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JFK, Serial Killers, and Cults: The Fall of Heroes

The rise of fear and absurdity in American society from the sixties to the era of COVID-19

Photo by Steven Weeks / Unsplash

On November 22nd, 1963, President John F. Kennedy waved to a crowd. Minutes later, bullets would be heard by all.

America would soon realize that the most protected man in the country had just been killed.

Kennedy was a hero to many by the nature of his position. For those who didn’t support him, he was at least a martyr. All rallied together — partisan disputes stopped for a moment. Could it have been the Soviets? Did a foreign country assassinate the leader of the West? Was America under attack?

This was only the beginning.

A Decade of Death

The supposed killer of the president, Lee Harvey Oswald, was arrested. As America waited for him to be questioned, so that they could have an answer for why he did what he did, a vigilante killed him. Neither the law nor justice had a say in Oswald’s death. He died like Kennedy had died.

America didn’t realize it yet but political assassinations would become common over the next decade — the civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X: the politicians Robert Kennedy, and the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Cuban president Fidel Castro would survive many attempts on his life by the CIA, one of those plots including an exploding cigar.

The sixties were a decade of change. The youthful zeitgeist of rebellion coincided with the hippie movement. Rock music was at its peak, and many of its bright stars, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, would die precisely at 27 years of age. Marilyn Monroe would die from a drug overdose at 36, so the same for the murdered Actress Sharon Tate who was killed at 26.

On August 8th 1969, an aspiring musician, a friend of the Beach Boy’s Dennis Wilson, would become known across the nation. Charles Manson. His cult “family” targeted those in Hollywood during their brutal killing spree. One victim was the previously mentioned Sharon Tate, who sadly was pregnant when she was stabbed 16 times.

In 1970, Vietnam was still in high swing, Nixon was in office, and countless notorious serial killers were breaking into American homes.

The worst had not yet begun.

Absurd Murderers

The seventies would be the decade of the serial killer. Some theorize that putting lead in gasoline back in the fifties led to these types of monsters.

From the outside, not all of the seventies killers looked like killers. They did not have the appearance of monsters. Ted Bundy was handsome — he went to law school. John Wayne Gacy dressed up as a happy clown for children’s birthday parties. These people looked like your neighbors. They were your neighbors.

There is a proposed common theme, though, of all serial killers: insanity. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Let’s believe, briefly, that they are not all insane.

The Zodiac killer, whoever that guy was, seemed to be an intelligent troll. His enigmas are still uncracked today. It wasn’t so much that he was out for public attention; he never revealed his face, and he surely was never caught. It seems to me that he wanted to prove himself to himself; he did what he did for his own validation. That’s just my theory.

Ted Bundy once claimed that he had urges to kill. He said that his urges were so strong that he could not resist them. Maybe. I will, for the sake of my investigation, cede my conclusion to the one that he himself provided, that he raped and murdered for his own sexual sadism.

Joseph James DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer, falls somewhere close to Ted Bundy. He, interestingly, was only just recently caught after law enforcement put DNA of his into a genealogy website, found a cousin with similar DNA, and traced him down from that cousin.

What separates DeAngelo from Bundy, however, is that he sometimes broke into strangers’ homes just to intimidate them. He called strangers just to intimidate them; just to cause terror. One unnerving phone call, which you can hear online, features him merely breathing for an odd amount of time

The Golden State Killer was the sort of stalker who caused whole neighborhoods to lock their doors at night, notably during a time when people did not lock their doors at night. He would sneak in unlocked doors and windows while people slept. Sometimes he did not rape nor murder, he just would break in. Now that’s strange!

In New York City, a man named David Berkowitz talked to his neighbor’s dog. The dog, speaking with Satan’s voice, as he said it did, would tell him to kill.

Berkowitz declared himself the “Son of Sam” and hid and waited for the opportunity to kill random people on the streets of NYC. He shot and stabbed his victims not for his own gain, not for pleasure, not for justice. There was no reason why he killed six people and wounded nine others.

The Son of Sam represents the scariest type of killer. A reason to kill, such as sexual pleasure for Ted Bundy’s reason, is better than nothing. To kill a stranger for no reason at all is completely irrational to rational people like us. It scares us the most. We see ourselves in the victims. This type of murderer is completely absurd. Nothing they do makes sense.

Children of God

The eighties and nineties were the peak of absurdism in America.

The “Satanic Panic” of this time is deemed by many to be fanatical. Perhaps it was. It doesn’t matter what it was. It could have only come from this time in American history.

Mothers and fathers were worried about their children in a society that they saw as a danger to them. To dismiss all of their concerns as hysteria would be a mistake. The safe world of the prosperous post-war fifties had unraveled.

Just a few years before the eighties, in 1977, a civil rights leader of the name Jim Jones addressed the congregation in his self-founded church: the Peoples Temple. Many African-Americans had joined the church because Jones gave inspiring sermons calling for an end to racial segregation and poverty. Unlike Peter, this church was founded on absurdity.

Soon, they left Redwood Valley, California for the jungles of Guyana. Congressman Leo Ryan, accompanied by journalists, flew on a plane to South America to see the Peoples Temple with his own eyes. As the group was leaving, after they had just gotten to the airstrip, Ryan was savagely gun downed and four others were shot alongside him.

Later that day, Jones and his 900 followers, 300 of which were children, would be dead. It was a mass suicide. They had drunk cyanide poison mixed with Flavor Aid, a fruity drink mix.

The pictures of the dead shocked the American public. They could not understand how something so horrible could happen.

Meanwhile, Hyacinth Thrash, an old black woman, was asleep in her cabin. She would wake up, walk outside, and see the dead. In her memoir she would say, “I didn’t think Jim would do a thing like that. He let us down.” Thrash, surrounded by the dead she once knew, had survived the Jonestown massacre. She was only one of the few who did.

On the other hand, during this decade and the decades before it, there was an increased interest in the astral realm. The Roswell incident in New Mexico was in 1947. Project Blue Book, the name of a US government program, investigated unusual sightings. They called these unidentified flying objects many reported as “UFOs.”

Thousands of people claimed to see UFOs in America. Some reported that they were abducted by aliens from space. A couple say that they were raped. A few were just crazy.

In 1997, Heaven’s Gate, founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles (A.K.A. Bo and Peep), took advantage of the internet to recruit new members to its group. The main tenet of their religion was that they could reach the next life by alien spaceships.

On March 26th, the day the Hale-Bopp comet flew over San Diego, 39 members of the group killed themselves. They believed that a spacecraft was soon behind the comet; and that it had come to rescue them and take them along for their ascension to the next life.

Heaven’s Gate seemed to be like the strange science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard’s cult, Scientology, but worse. Both of them had a fascination with the beyond, with space, with the absurdity of science. This insanity was frightening to most Americans. How could they believe such crazy things? How could they do what they did?

The 1993 murders of three young boys in West Memphis seem to be the peak of the Satanic Panic. Three young boys were murdered and mutilated in the woods of a small town in Arkansas. The town was unsurprisingly shocked and disturbed.

The suspects were three other young boys, mere teenagers: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. Those suspects were accused of being in a satanic cult; the murders were thought to be a satanic ritual. The public thought that was the only way the horrible killings could have happened. For them, there could be no other motive than pure evil.

All three of the suspects were let free because there was little to no evidence indicating that they had done the murders. Hollywood actors came to their support, Peter Jackson made a documentary in their favor, the three suspects became celebrities. And yet America’s attention left the small town of West Memphis.

The three young boys who were killed, Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, were given no justice.

A Century of Paranoia

The 21st century started off rough. The Twin Towers were destroyed. Nearly three thousand people, mostly civilians, died on September 11th. America stood still. It watched helplessly.

Two years before, on April 20th, 1999, 15 would be murdered at a highschool in Columbine, Colorado. The school shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, said in their manifesto that they hated life, and they wanted to take as many other people with them as they could when they died. They would kill themselves as the police officers stood outside their school, waiting.

The next two decades would see the rise of the school shooter — a new type of killer, usually a student, a classmate of his victims.

Though school shootings happened in the 20th century, they were never as common and never as vicious. America realized that even the youngest of children were not safe after Sandy Hook, when twenty children between six and seven years old were killed.

A number of terrorist attacks coincided with these mass shootings at schools. Countless domestic incidents happened. 2012 saw a disturbing shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater during a showing of a Batman movie. 2017 saw a terrible shooting at a Las Vegas concert where 61 crowd members died as a gunman fired from his hotel, for no reason. 9 died while worshiping at a Charleston church by a white supremacist who once attended their Bible study.

It now seems that nowhere is safe. Places of work have been attacked; schools have been attacked; churches have been attacked; government buildings have been attacked; homes have been attacked. There seems to be no sacred ground left in America.

Children, family members, politicians, and old people have been killed. Every demographic of people has been targeted. Everyone seems to be a target.

This has certainly given rise to a paranoia, reasonable paranoia I must say, that remains with millions of Americans. They fear everyone that is not them. They do not give people the benefit of the doubt. That is dangerous, possibly a risk to their life. Likewise, some people fear themselves more than they fear others.

Many are turning away from religion. More do not believe in God now than at any other time in American history. When people do not fear God, they will come to fear everything else; though, they are partly justified in their fear. The world is an evil place, and it is only getting worse.

The crimes we saw in the second half of the 20th century rarely happened in the 19th century.

The two world wars in the first half of the 20th century appear to have shocked the system of civilized society. The Nazi concentration camps made little sense. The war made little sense to those who saw it firsthand. Machine guns, tanks, warplanes, and nuclear weapons, killed millions of humans at a scale never before seen in history. Most of those who died during the Second World War, seventy percent of them, were not soldiers but civilians. Around 100 million died during the world wars.

The idyllic fifties, now in hindsight, was an abnormality of the postwar years. Every decade since has seen the same fear, absurdity, and evil.

The only thing I know for certain is that something is wrong.