Zodiac (2007) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

“Hey man, you really creeped us out.”

The Zodiac first killed on December 20th, 1968, but the film opens with the Zodiac’s second murder, on July 4th, 1969. The first thing the film shows us is murder. Death. It shows us shock and horror. It shows us the black hole, and we fall into it before we even know what’s happening. It shows us Normal Life instantly interrupted by Chaos. It shows us the Very Thing, because before we go down this path, we need to understand what’s pulling us forward. We need to be pulled forward by it. We need to become obsessed; we must first be hooked.

From the first frame, there is dread. We bought the ticket from the man in the booth, we know what the movie is about. We know it really happened (insofar as a movie recreates what really happened). Even if we don’t know the details, we have an idea. So when we see fireworks, families, a young blonde with braces, fins on cars that harken back to a more innocent America, we end up paying more attention to the darkness, the liquid black David Fincher pours into the frame. It oozes out from every corner of brightness. We get scared pretty fast, seconds in. And this is real, we trust this “reality,” and we know there’s nothing we can do to change it. We’re powerless. We get even more scared. Then the Very Thing happens, and we’re stricken. Why, why, oh my God, why, no, no, no—

We’re hooked. Robert Graysmith sees the killer’s cipher sent to the San Francisco Chronicleand he’s hooked. SF Homicide Detective Dave Toschi sees a cabbie with his head blown off and a confusing crime scene and he’s hooked. And the Zodiac killer. Something happened to him before the movie starts. We don’t know what; we fear what it is. We understand that he, too, has become hooked. Now, we need to Know. Graysmith, Toschi, Paul Avery, they need to Know. For Avery and Toschi, it’s primarily their jobs that makes them investigate—Avery’s a reporter at the Chronicle, Toschi a cop. Graysmith, a cartoonist, makes it his vocation, something more than a job.

“Vocation” is often used when describing careers in the priesthood. It signifies a complete devotion. These are people who give their entire lives to one thing and in a way, obsessively pursue it. If you don’t label it God, you could label it Life.

Graysmith vocationally, obsessively pursues Death.

Journalism finds a powerful root in obsession. Journalism primarily concerns itself with getting to the bottom of something. Finding out. Knowing, so that all may Know. What happened here? What’s the answer? Journalists pursue the truth and they don’t stop until they’ve found it, until they’ve gotten to the bottom of it. The “bigger” the story, the more elusive or Earth-shattering the answer. The deeper the journalist goes. The more impressive his or her career becomes, should he or she find (publish) the answer. Woodward and Bernstein and Deep Throat and so on.

The same is true with law enforcement detectives. They get to the bottom of something—a crime. In its most primal form, a murder. They don’t stop until they’ve found it (the murder weapon, the killer). The “bigger” the case (the more sensational the murder or murders), the more elusive the killer (Zodiac), or Earth-shattering the truth (O.J. did it). The detective goes deeper. He or she solves the case, gets a Gold Shield, the Nice Desk, the Corner Office.

The same is true with the fiction writer, the poet, the scientist, the cleric. Get to the bottom of it.

But what if you can’t get to the bottom of it? What if the bottom doesn’t exist?

This creates a paradox. The journalist, the detective fall into a recursive loop. They desire to Know, but they cannot. They will never. But they are driven by this desire to get to the bottom of it—indeed, it’s the ontological definition of their very identity. They exist, they live, to get to the bottom of it. But they will never Know. So they at least try to know (little “k”) all the details, hoping that these will clue them into the bigger answer. The trouble is, there will always be more details, and when the details run out, there will always be more dots to connect, and when the connections become worn, there will always be more patterns.

That’s when the patterns risk becoming psychosomatic, invented. Now you’re studying Moon phases in relation to the killings in Vallejo. Now you’re suggesting that every murder had something to do with a body of water, even going so far as to point out the taxi driver was shot on the corner of Cherry and Washington. Now you’re muttering to yourself as you run to a diner and write down names on napkins, repeating phrases as you head up the stairs to an apartment that isn’t yours in a city two hours away from your second wife, your children, your son from your first marriage.

Your obsession becomes the date that never ends.

Here is where you’re at the greatest risk of becoming the Conspiracy Theorist. The Fringe Nut. Note: the fiction writer, the poet and the artist skip directly to this step, somehow circumventing the rational altogether and jumping in right here, at the Deep End. They often do it alone, and they go into it knowing that they’ll never find any answer to anything at all. Most of the time they don’t even know the Question.

The Fringe Nut feels shame. He stutters, he excitably interrupts policemen and handwriting experts and his wife because there’s simply too much bursting out of his head. The only way to cast off his shame is to be Proved Right. But as discussed, this is impossible.

The Zodiac case is the Big Story / the Unsolved Murder. It is both, wrapped into one. It consumes. Its victims die or live in fear—those that attempt to Know lose nearly everything. The JFK assassination is another example of something like this. The Original Night Stalker (the one they never found). Events like these have a morbid siren call. They draw you in.

There’s an easy access point these days, a launch from which to wade out into mysterious waters. It’s often referred to as the “Wikipedia Rabbit Hole.”

Here is just a sampling of weirdness pulled from various internet searches. Tell me you aren’t tempted to immediately put search terms into Google:

  • Arthur Leigh Allen wore a Zodiac brand wristwatch. The logo of the company is the same as the symbol used to sign every Zodiac letter.
  • A French terrorist was arrested in Texas the day of Kennedy’s assassination but was released and allowed to leave the country three days later.
  • A photo surfaced a few years ago of the second Zodiac victim accompanied by a man who looks eerily like the original police sketch of the killer.
  • The Original Night Stalker may be confined to a mental institution and may have completely deteriorated psychologically, thus making it impossible to verify who he might be.

Wikipedia and the Internet allow you to become the Hobbyist Fringe Nut. The crazy only lasts a few hours. I’ve repeatedly, for years, gone back to the well of the JFK assassination. I, too, have felt the shame of reading garbage for hours while my wife sat in the house, bored. I read books arguing that Oswald acted alone. I read Libra. I made my way through all 850 pages of 11/22/63. I’ve even written a screenplay centered around the assassination called “The Knoll.” Along with my writing partner, I set out to dramatize what a plausible conspiracy would look like on the ground level in the first 48 hours, seen through the eyes of a fictional Dallas patrolman. We researched all the loose ends and controversial “facts” we could find. It gave me an excuse to go through the entire Warren Report at the LA Public Library. It gave me an excuse for microfiche.

Lucien Sarti. The pool of blood outside the Book Depository. The 1950’s picture of David Ferrie and Oswald in the Marines together even though they didn’t know each other. Badge Man. The Mexico City CIA station. The Dallas police officer who claimed he saw a Mauser and not a Carcano rifle on the sixth floor, then was shot at in his car, then shot in the chest with a shotgun when he answered his door, then finally killed himself three minutes after coming home and saying hi to his father who was mowing the lawn outside the house. The changing of the parade route. E. Howard Hunt’s alleged deathbed confession to his son. George de Mohrenschildt’s shotgun suicide on the day he was asked to testify before the HSCA.

All this stuff is in my head. I keep it at bay. I leave it alone. I believe Oswald acted alone. I really do. But I gobble everything up when it appears in acceptable forms like a Stephen King book.

This shit ruins people’s lives, whether they’re right or not. We see the strain on Graysmith’s marriage in Zodiac. We see Toschi lose his homicide badge. We see Avery drink himself into oblivion. Even though Kevin Costner played him as a hero, Jim Garrison’s life was basically ruined in his quest to prove a conspiracy. He’s been labeled a paranoid schizophrenic and a publicity hound and so on and so on. Maybe it’s all true. His life becomes just as much a mystery as the death he investigated.

Everything gets sucked down the black hole.

But another name stays in my head. Arthur Leigh Allen. This is the man Graysmith makes his case against. Graysmith tells his wife at one point that he needs to see the Zodiac face to face. He needs to look him in the eyes. He does this with Allen toward the end of the movie. It’s an extremely powerful moment. A lot of this has to do with the casting. Allen is played by character actor John Carroll Lynch. Many people remember him as Frances McDormand’s husband in Fargo—the one who paints ducks (“I’ll make you some eggs”)—but I remember him as Allen.

Casting a part like this can be tricky because, if the movie is doing its job, the audience has thrust its collective horrified imagination onto this person. The actor has to live up to this expectation. So easily, it can become, “THAT’s not him, DUMB.” But there are a few actors who can get it right. Who drive the stake through your heart, scare you to death. Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald comes to mind. With Oldman it becomes “THAT’s him, HOLY SHIT.”

John Carroll Lynch accomplishes the same thing. He’s in two scenes (and one quick shot where he shows up to his trailer in shorts). The scene where Graysmith goes into the hardware store where Arthur Leigh Allen is working in 1983. Looks him in the eyes. And Carroll’s face changes. For a split second, Graysmith Knows. WE KNOW. WE KNOW!

It dissipates as soon as Graysmith leaves the hardware store, because we can never Know.

Why is that?

Because what are we ultimately obsessed with? What is the task of the journalist, of the homicide detective, of the artist? What are we trying to get to the bottom of, but can’t?

It comes in many forms, with different specifics assigned to it.

In life, we know what’s coming. We bought the ticket from the man in the booth. Even if we don’t know the details, we have an idea. This is what scares us. We’re desperate to Know. It will forever torment us, but elude us. We’re powerless against it. The more we pursue it, the more we put ourselves at risk. The more we lose our minds, our souls.

Poe tells us what it is:

It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry – and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night.

Even if the Zodiac was Arthur Leigh Allen, the Zodiac wasn’t Arthur Leigh Allen. Arthur Leigh Allen died in 1991, but the Zodiac is still out there. No matter how many clues point to Allen, no matter how likely it is that Oswald shot the president, was arrested, then killed, it’s all still out there. It’s all coming for all of us. Because the Zodiac isn’t a man.

It is the liquid black that oozes out from every corner of brightness. The darkness and dread that scared us from the moment the movie started.

It’s the Hurdy Gurdy Man.

And when we least expect it…

Why, why, oh my God, why, no, no, no—