The Zodiac Killer’s Influence from DIRTY HARRY to THE BATMAN

The Batman is pulling out all the villainous stops with a roster of antagonists for the caped crusader to fight. One of the most interesting foes (at least, in my opinion) is the Riddler. Who among us doesn’t love a cunning trickster stirring up chaos? The Batman‘s version of the Riddler, played by Paul Dano, will not only play a key role in this film but is drawing sinister inspiration from perhaps the most infamous cryptic murderer of all-time: the Zodiac Killer.

This terrifying serial killer’s real-life exploits and cryptic messages continue to baffle authorities more than 50 years later. The Batman is the latest in a line of films with antagonists using symbols, riddles, codes, anagrams, and more to cover their tracks and taunt investigators. Let’s take a trip down history and movie memory lanes to revisit the Zodiac Killer’s story and how he plays a big role in pop culture from Dirty Harry to The Batman

Split Image of the Zodiac Killer sketch and Riddler from The Batman movie Bros.
History of the Zodiac Killer

The Zodiac Killer is a pseudonym for a man whose identity we still do not know (more on that later). He drew the attention of authorities in Northern California, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area, during the late 1960s. The shooting deaths of high school students Betty Lou Jensen and David Arthur Faraday on December 20, 1968 in Benicia, CA are the first known murders attributed to the Zodiac Killer. Following another dual murder at the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo in July 1969, someone sent three almost identical letters to the Vallejo Times Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The San Francisco Examiner on August 1, 1969.

The anonymous writer took credit for the Benicia and Vallejo murders. But, what really threw publishers, readers, and authorities alike into a state of concern and confusion was in the inclusion of a 408-symbol cryptogram divided into thirds among each paper. The killer claimed the symbol held their true identity within the puzzle. And, if the symbols weren’t on the publication’s front pages, he would, in his words, spend the weekend “killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again, until I end up with a dozen people over the weekend.” His letters were often riddled (no pun intended) with misspellings and jumbled thoughts, hinting at his state of mind. 

photo of Zodiac Killer's 408 cipher
Public Domain

The publications did not comply because, well, they weren’t sure if this letter was legit. Thankfully, the writer did not make good on his threats. But he did follow up with an additional letter six days later, calling himself Zodiac for the first time. The letter detailed the crimes in ways that the public wouldn’t be privy to. Intrepid couple Donald and Bettye Harden solved the cryptogram which, to sum it up, is about the killer’s belief that when he dies he will be reborn in paradise. His victims will become his slaves and the public will never know his true name.

Over the next couple of months, Zodiac would claim several attacks and murders. His correspondence would toy with authorities and publications as he made threats. He even sent pieces of a victim’s clothing via mail. A couple of people also loosely IDed him, leading to the infamous sketch of him. But the biggest part of the Zodiac Killer’s mind tricks came on November 8, 1969. He sent a card to the Chronicle with another cryptogram of 340 characters. This one, commonly known as Z-340, was not solved until 2020. An international group of citizens including a mathematician, programmers, and others came together for the effort. The overall hope is that it will lead to justice for the victim’s families. 

He continued to contact authorities via letters, including ones with his signature symbol of a circle with a crosshair. Yet another cipher that supposedly spells his name came about and has yet to be solved. The Zodiac Killer even sent a scary Halloween card to Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, who’d covered the Zodiac cases. Murders that police thought were tied to the Zodiac Killer continued through 1972. The killer’s reign of terror seemed to officially end with a final confirmed letter in 1974 which calls The Exorcist a “saterical [sp] comedy.” 

Needless to say, the Zodiac Killer letters and murders kept the public’s attention for years. Some were terrified that they could be his next victim. But the majority were endlessly fascinated with this mysterious figure who seemed to appear and then vanish from nowhere. The scariest part of all (besides people wanting to copycat him) is that he was never caught. There have been a litany of folks accused (one as recently as October 2021) but no irrefutable evidence to confirm them as the person behind this madness. The Zodiac Killer certainly sounds like a villain straight out of a Batman comic or crime film. So it’s not surprising that elements of his story have inspired a lot of films. 

From Real World Terror to the Big Screen 

The Zodiac Killer’s pop culture influence began to resonate in entertainment while the cryptic messages and murders were still taking place. The Zodiac Killer and Dirty Harry, both from 1971, draw direct inspiration from the case. The former film takes some creative liberty with the actual case, imagining a background for the real killer.

Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood as the titular detective, is a bit more loose with its inspiration. It features a sniper called “Scorpio” (a sign in the zodiac) who sends letters to the police. They must scramble to uncover and stop his next move. Dirty Harry became a huge hit and sparked the wave of films with killers leaving coded clues and messages to misdirect, taunt, and lure investigators into traps. 

Cryptic Killers Intrigue the Movie Masses 

Over the next couple of decades, films and TV shows frequently pop up with antagonists based on the Zodiac Killer. There’s The Exorcist III (1990) with the Gemini Killer, yet another zodiac sign antagonist who uses tricky messages to terrorize people. While a much looser connection exists, it is plausible that The Silence of the Lambs (1991), based on Thomas Harris’ 1988 book of the same name, has inspiration from the Zodiac Killer. The infamous Hannibal Lecter does use cryptic clues/messages to “guide” Clarice Starling as she track down a serial killer.

Four years later, we get perhaps one of the most expertly executed films that borrow from this idea: Se7en. The psychological crime thriller starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey as the antagonist John Doe follows an investigation of a slew of murders. The horrific crimes line up with the seven deadly sins from Christian teachings. Clues left at the gruesome crime scenes keep two detectives on their toes as they go down a twisted rabbit hole.

Se7en continues to garner critical and consumer acclaim decades after its release. The ‘90s wraps up with the Denzel Washington and Angelia Jolie vehicle The Bone Collector (1999), yet another film based on a novel that has some Zodiac-esque material. The killer in question here not only collects the victim’s bones (obviously) but also leaves scraps of paper and other items at each scene. These clues toy with the detectives in a sense; however, they serve to tell a larger part of his own story and inspiration.  

2005 boasts two similarly named films, Zodiac Killer and The Zodiac, the latter of which focuses on a fictional Vallejo detective and the Zodiac case’s toll on his psyche. Curse of the Zodiac (2007) is a loose recollection of the real events with some dramatic license, of course. And, once again, there’s yet another movie with a similar title to existing films about this unknown assailant. Zodiac (2007) is based on two books about the Zodiac Killer by Robert Graysmith. The film gained acclaim for its historical accuracy and stacked cast including Robert Downey, Jr. Jake Gyllenhaal, and Mark Ruffalo.

Modern Zodiac Killer Inspiration and The Batman 

As continual investigation happens through curious citizens as well as experts who want to finally “crack this case,” the films keep rolling in during recent years. There’s a Zodiac Killer appearance in Seven Psychopaths (2012) and Awakening the Zodiac (2017), which features a broke couple who find film of the Zodiac Killer and try to crack the case in hopes of scoring a payday. And, as much as I’d like to forget it, The Snowman (2017) exists. The killer builds actual snowmen (sometimes in a grotesque manner) at crime scenes. He uses the normally friendly winter staples to hint at his next moves. Terrible. 

Now, we are at The Batman, where Riddler will be the Zodiac Killer-inspired baddie who takes Bruce Wayne down a hole of terror. The Riddler is hunting Gotham’s high profile residents, slowly revealing that these people, and Batman, are not who the world thinks they are.

photo of a Riddler scene with question marks and statements about Batman
Warner Bros.

The Riddler uses his famous question mark in the center of a cross. Of course, this bears resemblance to the Zodiac Killer’s crosshairs symbol. Symbolic scenes with mysterious messages like “sins of my father” and “renewal is a lie” will leave the caped crusader pondering. The Riddler claims he is there to “unmask the truth about this cesspool we call a city” and take everyone on a cryptic chase.

The Zodiac Killer’s real reign of terror seems ripped straight from a terrifying novel or film. And it has become a tale of its own, continuing to weave into entertainment. He’s an enduring figure of our worst nightmares who pokes at our relentless need to understand evil and solve mysteries. Let’s see what The Batman‘s Ridder unfolds.

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