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The Mystery of the Zodiac Killer: Motive

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2592 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 The Zodiac Killer is the self-proclaimed serial killer who terrorized Northern California from the 1960s to the 1970s (Haugen 90).  During his crime spree, he murdered five victims, injured two others, and claimed responsibility for thirty-seven murders (Zodiac Killer).  The Zodiac wrote letters to major media outlets and investigators causing widespread panic and fame of his crimes.  To this day the Zodiac remains unknown and at large with no conclusive progress in the cold case.  The possible motives of the Zodiac Killer for his crimes are an obsession with astrology, resentment towards romantic relationships, and a superiority complex.

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 The Zodiac’s obsession in astrology is clear in his name that derives from the zodiac astrological signs.  Many other serial killers use beliefs in astrology to justify their killings as sacrifices to some otherworldly power.  Furthermore, the Zodiac kills in pairs and only kills twice on a single weekday (only two kills on a Friday, only two kills on a Tuesday, . . . etc.).  The number two in astrology represents the moon and “the Zodiac symbol for Pisces contains two fish” making the number the center of most of the astrological belief (The Zodiac Killer Part 4 of 6).  All of Zodiac’s strikes correspond either to the full moon or a Pisces moon this is because Pisces is an aquatic sign that correlates to the moon due to the moon’s impact on the tides (The Zodiac Killer Part 4 of 6). Later, the moon phases and the anniversaries of Zodiac’s kills would dictate his future attacks, the arrival of his letters, and other acts to create fear.  In addition, the dates of all his kills correspond to the basic numbers two or nine (The Zodiac Killer Part 4 of 6).  Breaks in methodology may correspond to horoscopes he received regarding his Zodiac sign.  For example, the Zodiac never uses the same caliber gun in his killings, used a knife in one attack, and attempted to kidnap a woman and her child the day of a solar eclipse.  The arrival of letters claiming kills correspond to periods of high activity in astrology that can last for several days before and after the full moon and Pisces moon (The Zodiac Killer Part 4 of 6).  In astrology, these periods are as essential as the date the lead up to or after giving Zodiac the additional time frame flexiblility to plan and cover up his murders.  However, Pisces was not the only sign the Zodiac utilized.  In his cipher and coded messages, the Zodiac used the images of the other zodiac signs to encrypt his messages.

 The Zodiac killer became infamous for his signature which is a circle with two perpendicular lines running through it vertically and horizontally like looking through a gun’s scope.  This signature may also derive from astrology, with the circle representing the moon and the two lines both the number two and the two Pisces fish.  The four quadrants of the circle, four pieces of the lines, and the four arches of the circle represent all twelve zodiac signs.  The repeated division by four is representative of the seasons but also the elements of each sign that include water, earth, air, and fire (Zodiac Signs).  Unfortunately, Zodiac’s ingenuity in creating symbols did not end on paper but appeared in his actual crimes.  He manipulated the scenes of his murders to match his astrology beliefs.  The Pisces Zodiac sign’s element is water and almost every killing was couples near isolated lakes.  In this light, the Zodiac’s hunting ground is clearly due to his relation to Pisces.  Finally, Zodiac’s last attack was on taxi driver Paul Stine in a public neighborhood (Zodiac Killer).  Ironically, his last attack would be the most publicly located attack before he fades into obscurity.

As previously established the Pisces sign was of great relevance to the Zodiac’s motive.  The ruling planet of Pisces is Neptune and Neptune’s number is nine which corresponds to the basic numbers of Zodiac’s kill dates (Zodiac Signs).  Also, “Pisces is the sign of illusions,” the Zodiac, in an effort to mimic Pisces behavior, created a personality of himself as the ultimate elusive enigma (Zodiac Signs).  He attempted to embody the mystery of Pisces.  In addition, Pisces is a mutable sign meaning that it is responsible for preparing the rest for the harsh changes (Zodiac Signs).  Zodiac’s kills may have been his way of preparing mankind for the worst, weeding out the weak and strengthening the rest to force defensive progress.  Pisces are flexible like chameleons which explains why the Zodiac switched between types of knives and types of guns when police were unable to locate the weapons.  In the end, Pisces are restless wanderers they continuously shift from one place to the next like how the Zodiac Killer never killed in the same town twice but moved to the next to claim a victim.  Ultimately, astrology was a huge contributing factor to the Zodiac’s crimes and could have resulted from the rise of the occult in California, or the inability of his own life to match astrology or his horoscopes were the stressor behind his crimes.

The Zodiac’s choice in victims indicates a possible sexual inability that developed into hatred towards male and female pairs that he viewed to be romantic couples (The Hunt For The Zodiac Killer Killer Code).  Three of his attacks fell on young couples between the ages of sixteen to mid-twenties.  The first attack was on David Faraday and his girlfriend Betty Lou Jenson in their car in an isolated with the car locked and headlights off (Zodiac Killer).  The second attack was Darlene Ferrin and her friend Mike Mageau were followed to a parking lot overlooking a golf course and were shot in their locked car with the headlights off (Haugen, Brenda 41).  The fact that the car’s headlights were off and the doors locked may have led the Zodiac to believe they were a couple despite the fact that they were no more than friends.  The third couple, Cecilia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, were attacked by the Zodiac while picnicking on Lake Berryessa.  This is when Zodiac begins to evolve.  He stalked this couple as well but instead of shooting them on sight he approached them wearing a costume with the Zodiac sign on his chest, robbed them, tied them up, and then stabbed each of them (Haugen 44-45).  In this case, the Zodiac actually witnessed them in romantic actions causing his anger to exceed that of his other victims.  This excessive anger is the cause of the shift in his MO, now he wanted to feel the life leak out of his victims and create as much prolonged terror in his victim.  Also, attacking in the open during the day indicates Zodiac’s increased confidence in his ability to dispose of the couple without being caught and in his ability to control both victims.  It was a risky move on his part but one that was necessary to satisfy his murderous anger.

Furthermore, a sexual inability is evident in the overkill the Zodiac Killer committed on all his female victims (The Hunt For The Zodiac Killer Killer Code).  First, he shot Betty Lou five times and shot David only once “point blank to the head” (Nash).  Some claim that the brutal stabbing of an eighteen-year-old female college student in 1966 was the actual first kill of the Zodiac Killer (Jenkins, John Philip).  If this is true, it may indicate that she could have been the original source of the Zodiac’s rage as indicated by the two-year cooling period.  After killing the source of his rage, the release he felt would have been like the first time a drug addict used a hard drug.  This would lead to the Zodiac seeking out the rush of killing her again and again and again.  This, ultimately, would be the trigger of his crimes and he would have spent his cooling period perfecting his hunt.  Like before when he killed Betty Lou the Zodiac shot Ferrin upwards of nine times with seven unnecessary shots and shot Mageau only four times allowing him to survive the attack.  Finally, in the attack on Shepard and Hartnell, he stabbed Hartnell six times in the back before stabbing Shepard ten times.  However, Zodiac was determined to stab Shepard in the front where the most vulnerable organs were located and turned her over each time she tried to protect herself with her back (Haugen 47).  She was only partially successful with five wounds to her front and five to her back.  Fortunately, both victims survived the initial attack but Shepard succumbed to her injuries in hospital two days later (Haugen 49).  His hatred towards relationships and woman is one of the biggest indicators to motive that police have ever been able to uncover.

The final motive for the Zodiac killings is the Zodiac’s superiority complex.  The power and control the Zodiac Killer exerted over his victims gave him the power he lacked in his everyday life.  Most likely he was disrespected or not given the recognition he felt he deserved causing him to seek it out in a different manner.  The killing was his ultimate act of power.  The power over life and death made him like a god except he felt more joy from death than from life.  This is common in most serial killers, however, it is uncommon for serial killers to wait for such a long time between kills.  The Zodiac waited this period either because he had mementos from the killings to remind him of his kills or because he reveled in the power from the chaos created after each kill.  Then again, the Zodiac may have spent the time in between kills plotting the next attack, with the planning giving him the power and control like a puppeteer lording over whole cities quaking at the thought of his next attack.  The malevolent thoughts from the countless scenarios would satisfy him until his next kill.

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Zodiac’s superiority complex is no more evident in his letters to the media and investigative authorities.  These letters contained his symbol “a circle with a plus sign over it” and announced himself as the Zodiac (The Zodiac Killer).  His letters contained a cipher to decode secret message but led to the largest mystery of all.  The cipher contained a key that promised to allow the user to decipher the messages in particular one rumored to contain his name.  In the end, a high school teacher solved the cipher but the thirteen symbols rumored to disguise the Zodiac’s true name remained unsolved (The Zodiac Killer).  The Zodiac had lied.  The inability of authorities to decipher the crucial symbols hiding his name established Zodiac’s intellect to be greater than the authorities.  Other than the Zodiac’s name, the letters contained threats of mass destruction if his letters were not released to the public as according to his demands and taunts or “scorecard such as ‘Me=10, SFPD=0’” to taunt the police (Nash).  The killing was a sport similar to the man from the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” (The Hunt for The Zodiac Killer Killer Code).  Similarly, the Zodiac described a man as the most dangerous animal raising the possibility that his killings could be a reflection of the Zodiac reading the story and developing an obsession with it causing him to reenact his own version of the game.  In Zodiac’s final message he pleaded for the authorities to stop him fearful that he could no longer control his urge (Nash). 

The most important factor in Zodiac’s superiority complex was media attention.  The media fed him in the continuous terror of his victim’s but the terror of the whole nation.  He wanted to claim his kills and he either wrote or called the media to claim his kills.  In total Zodiac claimed the deaths of thirty-seven people despite only having seven confirmed victims by police, but the fame and notoriety such a large kill count brought further inflated the Zodiac’s massive ego.  The murder of the taxi driver was so different than the Zodiac’s normal victims and style that originally the police only thought of it as a robbery until the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac claiming the crime (Zodiac Killer).  This claim was backed by a piece of the cab driver’s shirt contained in the letter that the killer had stolen from the scene of the crime (Haugen 68).  Zodiac even threw tantrums when police attempted to limit his publicity by threatening to attack school buses full of children.  In one letter he wrote that authorities “have until next fall next fall” to dig up a bomb he planted in the city for the public failing to meet his demands and because school was out for the summer (Haugen 78).  Other killers have copied the Zodiac in the hopes of gaining some form of his fame and other serial killers have attempted to gain the same level of fame for their crimes as he has.  Copycat killers may have fueled Zodiac’s ego for imitation is the greatest form of flattery and he is one of the most imitated serial killers ever to exist with his own near cult following and worshippers.  The fame furthered encouraged Zodiac to kill and to create larger, scarier spectacles to remain relevant in the news.

Police only ever had one suspect of any value the schoolteacher Arthur Leigh Allen who was institutionalized for child molestation in 1975 following the end of Zodiac’s letters (Jenkins, John Phillip).  However, DNA analysis proved his innocence.  The Zodiac’s elusiveness has spurred a national phenomenon with many wild theories circulating his story like a legend.  Ultimately, his motive remains unknown but his killings were prompted by a combination of sexual inability or frustration, astrology, and a superiority complex.  The world may never know the truth behind the Zodiac, but speculation may never die.

Works Cited

  • Haugen, Brenda. The Zodiac Killer: Terror and Mystery. Compass Point Books, 2011.
  • Jenkins, John Philip. “Zodiac Killer.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 3 Apr. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Zodiac-killer.
  • Nash, Tim. “The Zodiac Killer: The Worst Kind of Serial Killer.” The Finer Times, http://www.thefinertimes.com/Serial-Killers/the-worst-kind-of-serial-killer.html
  • “The Hunt For The Zodiac Killer Killer Code – The Zodiac Murders | History Channel on Foxtel.” History Channel, 31 Jan. 2018, www.historychannel.com.au/articles/killer-code-the-zodiac-murders/.
  • “The Zodiac Killer.” Crime Museum, www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/serial-killers/the-zodiac-killer/.
  • “Zodiac Killer.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 16 Apr. 2019, www.biography.com/crime-figure/zodiac-killer.
  • “The Zodiac Killer Part 04 of 06.” FBI, FBI, 30 Nov. 2010, vault.fbi.gov/The Zodiac Killer/The Zodiac Killer Part 04 of 06/view.
  • “Zodiac Signs: All About The 12 Horoscope Signs.” Astrostyle, astrostyle.com/zodiac-signs/.


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