President Kennedy’s assassination and the Zapruder film: a president’s brains were blown out on film and American minds have been blown ever since. What the hell actually happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963? It’s a question that will never be answered to the satisfaction of those on either side of the answer: Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone gunman” or there was a high-level government conspiracy. The new documents released this week by order of President Trump will resolve nothing, even though Trump is an outspoken advocate of conspiracy theories. These observations are not a cop out. This essay is not about who killed Kennedy, but rather the deeply profound effect the assassination and its filming have had on American and world consciousness. Thus, I hope you will take the time to read this. (Since this essay is not about who killed Kennedy, please do not flood me with the latest in lone-gunman evidence or insane conspiracy theories—no Ted Cruz’s dad was not involved in the Kennedy assassination and neither was Woody Harrelson’s “hobo” father.)
The Zapruder film raises fundamental questions about the role of media images in 21st century epistemologies, now deeply immersed in a 24/7 spectacle of proliferating images and “information” that claim to reflect reality. Though there were likely two shooters in Dealey Plaza, the Kennedy assassination and the Zapruder film have not only spawned endless conspiracy theories, but signaled the rise of Alt-Fact worldviews — a dangerous epistemology that attacks the very nature of evidence and rationality. The lone gunman theory and conspiracy theories are both based on flawed visions of order, chaos, and “total control,” where theorists try be gods for fear of being fools. That’s why conspiracy theories now serve as secular religions—forms of cognitive mapping powered by alternative facts in the media spectacle that spans Planet Earth.
The Zapruder Film
Fact: President Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, on the edge of downtown Dallas. Dealey Plaza is small and intimate. It is not vast, as suggested by visual scale in the Zapruder film. As Kennedy’s motorcade was passing through Dealey Plaza en route to a speaking engagement just up the highway, three shots (at least) were fired at Kennedy’s limousine, striking Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally (whose wounds were not fatal).
Film: Without doubt, the best media document of the assassination was an 8mm film taken by Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder while standing near the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza — hence the name “the Zapruder film.” Though only 26 seconds in length, the Zapruder film has become one of most important media artifacts of the 20th century. The film is a mere 486 frames, filmed at 18 frames per second. The fatal headshot is clearly visible and utterly horrific.
The Zapruder film is easily the most analyzed film, ever. Just look in YouTube, a JFK assassination book, or visit any Kennedy conspiracy conference. But in 1963, there was no social media or YouTube. According to The Washinton Post, “a Secret Service agent rushed Zapruder to a Kodak lab where the film was processed on the spot. Zapruder provided two copies to the government, and kept the original and one copy himself. Within three days, he’d sold the original and all rights to Life Magazine for $150,000, giving $25,000 to the widow of a policeman who was killed by the fleeing Oswald.” (Steve Hendrix, “Zapruder captured JFK’s assassination in riveting detail, fueling decades of conspiracy theories,” October 27, 2017.)
Not surprisingly, Life magazine and the US government conspired to keep the full Zapruder film from the eyes of the American public for over a decade. As explained in The Washington Post, “To many assassination scholars, Zapruder’s biggest impact was to cast doubt on the central conclusion of the government investigation: the lone-gunman theory. The gruesome climax of the sequence shows a plume of gore erupting from the front of Kennedy’s head. … That spawned debates over neuro-spasms and the jet effect that have never gone away. But because the issue is never even mentioned in the Warren Commission report, the official version was hopelessly compromised for many.” (Hendrix, October 27, 2017). This essay will show the Zapruder effect was much larger in scale.
A Conspiracy is Almost Certain
My take on the JFK assassination is very clear. To me, the overall evidence — especially the Zapruder film and eyewitness testimony— overwhelmingly suggests two shooters in Dealey Plaza and if you have two shooters you have a conspiracy. Yes, I have seen all the “scientific” explanations (on television and in YouTube) of why the Zapruder film supposedly shows that Oswald fired the fatal headshot from the Texas School Book Depository, above and behind Kennedy. Yes, I have seen all the “evidence” of conspiracy theories that claim the fatal headshot came from behind the picket fence on the Grassy Knoll. Yes, I have seen the insanely great episode of The X-Files, which shows the fatal headshot coming from a storm drain near Kennedy’s limousine—thus the shooter is firing up at Kennedy and that might explain the movement of Kennedy’s head.
Given what we see in the Zapruder film, it is hard to say if the fatal headshot came from the Grassy Knoll, behind the wooden fence, atop the train overpass, or the storm drain. I’m not certain idea where the fatal headshot came from, but it sure as hell did not come from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building. No freaking way. Beyond that though, I do not know who killed Kennedy.
KEY POINT 1. The above conclusion means two shooters and a conspiracy. But, President Kennedy’s assassination did not require a labyrinthine conspiracy involving massive amounts of government or military people, as shown in Oliver Stone’s infamous film, JFK (1993). The assassination was likely pulled off by a small network of people, maybe as few as 4–5 individuals inside the government, the CIA, the Pentagon, or the Mafia. Does that mean a coup d’etat happened on November 22, 1963? I don’t know. The Zapruder film sure seems like a powerful way to remind presidents they are subordinate to the forces running the American political and military empires. But for the purposes of this essay, it does not matter who killed Kennedy or if there was a coup d’ete.
In my view, it’s more logical to assume that very few people were involved and no one outside their group knew who did it. That explains the government response much better than a massive conspiracy involving dozens to thousands of government officials and agents. If there were so many involved, someone would have had eventually had a guilty conscience and spilled the truth to the media. As I recently explained in Medium, it’s the same with the absurd Apollo moon landing conspiracies. It took 400,000 scientists and engineers to put Apollo 11 on the moon; if it was a hoax, someone would have talked by now. If there was a massive JFK conspiracy, someone would have talked by now. With a small conspiracy, perhaps no one talks. As on school playgrounds, as with presidential assassinations—smaller is better for keeping secrets.
Six decades later, that the government is still concealing documents about the assassination suggests there are things the government doesn’t want us to know. Why? Rather than concealing who did it, perhaps no one in power knows who did it. Isn’t that more terrifying?
The Warren Commission Report
Released in 1964, the Warren Commission report “concluded” that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy. Of course, they discounted, marginalized, or utterly ignored any evidence that suggested otherwise. Why? Perhaps they were terrified because no one knew who did it. In a small conspiracy, almost no one would know and everyone would be suspicious of everyone, from the CIA to the Pentagon to the Soviets. This was during the Cold War, after all. I seriously doubt the Warren Commission members knew who killed Kennedy, except for maybe Allen Dulles, the super-shady former CIA chief fired by President Kennedy. Even if Dulles knew, the conspiracy could be very small.
KEY POINT 2. If the Warren Commission did not know who killed Kennedy, it would be more terrifying for them than if they did know. Not only would every intelligence agency be suspect, but so would the Soviets. Consider the following:
1) In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis almost caused a nuclear war between the Soviets and the US. Given the Cold War tensions of 1963, there were fears that the Soviets may have been involved in the assassination as a payback for having to remove missiles from Cuba.
2) In addition, Lee Harvey Oswald (the alleged assassin) was a ex-Marine who defected to Russia and back to the US and was an apparent Marxist activist.
Given this Cold War powder keg, the Warren Commission had to make sure that Americans would not want a war with the Soviets — because that war would have led to nuclear war. That fact is hard to grasp in the 21st century, but any war between the US and the Soviet Union would have led to the destruction of civilization and the deaths of billions of people. In my view, the Warren Commission report was obviously an effort to stabilize the mindsets of Americans, the Soviets, and those people of the other nations. That’s why the Commission and the government had to keep the key images of the Zapruder film (especially frame 313) away from prying eyes.
The Zapruder Effect
By the mid-1960s, books were already being published that questioned the Warren Commission, notably Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment (1966) and Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas (1967). With a PhD from Yale, Thompson was professor of philosophy at Haverford and also worked with Time-Life and had access to the Zapruder images. Thompson did an exhaustive analysis of the Zapruder film and possible bullet trajectories, concluding there were three shooters in Dealey Plaza. By the mid-1970s, Geraldo Rivero showed a bootleg copy of the Zapruder film on television (1975) and the United States Congress was holding hearings before the “House Select Committee on Assassinations” (1976–1978), eventually concluding that President Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy.
The Zapruder film went Hollywood in 1991, when Oliver Stone featured it in JFK, including repeated scenes of the fatal headshot causing Kennedy’s head to go “back and to the left, back and to the left, back and to the left.” Stone’s conspiracy implicated a massive military industrial complex that reached across the government and spanned the planet. Literally hundreds or thousands of people would have been involved. Many mainstream critics slammed Stone and savaged JFK for its representation of events. Others praised it for raising awareness of holes in the Warren Commission report and the blatant efforts to mislead the American public. In my view, Stone’s take on the assassination was less a film than fever pitch agitprop, venting three decades of Baby Boomer anger about the US government’s coverup and lack of honesty and transparency. To that extent, the film brilliantly expressed the angst and attitude of lost confidence in the ideas of truth, justice, and the American way.
Stone’s film was also tapping into a zeitgeist of conspiracy theories in the 1990s, illustrated on television by the long-running cult series, The X-Files (1993–2002). The series also spawned two film versions (The X-Files, 1998; The X-Files: I Want to Believe, 2008). With regard to the Kennedy assassination, The X-Files series included an episode that depicted the assassination as the workings of a shadowy figure known only as “The Cigarette Smoking Man” (“Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” season 4, episode 7, 1996).
In the aftermath of Stone’s JFK, Gerald Posner offered up Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1993), a 640-page defense of the lone gunman theory and the belief that Oswald was the sole assassin of President Kennedy. Naturally, mainstream media and establishment academicians hailed the book as the definitive truth.
In agreement with the lone gunman theory, Vincent Bugliosi added his massive treatise (1,632 pages), Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007). The conclusion of both books only holds if you believe the Zapruder film confirms the headshot came from behind Kennedy, from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. To me, the conclusions of Posner’s 640 pages and Bugliosi’s 1,632 pages are refuted by three seconds of the Zapruder film, the frames that show the fatal headshot.
KEY POINT 3. The “Zapruder effect” has been profound, for the film has given rise to a unique postmodern phenomena, where media images of a singular empirical event (the Kennedy assassination) yield multiple interpretations based on the images, incomplete evidence, and the subjective context and worldview of the viewer. Of course, Plato warned us about the reliability of images 2500 years ago. But, he did not have to account for cameras, photographs, films, and videos — with their claims to empirical validity and authenticity. Ultimately, the Zapruder effect undermines the reliability of the relation between image and the empirical event, precisely because the photo or film implies clarity and simplicity in moments of complexity. But that clarity or simplicity can be illusion.
Thompson, a professional philosopher, sees three shooters in the images from Dealey Plaza, while Posner and Bugliosi see only one. I see more than one. How can reasonable thinkers disagree so profoundly, when the image of the event is right before our eyes? Fact: Kennedy was gunned down. Film: Kennedy’s head was blown wide open. Result: Multiple interpretations of the event. Obviously, the Zapruder film is incomplete, in that we do not literally see the shooter. We infer and deduce our conclusions as to what we see in the film. The final version of what we “see” has to do with social epistemologies and how people view social and cultural order.
Order, Chaos, and Control
The lone-gunman theorists and the conspiracy theorists share an underlying existential stance: both sides claim to be champions of “democracy” and assume the assassination required someone in “control” to pull off. Behind the chaos of the events of the JFK murder, there is a hidden order and system of control. And the Zapruder film must support their arguments.
The Lone Gunman Theory. The titles of the Posner and Bugliosi books are revealing: Case Closed and Reclaiming History. Not only are these titles meant to be authoritative and signal finality to the JFK conspiracy question, but they symbol the restoration of order over the chaos of crazed conspiracy theories, such as those in Stone’s JFK and many other books. The two titles strongly suggest that things are under control, that randomness (Oswald) has been accounted for, that history is being tamed and subordinated to not only the “evidence,” but also the proper American narratives. If Oswald acted alone, then there was no coup d’ete and democracy is still in place. Thus, the Zapruder film must confirm the “single bullet theory” and that Oswald acted alone.
KEY POINT 4. That’s why the “lone gunman” theory is really the “American democracy is intact” theory—the American democratic order still prevails and things are under control. Books like Case Closed and Reclaiming History are like sacred texts for those true believers wedded to the “American democracy is intact” narrative.
The Mainstream Conspiracy Theories. Those theorists who see a JFK conspiracy also see democracy at stake in Dealey Plaza. Here I am referring to the sane, mainstream theorists, not the many wackos in YouTube or authors of ludicrous conspiracy books. For mainstream conspiracy theorists, the JFK assassination shows that American democracy is not intact, that a coup d’ete likely happened to protect the military industrial complex during the Cold War. Whereas lone-gunman theorists see Oswald in control of the events, the mainstream conspiracy theorists see larger forces in control of the events, be it the CIA, the Pentagon, or some secret cabal of the military industrial complex.
KEY POINT 5. The giant conspiracy theory is comforting because it to gives the illusion of total control by a secret cabal drawn from the military industrial complex. Giant systems of control provides the order behind the chaos. Lone gunman or conspiracy theory, both sides see a hidden order, a system of control behind the chaos of the assassination—be it Oswald or the CIA (or other military industrial conspirators).
KEY POINT 6: The Singularity. Dealey Plaza is ground zero for mistrust of American government and the military industrial complex. That’s smart. It’s wise to be skeptical of power, especially large systems of economic, political, military, and theological power. With its horrific imagery, the Zapruder film was the unexpected singularity that triggered intellectual chaos, the fear that things were spiraling out of control in America. The chaos seemed confirmed by later events of the 1960s—Vietnam—the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy—student protests on campuses—the 1968 Democratic convention—the Manson Family murders—the Woodstock and Altamont concerts — and so on.
The Zapruder film reveals the likelihood of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, while showing how it is impossible to control or map all the factors of complex events in reality. The Zapruder film is chaos theory in action. There is simply no way to totally control or map the singularities in something as major as an assassination, even with a small group of 4–5 conspirators—especially when the key piece of evidence is so contentious (the Zapruder film). History and reality are far too chaotic. As I have explained in Medium, chaos and complexity theory have transformed how we should understand knowledge and human certainty.
Of course, conspiracies are tried and some might succeed. Obviously, the Kennedy conspiracy has succeeded. Once Kennedy was murdered, we can imagine the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies trying to distort the investigations in order to protect their own agents or agendas, being unsure of who or which agency, organization, or nation exactly committed the crime. Plus, other leaders and politicians might have been terrified of being next on the list.
Six decades later later, it seems highly unlikely we will ever get the full truth of what happened. All the participants are likely dead. The only thing close to certain is it seems two or more shooters assassinated President Kennedy and changed the course of American and world history, with someone or some organization benefitting from Kennedy’s death. Perhaps it was the Pentagon and their desire for war in Vietnam, as Stone presents in JFK. I don’t know for certain.
What I do know is the Zapruder film was the singularity that signaled the natural chaos of history, showing the complexity of events and reality, erspecially when understood via media images. And that is a key reason to be skeptical of all political, corporate, military, and theological power, because all function best with followers worshipping the delusion that things are under “total control” and happened for a pre-determined reason in service to something powerful. The reality is that history is chaotic.
KEY POINT 7. Chaos and complexity show we are neither gods nor fools. Both the lone gunman theory and the conspiracy theories (especially the wacko ones) assume that they have all it figured out, that all randomness has been accounted for, that all singularities have been brought under control. To my mind, this seems delusional for the JFK assassination. Both sides seem like secular religions. For fear of being fools, they pretend to be gods.
Alt-Facts, Alt-Reality: Zapruder Meets Baudrillard
Given what we know about humanity, “alternative facts” have probably been around since the first cave painting. Political conspiracies have been around since at least Ancient Greece. What’s different since 1963 is the role mass media play in both conspiracy theory and Alt-Fact worldviews amid the 24/7 media spectacle.
The Zapruder effect shows how the replication of images and texts can impact the meaning of the event and the order of history. Since 1963, conspiracies have spiralled into sheer madness, such as the Apollo moon landing hoax or the 9/11 truth movement. No, Stanley Kubrick did not film the moon landings for NASA. No, the US government did not bring down the Twin Towers with bombs. (9/11 truthers, see my note at the end of this essay.)
As shown by the proliferation of 9/11, UFO, and Ancient Alien conspiracies, conditions are more radical in the age of the internet, social media, and Photoshop. Obviously, images can be manipulated and circulated on a planetary scale, such that images of key events may not be 100% reliable or may have been distorted or completely fake. With our technologies, we can generate a blizzard of “alternative facts.” Hence fake news and conspiracy religions. But fake news is a mere cover form more radical conditions.
KEY POINT 8. In the 21st century, most people’s “knowledge” of facts and events is filtered through mass media and media technologies, be it television, social media, or the endless sources, images, and videos on the internet. Media are central to our epistemology — central to how we determine the scope and validity of our knowledge, how we distinguish truth from falsehood or opinion, and the role that empirical “evidence” plays in this process. In fact, media — in all its forms — is the dominant human epistemology in the 21st century. I would go even further and say that media is reality today, that media generates the “facts” and “realities” to fit mediated worldviews. For many, the conspiracy theories are media-generated cognitive maps for interpreting events of the world.
In effect, the real world has been overtaken by the mediated world, precisley in the efforts to map reality and unveil “the facts.” In Simulacra and Simulation, media philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that the “real world” has disappeared from consciousness, having largely been displaced by models and simulations — what he termed the “hyperreality” now indistinguishable from the original reality being displaced. Alt-Reality is our mediated condition. This is the cumulative effect of Disneyland, Hollywood, television, and the proliferation of electronic media, especially the internet. As if anticipating the power of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Baudrillard wrote:
“All metaphysics is lost. No more mirror of being and appearance, of the real and its concept. . . . The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control — and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. . . . It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real . . . Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself — such is the vital function of the model.”
In effect, Baudrillard is saying that electronic media have departed on their own trajectory of reprogramming or reproducing the world, as embodied in the world of Disneyland or the endless takes on the Zapruder film in YouTube. We like to think of media as maps for our world, as suggested by Google Maps and Facebook status updates. But, in many ways, the situation is reversed — the media maps are generating the territories to which our culture and consciousness conform. Rather than represent reality, the media, Hollywood, and Disneyland anticipate and generate reality. The real and the fictional are no longer dualities, but rather cloned models in an endless series of reproduction, thus blurring distinctions between the fictional and the authentic — between the symbol and what it stands for. We live in a world where the signs and symbols of the real have largely replaced the real.
That’s the real condition we face in the 24/7 media spectacle. The effect of the Zapruder film reflects these conditions—signs and symbols of conspiracies are everywhere.
Though well-intended, it seems many mainstream JFK conspiracy theories function like religions. In JFK Assassination Site, we see two men in Dealey Plaza plotting the trajectory of the “single bullet theory” with a single finger to the back of the head. The second image of JFK Assassination Site reveals the spatial and cultural nothingness (or emptiness) rising from the “X” in Dealey Plaza. The nothingness and void must be filled, otherwise Kennedy’s death has little meaning.
Over the decades, these labyrinthine conspiracy theories have morphed into massive creation myths, not unlike those in the theologies of the world. Like creation myths, these conspiracy myths and they function like secular religions. As shown in the table below, there are parallels in creation myths and conspiracy theories, in that secret unseen forces are shaping the world, and this mythos gives meaning and purpose to the believers, for whom the cosmic and cultural universes would be utterly chaotic.
Creation myths and conspiracy theories both begin with a cosmic or cultural nothingness, with a void or gap in meaning that is allegedly important for grasping the events of the material or cultural worlds. Within this mentality, a void in meaning cannot be tolerated and must be filled with something that gives unity and finality of understanding. From the need to fill a cultural void with meaning, it usually follows that behind and beyond the events of the world (both the natural and cultural worlds) are mysterious, powerful, and unseen forces that are controlling and shaping our lives, our cultures, and even our cosmos.
KEY POINT 9. Contempoary conspiracy theories are like religions, both filled with alternative facts. Like religions, conspiracy theories are very powerful maps for “reality.” It seems ironic that the Kennedy assassination and Zapruder film were ground zero for the conspiracy consciousness and Alt-Fact culture that helped elect Donald Trump.
Note for 9/11 Truthers. On September 11, 2001, there was a conspiracy. Two planes crashed into the Twin Towers, causing their implosion and collapse. Like Kennedy’s assassination, it was caught on visual media — though by thousands of video cameras and was seen on worldwide television. As with Kennedy’s death so with the Twin Towers, if you got two shooters and two planes, you got a conspiracy. Like the Zapruder film, the video images have spawned a spiral of conspiracies, precisely because we cannot see who shot Kennedy or who flew the planes into the Twin Towers. As best we can tell from multiple investigative sources, the plot involved 19 radical Middle Eastern terrorists, who hijacked four planes, crashing one into ground, one into the Pentagon, and two into the Twin Towers, causing their implosion and collapse. That there were likely two shooters in Dealey Plaze does not mean the Twin Towers were brought down by the US government.
Please do not flood me with comments like “jet fuel can’t melt steel” or “the Twin Towers were brought down with internal explosions” planted by the government. Instead, go research the very unique engineering structure of the Twin Towers, which provided for giant interior spaces spanning between the concrete core centers and the massive steel supports on the exterior of the building. This design maximized office space for the developers, but made the Twin Towers easier to collapse when penetrated by jetliners at 500 mph — followed by burning fuel, sagging steel, weakened joints, and two pancaking implosions in which the grey “smoke” was dust caused by the kinetic energy of the concrete almost literally exploding. Structural chaos brought the buildings down, not internal bombs.
As with the labyrinthine JFK and Apollo moon landing conspiracies involving thousands of people, someone would have spilled the truth. Prior to September 11, did the US government have intelligence information about an upcoming terrorist attack? Probably. Secrets are hard to keep the larger the conspiracy. Has the US government hid information from the American public about 9/11? I would be surprised if they have not hidden tons of information regarding a colossal intelligence failure. But then I never assume complete competence or honesty from any government agency (or corporate board). The Warren Commission is the prime example.