Etheric Ghosts and Virtual Doubles: John Hinckley’s Attempt on the Life of Ronald Reagan Considered From the Viewpoint of Media Studies
By John David EbertÂ
The whole drama of Reagan, John Hinckley, Jr., and Jodie Foster is symptomatic of a culture in which history is being replaced by virtual images manufactured in silicon circuits and sent beaming around the planet. A word or two about Hinckley’s psychological situation may not be out of order here, since Hinckley forms such an interesting counterfoil to Reagan, the first celluloid president in history who was nearly assassinated by a man obsessed with a celluloid image.Â
Â Â Â Â Hinckley was an introverted youth born into a wealthy Texas oil family. He grew up in Dallas and later attended Texas Tech sporadically for a time before deciding to become a songwriter and move to California. It was in California that he became obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver, which was to Hinckley what the novel Catcher in the Rye had been to Mark David Chapman, namely, the primary work of inspiration for his deeds. Hinckley identified with the homicidal character of Travis Bickle and fell in love with Jodie Foster’s virtual double Iris, a twelve year old prostitute. (Foster apparently bore a resemblance to his mother Jo Ann, whose nickname had, in fact, been “Jodie.”) After returning to Evergreen, Colorado from California, Hinckley moved in with his parents and started an organization called “American Front,” an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties. The organization included no real members, save himself, for just as he had made up a fictitious girlfriend in California which he had written to his parents about, so too the members of his organization were also make believe. Modeling himself after his heroes, Travis Bickle and Lee Harvey Oswald, he began to collect guns. When he came across a May, 1980 issue of People magazine which stated that Jodie Foster was attending Yale University, he decided to travel to New Haven, Connecticut in order to “rescue” her, just as Travis Bickle had rescued Iris in Taxi Driver by killing her pimp.
Â Â Â Â He began stalking Foster, leaving letters and poems in her mailbox. He obtained her phone number and called her, tape recording a couple of conversations in which she strongly discouraged him from calling her again. He decided that the only way he could possibly win her heart was to perform an act that would result in elevating him to a role of notoriety in which she could relate to him as a fellow “celebrity.” He began stalking Jimmy Carter for this purpose, with the idea in mind of assassinating him.Â
Â Â Â Â He sent an anonymous letter to the FBI which read: “There is a plot underway to abduct actress Jodie Foster from Yale University dorm in December or January. Not ransom. She’s being taken for romantic reasons. This is no joke! I don’t wish to get further involved. Act as you wish.”
Â Â Â Â After hearing about the assassination of John Lennon in December of 1980, he traveled to New York City and considered killing himself on the exact spot at which Lennon had been murdered. He even went out and bought a Charter Arms revolver, the same kind of gun which Chapman had used to kill Lennon. (Chapman’s deed seems to have acted as fresh inspiration, for Hinckley was later found to have a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his Washington, DC hotel room). He was unable to go through with the act, however, and so he returned to New Haven, where he left Foster one more note: “Just wait,” it read, “I’ll rescue you very soon. Please cooperate.”
Â Â Â Â On the advice of a psychiatrist, the Hinckleys kicked their son out of the house in an act of “tough love,” and so Hinckley decided to head back to New Haven, this time with the intention of killing Jodie Foster. On the way, however, he happened to ride a bus through Washington, D.C., where he took note of Reagan’s schedule.
Â Â Â Â On March 30, 1981Â — just three months into Reagan’s presidency — Hinckley waited at a Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C. for Reagan to emerge from a talk he had been giving to the AFL-CIO, and when the president surfaced, Hinckley fired six shots in his direction. The secret service agents immediately tackled Hinckley, but not before the bullets had wounded three men in Reagan’s entourage, while a stray bullet had ricocheted off the limousine and plunged into Reagan’s chest, where it lodged in his lung, dangerously close to his heart. Reagan was rushed to George Washington Hospital, where doctors proceeded to dig out the bullet as Reagan came very close to dying.
Â Â Â Â Though Hinckley was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity, he never heard voices of angels or demons or Little People telling him what to do, as did Mark David Chapman, who avoided the insanity defense by pleading guilty. Though disturbed, Hinckley was not schizophrenic, and in his case, had no obsession with, or interest in, Ronald Reagan. Indeed, he could just as easily have killed Carter. All that mattered to him was that Jodie Foster take notice of his attempt at slaying the dragon in order to rescue her from some unnamed evil.
Â Â Â Â Hinckley’s act also differed from Chapman’s in its basic aims, for whereas Chapman’s assassination of John Lennon had been an iconoclastic assault upon a culturally constructed image, Hinckley’s was just the opposite, for he was an iconophile in love with the celluloid image of Jodie Foster. And whereas Chapman was essentially phobic of all things virtual, Hinckley was actually seeking a pathway that would enable him to enter inside the world of the electroverse inhabited by celebrity icons. It is as though he wanted to see himself painted as a figure inside of a piece of stained glass, as a Judas or a Satan. By metamorphosing into a media personality through his attempt on the life of an icon, he would be enabled to enter into the same virtual landscape inhabited by Jodie Foster’s Iris character from Taxi Driver. In that iconoscape, he would be able to meet with her and talk to her, exactly like the figures which Alice spoke to upon her translation through the looking glass.
Â Â Â Â There is great irony in Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate the first president in American history whose consciousness was just as distorted by the fabrications of the virtual world as his own, for Reagan, too, lived mostly in a world of fantasies shaped by images out of movies. Hinckley merely wished to cross through the silver screen and enter into that same universe of grainy, flickering forms lifted up out of the murky depths of our mythic consciousness by means of electricity. It is therefore one of the supreme ironies of history that though it mattered little to Hinckley which president he shot at, the one he ended up attempting to kill was someone who had been nearly as mentally crippled by the Hollywood dream machine as himself.
Â Â Â Â Both Reagan and Hinckley saw themselves as hero figures, saviors who were out to slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress. From Hinckley’s point of view, the dragon happened to be Reagan himself, for killing him was the only meansÂ — as he saw itÂ — of getting Foster’s attentionÂ — while for Reagan the dragon was big government and the princess was the economy, which he had dedicated himself to rescuing through the application of his supply side economics.
Â Â Â Â Thus, history is not only being replacedÂ — and displacedÂ — by the virtual, but the etheric ghosts and doubles that live in the virtual world are actually beginning to have an effect on the physical world itself by means of their possession ofÂ the psyches of real human individuals and causing them to perform acts which they otherwise might not have ever thought of doing. Jodie Foster’s virtual double in Taxi Driver very nearly cost American history one of its most popular presidents.
Â Â Â Â This is something worth thinking about.
–Excerpted from Ebert’s forthcoming Death and Fame in the Age of Lightspeed