-traumatizing her with Michael Myers-focused questions is probably a realistic sentiment among the surviving victims and their families who were unfortunate enough to cross paths with these people. Fincher was probably assisted in avoiding this pitfall because the Zodiac Killer has yet to be verified and so the focus has to be on the victims and those who are attempting to help find the killer.
Yet there is another pitfall that many true crime narratives fall into as well. One might call it a type of anthropological detachment. One reason true crime is such a boon of an industry right now is that very few, if any, people believe: (1) they will cross paths with a killer, (2) they know someone who is a killer, (3) that they could kill someone premeditatively, or (4) that they live in proximity to a killer. It’s a similar catharsis as watching horror films for many. We don’t go into Halloween expecting to come out and be knifed down by a silent, hulking terror. We go into the film to release fear in a safe environment. However, people partake in true crime, often, out of intrigue and catharsis as well, but the safety of their catharsis is not as definite as with horror films. We find killers fascinating because we don’t believe we could become a killer or will ever actually meet a killer. Yet none of those assumptions are as accurate as they are with fictional depictions of horror.
This detachment plays into the pitfall of true crime: the myth of inherent goodness. In order for a serial killer to exist, there has to be someone or something else to blame for their behavior. Our cultural/social normative framework is nurture over nature. While it is true that nurture plays a severe part in either encouraging or staying those potential traits, those traits came from somewhere inside them. The detachment of true crime leads society to a false sense of utopian calm. It will always be someone else. Not me. Not you. Not anyone we know. That person across the continent. Yet this false sense of security is exactly what Fincher is trying to explore in the film. By focusing most of the film on the saturation that the San Francisco region endures for several years and the hundreds of dead ends that investigations lead to, Fincher is calling into question our cultural assumptions about the origins and prevalence of evil in the world. He is building a universe in which even the seemingly nice man who helps you change your tire might have had ulterior motives within him. And how little of a spark it actually takes to ignite the frenzy of fear that takes hold when our assumptions about human nature are shown to be an illusion.
By the end of Zodiac’s runtime, the tip of the hat to who Robert Graysmith, the author of the most famous book on the killer, suspected was the killer is anti-climactic. At that point, I don’t care, it doesn’t feel like Fincher actually cares, and the film’s positional tone doesn’t seem to care either about who the killer is, because the killer lies within us all. After a while, our protagonists begin to suspect that the Zodiac isn’t even active anymore, he’s just taking credit for the unholy works of others. This is the legacy of the Zodiac killer and Fincher nails that aspect of his story. Fincher recognized that the Zodiac became more than mere man. He became a symbol of something deeper and darker that few of us are capable or willing to see in ourselves and our neighbors. In a sense, Fincher’s Zodiac shows us the environs that we take part in, affect, breathe in, and create. A social tapestry that sometimes becomes threadbare, tattered, stained, saturated, and moldy. Zodiac, whether he knew it or not, unearthed the atmosphere we created, live in, and hope in. The tapestry has been stained since the first animal sacrifice by God to clothe Adam and Eve and the first murder of Abel by Cain. Edith Schaeffer put it brilliantly:
“…whether we choose to be an environment or not, we are. We produce an environment other people have to live in. We should be conscious of the fact that this environment which we produce by our very “being” can affect the people who live with us or work with us. The effect on them is something they cannot avoid. We should have thoughtfulness concerning our responsibility in this area.”
It may seem like I am pushing for a paranoid, fear-based awareness that Bob is a killer and is housing dead bodies next door. While that might be true, this is not the point. The point is Fincher’s Zodiac teaches us about ourselves and the potential turmoil and whirlwinds that we sow into our lives and our communities and we reap from others in our families and communities. It is a tapestry for a reason. We are all connected. Serial killers, pedophiles, tax collectors, non-profit organizers, activists, cops, writers, and so forth. The saturation runs deep. But there is hope. It still makes a whole; each thread interweaving with the others. Each action, whether good or ill, creates the atmosphere of society which is breathed by all. And there is one who mends consistently and perfectly and brings healing and justice to the threadbare victims and mercy and grace to those who rip and stain the tapestry. Giving hope to both the victim and the victimizer that lies in all of us.