Podcasts

‘Monster: The Zodiac Killer’ Leaves Listeners Hiding Under the Covers

Courtesy of iHeart Radio“Monster: The Zodiac Killer” offers an in-depth look at the unsolved case of the serial killer known as the Zodiac killer.

On Dec. 20, 1968, David Arthur Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, two high school students, were out on a date. They were sitting in Faraday’s station wagon along Lake Herman Road — a popular makeout spot for kids their age on the eastern outskirts of Vallejo, California.

That night, they became the Zodiac Killer’s first known victims.

More than 50 years later, the notorious serial murderer remains the subject of countless movies, books and now, podcasts.

The latest installment of the podcast “Monster: The Zodiac Killer,” narrated by veteran podcasters Matt Frederick (“Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know,” “Unobscured”) and Payne Lindsey (“Up and Vanished,” “Atlanta Monster”), dropped March 26 as the finale to a 15-episode season. Created by iHeartRadio, the true crime podcast offers an in-depth look at the unsolved case of the Zodiac Killer — the pseudonym of the unidentified serial killer who terrorized Northern California in the late-1960s and early-1970s.

Co-produced by HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot TV, “Monster: The Zodiac Killer” documents every need-to-know detail of the grizzly cases. From surface-level material, such as the victims, suspects and cryptic clues — to all the after-effects, including the copycats, elaborate theories and hundreds of people who claim to have solved the case — the podcast slashes deep into the nitty-gritty in an attempt to solve the unsolvable.

New season, new monster. The podcast is also an independent sequel to the majorly popular season one. Dubbed “Atlanta Monster,” the series investigated the Atlanta Child Murders — a series of at least 28 killings of black children between 1979 and 1981. The killings have been attributed to Wayne Williams since his conviction in 1982, and “Atlanta Monster” explores whether Williams is the true culprit.

The two seasons combined have racked up more than 60 million downloads. While “Atlanta Monster” was an investigative journalism podcast, “Monster: The Zodiac Killer” takes a documentary-style approach to the decades-old case.

Every episode is crammed with a cornucopia’s worth of information and circumstantial evidence. Details that appear crucial at one moment can be suddenly non-incriminating in the next.

The Zodiac Killer loved to pat himself on the back by claiming he was too clever for the police to ever catch him. He engaged in a twisted game of sending 18 encrypted letters to major California newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle.

“This is the Zodiac speaking,” the letters would say.

The ciphers contained dozens of abstract symbols from various mythologies and letters from the English alphabet arranged in careful, straight rows, which contrasted his scrawling, sloppy handwriting full of misspellings.

The first cipher was surprisingly solved by a puzzle-loving couple, Donald and Bettye Harden, who saw the code in the newspaper one Sunday morning and thought they’d take a shot at cracking it. They worked tirelessly through the night until Donald realized he had to go to work. When he returned home, he found that his wife had translated the elaborate language.

“I like killing because it is so much fun,” the deciphered letter said, among other demented sentiments.

Out of the four ciphers the Zodiac sent to the newspapers, only the first has ever been officially solved.

The Zodiac was confirmed to be responsible for five killings in total, although he claimed to have killed as many as 37 people.

Though the Zodiac is likely dead or quite old today, his presence remains everywhere, from the fictional characters inspired by him — such as Scorpio in “Dirty Harry” and Twisty the Clown from “American Horror Story” — to the dozens of books and movies dedicated to unmasking the slayer.

“Monster: The Zodiac Killer” details all of this and more. It dives into the past while keeping the present and future in mind. It explains how the improving accuracy of DNA technology makes it more and more likely the case could one day be solved. This was the instance with the Golden State Killer — whose crimes spanned from 1974 to 1986 — who was arrested in 2018 after being discovered through forensic genealogy.

With its sharp, suspenseful editing and narrative style, “Monster: The Zodiac Killer” takes documentary journalism to a new standard. Frederick’s emotionless, undisturbed voice is a returning comfort after listening to the Zodiac describe his sinister plans. It’s a gentle reminder that podcasts, like movies and TV, let people experience fear without having anything to be afraid of.

Each episode runs at about 30 minutes and every second is spent on exposition, interviews, theories and more. By the end of the season, the listener becomes a newfound aficionado on the Zodiac. Those who listen to the end will enjoy debating theories with fellow listeners.

It might not be the best podcast for those expecting a solid answer on the identity of the Zodiac; Frederick and Lindsey might be talented podcasters, but they’re not detectives. Today, suspects still range from Arthur Leigh Allen to Lawrence Kane to memes such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX.).

Perhaps it’s not an answerable question, but it remains: Who is the Zodiac?

“Monster: The Zodiac Killer” is available to stream on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

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