Symbolism and the Zodiac Killer

Symbols are a universal creation of the human mind. In fact, the argument can be made that we cannot help but create symbols, which are often vital to our well-being and overall psychic health. Symbols also convey complex and hidden meanings that reach far beyond their overt simplicity. Just look to our nightly dreams for an example of how we spontaneously create symbols and their often-powerful impact on our lives. We live in a world of symbols, some borrowed, some created, but all meaningful at many levels.

Those who create symbols and use them effectively are always conveying information that is complex and important. Often, these symbols also provide an understanding of the symbol creator, the kind of information that penetrates deeply into the unconscious motivation of the individual who formed the symbol. Symbol creators are telling us much about themselves, along with the message they wish to convey. They are also offering information that is frequently convoluted and involves a wealth of thoughts and relationships. Symbols, then, are a kind of shorthand to convey an intricate story that contains hidden parts or meanings.

It’s clear that the Zodiac killer was a symbol creator. He fashioned and used symbols in a variety of ways and with a compulsion that is impossible to ignore. His use of symbols also grew, evolved, and became more complex and intricate as he continued to attack his victims and write his missives. Zodiac created obvious symbols in his written communications, sketches, and artwork. He also created symbols in his physical movements and actions. In other words, Zodiac used symbol-creation as a way to communicate his overall message as well as tell us a good deal about himself. For the killer, this kind of creative process was not limited to pen and paper. It spilled over into his physical life and became a part of his movements and actions.

The most obvious of Zodiac’s symbol creations was the infamous “cross-hair” that became his personal signature. For Zodiac, this was a symbol of Self, a unique and powerful public signature that held multiple layers of meaning. Once he placed this symbol into the public consciousness, and linked it directly to his actions, Zodiac staked a claim to that symbol of Self that became a permanent fixture of his journey. No one could misunderstand his use of this symbol and no one could ignore it’s overt meaning. It also contained layers of relevance that spoke to his ferocity, willingness to take risks, and as an ever-present danger to the public. This symbol conveyed fear on a large scale, along with other, less obvious, meanings. It was his most personal and arguably potent symbol-creating effort.

The killer used many different symbols from several disciplines throughout his ciphers. Each symbol was somehow meaningful to the cipher creator, although not necessarily as crucial or important as his Self symbol. However, each of these lesser symbols was chosen for a reason and, therefore, each of them point back to the cipher-creator in some way. When taken together, they tell a story. Overall, the ciphers provide a sort of dictionary of symbols, a collection that was unique to Zodiac. When taken as a whole, they help form a picture of the man who selected those symbols for specific reasons, even if those reasons were not fully conscious at the time they were chosen. To understand their importance, this collection must be viewed in its entirely and not dissected by the use of outside sources alone. In my view, it is a mistake to look only at the symbols Zodiac used to create any single cipher. Each cipher, as a whole, is also a symbol. Each page upon which it was written is a symbol. Taken together, each cipher is a macro-symbol that is both inherently complete and tells a powerful story, including the three-part cipher that so captivated the public. Each was prepared with care. Each conveyed important and specific information.

Zodiac also used symbol-making in several of his crimes. His carefully designed appearance at Lake Berryessa was a powerful example of an individual who was compelled to create a real-life symbol of himself, his presence, and his meaning. This was not simply a disguise. It was the enactment of a symbol-creating process that was designed to convey a powerful meaning. Since it was uncertain (to him, initially) whether or not his victims at Lake Berryessa would survive Zodiac’s attack, it also seems clear that he could have been creating the “disguise” symbols as part of his own overall journey, however one might define that path. The bottom line is that the killer created powerful symbols for the Lake Berryessa attack, symbols that were both worn on his person and scribbled on a victim’s car. These symbols, along with the crime, complete a symbol-making chapter of Zodiac’s overall story.

The Paul Stine murder was also rich in symbolic meaning. Zodiac’s use of the “public” location of Washington and Maple Streets, set alongside the more private actual location of Washington and Cherry Streets, provides a double layer of symbology. This use of symbolism, wherein there are several layers of meaning, is typical of all powerful symbols. In fact, the more powerful the symbol, the more layers of meaning can be discovered. The Stine attack, like the Lake Berryessa attack, was rife with the planned use of symbols. Once again, it was both a self-sustaining chapter of his story as well as a snapshot of his persona and motivation at that time. When the chapters of the Zodiac story are assembled from the viewpoint of symbol-creating, they provide us with a remarkably detailed portrait of the man and his crimes.

It is impossible to give the subject of Zodiac’s symbol-creating compulsion the full discussion it deserves in the confines of a short article. There are so many nuances that lie behind this kind of behavior and its potential importance to the Zodiac story. The most vital point is to keep in mind that symbol-creation remains a critical component in the Zodiac saga. His communications, his ciphers, his doodling and greetings, along with his actions, form the Zodiac story as he wished it to be known. It must be viewed in its entirely and as a self-supporting system rather than as a collection of borrowed items. Not doing so has led to many misunderstandings about this man.

There have been a few attempts to address this issue but, in my view, each has failed for a simple reason: Each has attempted to assign specific meaning to the Zodiac symbol collection by referencing individual symbols to outside, impersonal definitions. In fact, it seems that Zodiac created his own treasury of symbols that are self-defining, complete within themselves. Even though it is easy to believe that Zodiac borrowed most of his symbols from outside sources for the sake of convenience, he actually created his own symbolic litany that was self-supporting and holistic unto itself. The key to understanding Zodiac’s use of symbols is to understand them within their own context, within the scope of how Zodiac created and used them.

So, in order to approach an understanding of how and why Zodiac created his treasury of symbols, and what they truly mean, one has to start at the beginning. By examining his movements, his actions, as well as the more obvious use of symbols, one can see how Zodiac created and evolved his use of personally meaningful symbols, and how informative and complex they became. It is like the unfolding of a story within a story, except that the words are replaced by symbols, and the use of these symbols points directly back at their creator.

The next time you study one of Zodiac’s symbol-ridden works, such as a greeting card or an unsolved cipher, try to view it as a self-supporting, self-sustaining chapter in his own story. Take his work for what it is, within itself, as a first approach. Try to work out the meaning of the chapter as Zodiac wrote it, then move on to the next chapter of symbols. As one very small example from Zodiac’s ciphers, view his Self-symbol for what it is, not merely as a character subject to substitution. View its importance and interpretation in the way the author of the cipher originally intended. When taken as a complete body of work, these chapters of symbols form an amazingly complete picture of the man who, in all probability, wanted us to understand him much better than we do today.


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