Growing up in San Francisco, the Zodiac Killer was our boogeyman. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, he was one of America’s first famous serial killers, who claimed to have murdered thirty-seven people (although only seven have been confirmed) and would send taunting letters to different newspapers in the Bay Area, gleefully claiming credit for the killings. His motivation? He loved to kill and he loved to make the police look like fools. His identity is still a mystery.
Although I was too young to know about him when the murders were taking place, stories about him lasted for decades, and his name became a worry, a fear, a threat, and a taunt in my circle of friends.
Most of all, he became a story. A horror story. Our horror story.
Creating horror stories is a way to manage our fear in a dangerous and scary world. That’s how children learn to deal with the horrible knowledge that nihilistic angry men will randomly kill and torture people for pleasure.
Boogeyman stories also teach personal safety through fear. My cousin Darren and I snuck out of the house one summer night, and when my father caught us, he warned that we couldn’t wander San Francisco after midnight, not with the Zodiac around. You want to dodge the Zodiac? Don’t wander down streets you don’t know, stick to the main avenues. Don’t talk to strangers, and don’t give people your name. When you see suspicious people on the street ahead of you, cross the street and keep an eye on them. Don’t write your name and address on your bicycle, or your backpack, or your bus pass. The Zodiac picks people to kill in random ways, and if he sees a kid lock up a bike, if he can get the kid’s name and address off of it, he’ll follow you home and kill you.
It was an easy next step to start inventing stories of our own. There was the kid who left his backpack open at the park and the Zodiac killer went through it, found identification and then followed him home and killed his whole family but left him alive. A kid on a bicycle ran a stop sign and pissed off the Zodiac, who followed him home and killed him and wrote a message with his blood on the walls. A kid wrote his name on the back of a Muni bus seat, and the Zodiac was on the bus too, saw him, and killed him because he hated vandals.
We even wrote our own threatening letters to each other, pretending to be the Zodiac, and left them on each other’s doorsteps. When I received a letter from “the Zodiac,” written in code with pentagrams drawn all over it, I always knew who wrote it -- it was whichever neighbor kid with whom I’d been trading Zodiac theories the day before. Our parents disapproved, but it occupied a lot of one summer...and hey, at least I was writing.
My daughter Lily is going through her horror stage now. She wants to know terrible things that happened to me or other kids while I was growing up.
I’m also warning her about the terrible things that can happen to her, and inventing boogeymen, and now she and her friend are creating their own horror stories to manage their fear, just like I did...but her stories have a 21st Century twist.
Lily loves to find new apps for the iPad, especially the free ones...but we warn her that you get nothing for free. We always supervise the download and, we never let her give out her name or address, and she should never take her own picture and submit it. There are free apps in which you can be turned into an “Office Max” dancing Christmas elf, for instance -- but then Office Max owns that picture of you and can use it for their own promotion however they like. Therefore, the app is not free. Using your information and image is their payment.
In this new world, Lily is now aware that she is being spied upon, monitored and watched, and we must be diligent in maintaining our privacy. She knows that my wife’s and my identity were stolen recently, which put our family at risk. She hears us talking about cookies, and e-mails and cell phone calls and the NSA and whether someone is always listening, and it freaks her out.
And then the stories come out. She and her friends found a two-year old news story on-line about an Elmo doll that comes to life and wants to kill its owner, and like all good horror -- it’s based on a true story. Check it out:
Now there’s a new threat -- the talking animal apps, which are dangerous because they are free. You download these animated characters, and they engage in a very primitive AI conversation with you that would never pass the Turing test, but they’re entertaining for kids. Angela the Cat sits in a Parisienne cafe and asks you about your friends, and your favorite movies and foods, and you can either type or talk back and converse.
Lily and her friends, however, have heard about a killer hiding within one of these apps, who tricks kids into giving him their information. He’ll ask for your name and address, and even ask you to take your picture and submit it, all while posing as an animated cat or a dog just chatting with you. But then he’ll use your photo and your information and track you down and kill you. She and her friends have heard of several kids who have died this way.
However, there is a way to catch them. If you look closely at the animated animal’s eye, you can sometimes see the killer in the iris, staring at you. Sometimes he’ll point and laugh, threatening to kill you next. I sometimes see her staring closely at the iPad screen, searching for the deadly homunculus lurking there.
Lily doesn’t have to dodge the boogeyman on the bus. Now he can come right into your home, through your computer. The stories are the same, but different, and I’m glad she’s turning her fears into cautionary horror stories that she can control.