15 Killer Facts About Zodiac


“This is the Zodiac speaking …”

So began one of the first cryptic letters from one of history’s most notorious murderers, whose identity remains unknown but whose story was brilliantly immortalized onscreen in David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. The unsung masterpiece about a serial killer in 1960s San Francisco who manages to evade police, all while sending taunting letters to the media to further promote his agenda, just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. We’re no closer to solving the mystery of the Zodiac’s identity, but we can solve the mystery of how Fincher and his collaborators—including stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.—created one of the greatest procedural thrillers ever made.

Here are 15 facts to help you decode Zodiac.


Disney owned the rights to former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist and author Robert Graysmith’s source material and tried to make the film for over a decade before the rights to the books, 1986’s Zodiac and 2002’s Zodiac Unmasked, lapsed back to Graysmith in the mid-2000s. According to This is the Zodiac Speaking, the feature-length documentary found on the Blu-ray release, that gave screenwriter James Vanderbilt and producer Bradley Fischer the opportunity to approach Graysmith themselves to option the books to potentially make a film without the Mouse House.


According to the same Blu-ray documentary, Graysmith informed Vanderbilt and Fischer that he was personally taking pitches from a handful of filmmakers now that he owned the rights to his books again, but only via a fax number through a local Kinko’s. The pair built their pitch—which Vanderbilt described as asking, "What if Garry Trudeau woke up one morning and tried to solve the Son of Sam"?—and eventually won the rights to make the film after they successfully sent the fax.

Vanderbilt explained that, “Getting to know Robert during this process was actually invaluable because the script changed as we became friends; and very rarely in order to make him look better. Robert truly invited us into his life warts and all, and that’s how I think we ended up portraying him onscreen.”


After directing the 2002 thriller Panic Room, starring Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart, Fincher began work on a five-hour, $80 million miniseries adaptation of author James Ellroy’s true crime novel The Black Dahlia. That project, chronicling the infamous unsolved 1947 murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, eventually fell through (it was later made into a 2006 feature film by Brian De Palma). But according to This is the Zodiac Speaking, Fincher’s newly minted freedom led Vanderbilt and Fischer to approach him about directing Zodiac because it dealt with similar, noir-tinged police procedural themes.


In addition to having an interest in the Zodiac Killer’s story from a filmmaking perspective, Fincher had a personal connection to the story, too. Though the director was born in Denver in 1962, his family relocated to California when he was two years old—just a few years before the Zodiac committed his first murder. So he grew up fearing the serial killer.

“I grew up in Marin and now I know the geography of where the crimes took place, but when you’re in grade school, children don’t think about that,” Fincher said in the film’s production notes. “They think, ‘He’s going to show up at our school.’”

In an interview with The New York Times, Fincher recalled that what drew him to Zodiac was the same thing that drew him to Se7en: the fear that you never knew what the people around you were capable of. “That’s what Zodiac was for a 7-year-old growing up in San Anselmo,” Fincher said. “He was the ultimate bogeyman.”


Once Fincher was on board, he, Vanderbilt, and Fischer agreed to develop further drafts of the screenplay to emphasize fact over fiction. They spent months poring over police documents and interviewing witnesses, investigators, and the case’s two surviving victims: Mike Mageau and Bryan Hartnell.

“It was really quite simple,” Fischer said of their approach. “Let’s find everyone we can who was materially involved in the investigation, and let’s sit down across from them, look them in the eye, ask them direct and sometimes difficult questions, and then hear what they have to say ... We did our best to get it right.”

“I said, ‘I won’t use anything in this book that we don’t have a police report for,’” Fincher told The New York Times. “There’s an enormous amount of hearsay in any circumstantial case, and I wanted to look some of these people in the eye and see if I believed them.”


Fincher wanted absolute verisimilitude in depicting the Zodiac attacks, so the only time the killer appears onscreen is during incidents where there are on-the-record survivors or witnesses to the real-life events. This includes the opening attack on Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau at Blue Rock Springs, the attack on Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepherd at Lake Berryessa, and the killing of taxi driver Paul Stine at Washington and Cherry Streets in San Francisco.

Survivors Mageau and Hartnell were consultants on the film, as was retired San Francisco Police Department inspector David Toschi (who was played by Mark Ruffalo in the movie).


Because of his perfectionism, Fincher had difficulty finding actors to portray Graysmith and Toschi. But Jennifer Aniston, who at the time was married to Brad Pitt—whom Fincher had worked with on Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—suggested two of her former co-stars for the lead roles.

In Fincher’s Blu-ray commentary, he shared how Aniston—who had worked with Gyllenhaal in 2002’s The Good Girl and Mark Ruffalo in 2005’s Rumor Has It—recommended them for Graysmith and Toschi, respectively. Fincher, in turn, loved Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko and Ruffalo in Collateral, and agreed to cast them in the parts.


Fincher has an infamous habit of demanding many, many takes for particular scenes. His work on Zodiac was no different, which proved to be a challenge for the three main actors, all of whom were Fincher rookies.

“You get your chance to prove what you can do. You get a take, five takes, 10 takes. Some places, 90 takes,” Gyllenhaal told The New York Times. “But there is a stopping point. There’s a point at which you go, ‘That’s what we have to work with.’ But we would reshoot things. So there came a point where I would say, well, what do I do? Where’s the risk?”

The typically sarcastic Robert Downey Jr., who played San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, told the Times, “I just decided, aside from several times I wanted to garrote him, that I was going to give [Fincher] what he wanted. I think I’m a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags.”

Ruffalo, however, seemed a bit more gung-ho—at least in retrospect—telling the Times: “You can put your expectations aside and have an experience that’s new and pushes and changes you, or hold onto what you think it should be and have a stubborn, immovable journey that’s filled with disappointment and anger.”



After the Zodiac first demanded that his ciphers be printed in national newspapers, one of his last known letters asked, “I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me?” The answer, at least in Fincher’s movie, is three actors—or, depending on who you think the Zodiac Killer was, maybe four.

As a way to keep the image of the Zodiac a mystery onscreen, he is played by three actors: John Lacy, Richmond Arquette, and Bob Stephenson. If you think Arthur Leigh Allen is the Zodiac, then actor John Carroll Lynch is the fourth individual to play the Zodiac in the movie.


The filmmakers didn’t have to worry about using squibs or fake blood packets for particularly bloody scenes on-set. To recreate murders scenes as accurately and quickly as possible while shooting the movie, all blood and gore was created using CGI in post-production.

This allowed the filmmakers to dial back or go all-out on bloody fingerprints or blood spills as needed, and saved time and budget on costuming that would have been wasted if Fincher wanted to continually shoot multiple takes of these scenes.

But the gruesome imagery took its toll on members of the digital team, like Eric Barba, the visual effects supervisor for Digital Domain, the company responsible for 200-plus effects shots for Zodiac. "I think because we are so desensitized to overly violent cinema that when you actually make violence authentic it's harder hitting," Barba told the Los Angeles Times. "This isn't a film where the body count piles up for fun. The murders have a point. We have feelings for these people."


Costume designer Casey Storm was granted unprecedented access to police evidence photos for reference in recreating the costumes of the Zodiac’s victims and witnesses.

These included victim Darlene Ferrin’s blue floral jumpsuit and survivor Mike Mageau’s actual July 4th ensemble, which included wearing three pairs of pants, four sweaters, a wool shirt, and a T-shirt all at the same time. The Zodiac’s executioner’s hood was recreated from Lake Berryessa survivor Bryan Hartnell’s personal recollections.

“There’s something a little morbid about it,” Storm explained, “but at the same time, because we are dealing with a true story, it was important to Fincher that we be sensitive to the facts and those involved.”


Zodiac was one of the first feature-length motion pictures to be primarily shot using a digital camera. Certain slow motion scenes—including one during the Blue Rock Springs opening—were shot on film, but the rest was photographed using a Thomson Viper Filmstream camera, which Fincher previously used for shooting commercials.

The decision wasn’t meant to be some sort of revolutionary move to introduce what is now a nearly ubiquitous moviemaking method. Instead, Fincher simply hated how long it took to process daily film footage. “I liked the process of working digitally and I didn’t like waiting until the next day to see what I had shot,” Fincher explained.

Similarly, Zodiac was one of the first feature movies to be edited using the inexpensive consumer software program Final Cut Pro.


Some scenes from the film were shot on location in San Francisco, but the scene where Toschi investigates the Paul Stine murder at the corner of Washington and Cherry Streets couldn’t be used in real life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area has changed significantly since the incident in 1969—and local residents weren’t anxious to attract attention while the production recreated a killing in their neighborhood. So Fincher shot the entire six-minute sequence on a soundstage using moveable, bluescreen panels.

San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood was then composited in final shots using detailed drawings created by production designer Donald Graham Burt, matte paintings, and a series of high definition photographs of the area. The only details in the shot that aren’t CGI are the actors, the taxicab and cars, and the street curbside.


Like the corner of Washington and Cherry, the Lake Berryessa location changed over time and had to be retrofitted to look like it did on the day of the attack, specifically the oak trees the Zodiac used to hide behind before he accosted Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shephard. But Fincher didn’t use CGI this time.

“When we got there, there was a little spit of land like a little peninsula that jutted out into the water,” Donald Graham Burt explained. “The oak trees the killer hid behind were gone. We had to helicopter in two huge oak trees. We drilled holes in a piece of the land and hauled in some water so they wouldn’t die. We set them up for three or four days before filming knowing they would only have a few days.” Fischer called the trees “an expensive prop.”



Film is obviously a visual medium, but to show the passage of time at one point in Zodiac, Fincher envisioned a two-minute audio montage over a black screen that included nothing but hit songs and period-appropriate audio clips to move the story from the 1960s into the 1970s. The director had final cut on the film, but agreed to excise the blackout montage due to studio pressure over the runtime of the movie approaching three hours.

Instead, the blacked-out title card in the theatrical cut simply reads, “Four Years Later.” The full audio montage can still be seen (or heard) in the Director’s Cut available on home video.

Additional source: Zodiac Blu-ray special features

Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.


Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”


The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.


On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.


A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.


Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.


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