The Zodiac Killer was/is a serial killer in California in the 1960s and 1970s (and possibly early 2000s) who was never identified. He corresponded with the police using cryptograms, only one of which was ever solved conclusively. Based on the timing of his killings, there’s a significant chance that he’s dead now. Unless he’s running for President.
For the past week, I’ve been reading Rob Brotherton’s book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. I come from a family with a long-standing fascination with conspiracy theories; my dad’s grandmother firmly believed that the moon-landing was faked. More recently, though, popular conspiracies have hit too close to home for us. My very patriotic uncle saw the Twin Towers fall from a ferry and so the 9/11 Truther theories hurt too much to even mention.
Suspicious Minds doesn’t detail the evidence supporting any specific theory, but talks about the psychology and experiences that cause people to believe in these outrageous theories. The more socially disadvantaged you are, the more likely you are to think that there is a grand scheme created by people above you in order to keep you down. (I often feel like a conspiracy theorist when I talk about unconscious forms of sexism with my parents). So why are we talking about the Zodiac Killer right now?
To a large degree, the “conspiracy theories” about Ted Cruz being the Zodiac Killer are largely jokes. Despite the prolific meme-ry, the Internet does not actually think that a man who was born after the Zodiac Killer’s most active years really committed those crimes. The other theory ~trending~ this week is that JonBenet Ramsey, the little girl who was murdered in 1986, is actually alive and has grown up to become the pop singer Katy Perry. This seems to have come out of nowhere; while Ted Cruz at least has an active campaign, Katy Perry hasn’t even released a single recently.
I find these memes to be in rather bad taste; these are recent, real murders. Their families are still alive and I don’t find joking about these murders to be funny. But I do wonder what these jokes and conspiracy theories are saying about how we view the world.
Importantly, these cases are unsolved. They indicate a large lack of control in our society. And for many people, this election cycle has, too. The Republican Party has lost control of its primary and we are facing the possibility of previously unfathomable realities. If Donald Trump could be the president, why couldn’t Ted Cruz be the Zodiac Killer? It doesn’t have to be the Zodiac Killer – pick any ludicrous unidentified person from recent memory. The fact that there is no way that Ted Cruz could actually be the Zodiac Killer makes this theory more popular, not less.
The JonBenet Ramsey -> Katy Perry theory developed later and I think can be understood as a response. Finding out that a Senator is a murder is horrible. But the idea that a little girl who was brutally murdered might actually be alive and well? That’s a theory filled with hope.
In times when people feel like they cannot trust the systems around them, they turn to conspiracy theories as a way to find some sense of order in their lives. In this crazy election cycle where nothing has gone as expected, people are creating these memes that do the same thing, by solving unsolved murders and resurrecting little girls. Even if we know that the theories are false, playing with them in this way gives us the tiniest bit of control in a time when we feel we have increasingly little.