When I was twenty years old, in the fall of 2006, the body of my friend Luke was found in the Mississippi River. The discovery came at the end of a long weekend search. Crews of police and volunteers, his friends and family among them, had combed the streets of La Crosse, Wisconsin, a moribund Rust Belt town where Luke had been attending college on a basketball scholarship. Rumor had it that on Friday night he had been out partying at the annual Oktoberfest celebration; on Saturday morning he’d failed to show up for a golf outing. Surveillance footage from the night before showed him eating a hoagie at a local Jimmy John’s, but the trail of bread crumbs ended there. Mutual friends later told me that by the end of the weekend the search party had exhausted the probable locations and had taken to peering into Dumpsters and ripping open trash bags, hoping they wouldn’t find him among the ruins. That level of savagery, in other words, was no longer outside the scope of their concerns.
At the time, I was going to school in Chicago. On the morning my father called to say they’d found Luke’s body, I drove back to our hometown, chain-smoking and aphasic with grief. Throughout four years of high-school football, Luke and I had both played quarterback, and every practice we ran drills in perfect symmetry. We’d call “hike” and drop back to pass, firing spirals at targets downfield, our arms mirrored at identical points of release. Often our coaches called us by each other’s names. In the intervening years we had drifted apart, owing as much to geography as to diverging vocational interests—he was studying business; I fancied myself a writer—and though we still drank together over winter break, our phone calls throughout the rest of the year had grown stilted and brusque.
There was a vigil that night at the old high school. Family and friends congregated around the flagpole of the front quad. With their expressions flickering in the bronzy light of votives, former classmates offered halting tributes to my friend, heartfelt remembrances about good times in study hall or at school dances. All of it struck me as mawkish and premature. Luke had been dead for all of thirty-six hours, but already my peers were engaged in the ho-hum business of eulogy? I was haunted by more basic questions: how was it possible that he had lost consciousness at the precise moment he wandered into the river? Had I ever known Luke to drink himself beyond basic motor skills? Why had the authorities settled on “accidental drowning” before they even received an autopsy report? Without sturdy answers to these questions, the patness of our grief felt indecent: a mummery, a desecration.
Over the next few days, as the funeral came and went, I canvassed my friends to see whether anyone else was entertaining similar ideas, but it seemed a taboo subject. I had to present my doubts as simple bewilderment, softening them with analgesic swear words and casual syntax. “It just doesn’t make any fucking sense. It’s like, Why would he even go down to the river?” I could tell that on some level they shared my reservations, but my questions stoked a palpable unease, as though everyone feared that diverging too far from the official explanation would lead us into some benighted wilderness where any horror was possible. Better to stick to the consolation of a tidy ending: once upon a time our friend drank too much and fell into a river. An accident and nothing more.
Only Luke’s mother seemed to believe darker forces were at play. A sun-wrinkled woman with a poof of frazzled hair, she was beloved in our friend group, largely for the way she liked to embarrass her son by dancing clownishly at family parties, just to make us laugh. Luke covered his eyes at her theatrics, but I always sensed he enjoyed her presence, the radiance of her charm. After his body was found, she underwent a spiritual defoliation. You could see it right away: something had narrowed behind her eyes. Asking her outright would have been unthinkable, but in those days I assumed she had trouble accepting the essential absurdity of the incident. Certainly her boy liked to drink and have a good time, but Luke would never be so stupid as to traipse down to the river by himself. He’d been brought up in the hardscrabble pragmatism of the Rust Belt, which always favored prudence over adventure. No way her son would lose control of himself like that. Over the next couple of years, I heard stories of her deterioration: that she had trouble getting out of bed, that she’d toyed with the idea of hiring a private investigator. Some of my friends made conciliatory gestures. One asked her to be an honorary mother-of-the-groom at his wedding. Another phoned her twice a week and took to calling her Mother; eventually he asked her to adopt him. Of course, all of this failed at remediation. One night her only son had vanished into darkness, and no one could account for that.
I first heard about the Smiley Face Killers in the fall of 2008, two years after Luke’s death. I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, living in a decrepit bungalow on an esophagus of land between two lakes. My life was cloistered and small. Afternoons, I holed up in my arctic library carrel, boning up on the urtexts of poststructuralism. At night I met my colleagues at dive bars, where we geeked out over heterotopias and summoned Derrida and Foucault to substantiate our most outlandish theories. One friend, a New Historicist with lines from Ezra Pound tattooed on her forearms, argued that the bondage scenes in The Story of O symbolize the consensual exploitation of neoliberal contracts. Another suggested that American Psycho offers a trenchant indictment of female objectification in contemporary America. In those days even the most harebrained conjectures could be passed off as viable readings. I myself was not immune. The previous semester, I had written a paper on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, arguing that the protagonist’s ghost visions are meant to signify the horror of subjectivity experienced by early Americans, who were no longer bound to the preachments of the clergy or the fiats of kings.
At some point that autumn, I received an email from a high-school friend with the subject line: “Have you seen this?” The message was blank except for a link to Footprints at the River’s Edge, a website with a dull, earth-toned palette and a discussion forum riddled with ads for rancid pornography. I was skeptical, but before I could close the page, one headline caught my attention:
5 EYE WITNESS NEWS BREAKS THE SMILEY FACE KILLER THEORY.
If I could return to that moment, I would close my browser and get on with my day, because whatever tenuous closure I had found since Luke’s death was swiftly torn open by the contents of this website. Its authors claimed that the official explanation for my friend’s drowning was feeble and bogus. Luke hadn’t fallen into the Mississippi River during the stupor of a blackout. Rather, he had been the victim of “a cross-country plot to kill young college men.” Since the late 1980s, the bodies of nearly fifty males aged eighteen to thirty had been surfacing, under bizarre circumstances, in the waters of the Midwest. Authorities in college towns across Minnesota, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin declared the incidents “accidental drownings,” the mortal toll of binge drinking. But two retired NYPD homicide investigators, Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, were now challenging this theory, believing darker forces to be at play. The similarities between the cases were too extensive, too peculiar, to ignore, they said. The victims were almost always young white males who had excelled in school and athletics, nurturing strong bonds with their communities. But there were also more disturbing correlations. Touring the riverbanks where the bodies were found, the detectives had noticed a recurring symbol: a smiley face. In town after town, throughout the cankered landscape of the Rust Belt, the emoticon was graffitied onto trees and bridge abutments, railcars and Dumpsters—leading the detectives to conclude that it was the logo of the killers.
Initially I regarded this theory with a wry academic smirk, dismissing it as morbid catnip for conspiratorial goons and wackjobs. But over the next couple of hours, as I tried to distract myself, a gnaw of curiosity brought me back to the computer. Falling headlong into the rabbit hole of online conspiracy, I came across a story about the Alford brothers of Van Horne, Iowa, who had been tried in 2005 for murdering their roommate with a barbecue fork and kitchen knife. In his statement, the older brother claimed he was the ringleader of an outfit called the Dealers of Death, the Minnesota chapter of a criminal organization based in Chicago. Allegedly, the Dealers of Death had over three hundred members, many of them desperadoes and drifters whom Alford had recruited in downtrodden parts of town. After tracking down other Dealers for questioning, Gannon and Duarte came to believe, at least for a time, that the older Alford brother was also responsible for the murder of Chris Jenkins, a University of Minnesota student who disappeared on Halloween in 2002. Four months after his disappearance, Jenkins’s body surfaced on a bank of the Mississippi River, his costume snagged on a mass of downed tree branches, his corpse mostly unscathed.
The FBI found little evidence to confirm the testimonies of the Dealers, and ultimately wrote them off as the drug-addled crowings of disenfranchised youngsters. Skeptics on the internet, however, weren’t so easily convinced. On what grounds, they asked, were these testimonies deemed erroneous? Why did a propensity to brag disqualify the statement of a pivotal witness? And if the Dealers of Death weren’t responsible for the drownings, then who were the Smiley Face Killers? The commenters wanted answers, and so did I. Or maybe that’s putting it too mightily: the truth is, I didn’t know what I thought. I was blowing on the embers of fear and paranoia during a moment of unutterable grief. No matter how hard I tried, I still couldn’t accept the fundamental idiocy of the official story: that a few rounds of pints were to blame. Surely some part of me knew these theories were rickety and unsound—I was bereaved, not stupid. But maybe something else was going on here. Maybe something sinister was afoot, a malevolence so shrewd and resourceful it could kill boys across the country and get away scot-free. The detectives had endowed the mystery of my friend’s death with the properties of literature, after all, and who better than me—a radical young intellectual versed in the arcana of postmodern theory—to entertain these speculations?
After several more hours online, I came across a crime-scene photo of a concrete wall with a runic message scrawled in crimson spray paint:
Y☺U CAN’T SEE
WHAT YOU’RE NOT LOOKING FOR
Only later would it occur to me that, at this moment, the cord of my rationality had begun to fray. At the time I had no such perspective. I remember shutting my laptop and glancing outside, where the grackles were screeching in the mauvish dusk, and imagining the drownings as a sprawling narrative that defied banal interpretations and conformist readings. On the patio of my apartment complex, neighborhood children were playing night games. Their arpeggios of laughter struck me as a gothic symbol, a dark warning.
To a certain cast of mind, the prevalence of conspiracy theories in the industrial Midwest confirms the stereotype that only clodhoppers and Babbitts make their homes here. A boggling credulity, mingled with a Protestant nostalgia for grand narratives, makes the cowpokes and suburbanites of the Rust Belt especially easy targets for scams or sophistries—or so goes the wisdom. Conspiracy theories are often regarded as a holdover of medievalism, a mind-set of witch-hunting peasants that still persists in remote parts of our otherwise enlightened country.
It’s worth noting that, though often pegged as an enemy to rationalism, the conspiratorial mind-set saw its greatest flowering in the wake of the Enlightenment. The historians Emma Jane and Chris Fleming argue that while thinkers like Locke and Spinoza often issued gusty bromides about the importance of science and reason, they also urged individuals to reject the wisdom of conventional powers, leaving them adrift in a bardo of subjective opinion. “Dare to reason,” Kant boomed, “for yourself!” Once early Americans repudiated the Catholic Church and the British Crown, they were left on their own to determine the meaning of existence, which created an epistemological free-for-all. This had been the principal concern of the gothic writers I was studying around the time of Luke’s death. Novelists like Charles Broderick Brown and Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who dramatized the torsions of mind that could send a rational person down the gutter of madness. They believed that without the lodestars of collective meaning offered by religious and political authorities, citizens of the new continent would soon doubt their own perceptions and begin hearing stray voices in the night. Even as Enlightenment principles laid the groundwork for modern democracy, the French and American revolutions fostered rampant paranoia about secret orders like the Freemasons and the Illuminati.
In the twentieth century, postmodernism dealt the final blow to the notion of collective meaning. By the time I entered grad school, Derrida and Foucault had so thoroughly decimated grand unifying narratives that paranoia was no longer pathologized as a hallmark of obsession, but championed instead as a viable mode of critique. Readers were urged to extract from canonical texts any ideas and allusions that were subversive, counterintuitive, or incendiary. These habits of radical relativism fostered a lush intellectual climate, but once the spirit percolated into the larger culture, it corroded rudimentary notions like consensus, facts, truth, and objectivity. What Paul Ricœur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” which were originally intended to tear down the edifice of white patriarchy, have now been weaponized by conservative factions that want, at the least, to deny the science of climate change and, at the worst, to contort “facts” to the point that they no longer mean anything.
When you’re supposed to be working on your dissertation—its own arduous search for meaning—your days are a wilderness: unscheduled, improvised, free. You can spend whole afternoons trawling Instagram or binge-watching prestige television. In my case, entire days were lost to conjectures about Luke’s death. For hours on end I would watch clips of Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper 360, and Geraldo Rivera, all of which featured interviews with Detectives Gannon and Duarte, who often mentioned Luke by name. On After Hours AM, a true-crime podcast whose aesthetic could be described as Dude, Where’s My Car? meets Unsolved Mysteries, a retired FBI agent named John DeSouza maintained that the Smiley Face Killers were a cult of psychopaths who drowned alpha males as sacrificial offerings to the ancient dark gods Moloch and Baal. This is how my days passed: afternoons spent in the echo chamber of television and the thickets of comment-board conspiracy, evenings dedicated to The Archaeology of Knowledge and Simulacra and Simulation. Flipping through my course texts at night, I often highlighted any passage that seemed even tangentially related to my headspace. “In a life we are surrounded by death,” Wittgenstein writes. “So too in the health of our intellect we are surrounded by madness.”
Curiously, the amateur sleuths I encountered on the internet often deployed the same literary frameworks that guided my seminar on critical theory. Several Footprints at the River’s Edge commenters riffed on nautical folklore, suggesting that perhaps, like the sirens who tempted Odysseus, covens of attractive females were luring victims to the rivers. One East Coast gumshoe, posting under the screen name Undead Molly, offered a Marxist interpretation: a mob of blue-collar workers, resentful of rich college students, was carrying out the drownings as an act of class warfare. One company in particular had come under Undead Molly’s suspicions: a manufacturing outfit called Trane Heating & Cooling, whose headquarters were based in La Crosse, where six of the bodies, including Luke’s, had been found. “Trane technicians travel in vans,” Molly wrote, “and have access to substances which could stun a healthy young man into unconsciousness.”
These conspiracies tended to reflect, with fun-house distortions, the cultural anxieties of the time. In addition to acts of proletarian revolt, the drownings were figured as a loose proxy for global jihad. In his book Smiley Face Killers: Coincidence, Conspiracy, or Cover-Up? C. Symons notes that this conjecture developed in 2008, after the FBI grew curious about the abrupt disappearances of twelve Somali men who lived in Minnesota. Eventually the bureau determined that the men had been recruited into al-Shabaab, a terrorist network of Somali Islamists who orchestrated attacks on local governments and sought to implement sharia. On the thin premise that many US al-Shabaab members were based in Minneapolis, several conspiracy theorists ventured that the group might have carried out the Midwest drownings—going so far as to point out that sharia, in Arabic, means “path to the water source.”
This is precisely the sort of erratic leap of logic upon which conspiratorial reasoning depends. Wildly incongruous elements—Somali terrorists and college-aged Midwesterners, say—must be meshed together into a seamless, glittering whole. This is what makes conspiracy theories so charismatic: their air of total coherence. “There is an intellectual function in us,” Freud writes in Totem and Taboo, “which demands unity, connection, and intelligibility from any material, whether of perception or thought, that comes within its grasp; and if, as a result of special circumstances, it is unable to establish a true connection, it does not hesitate to fabricate a false one.”
What states of mind—what “special circumstances”—could condone such famines of reason? The more time I spent on these discussion boards, the more I noticed that the commenters were almost always the fathers or mothers, or sometimes the friends, of a boy who had drowned. I could almost hear the plaintive desperation in their posts as they groped for a resolution to what any sane mind could see was an irresolvable problem. Perhaps part of the reason I spent so much time in this bleak fantasia, part of the reason I let my imagination run wild, was that doing so allowed me to exist among “siblings of the same darkness,” as philosopher Robert Stolorow calls them—people so thoroughly gored and gutted by sadness they could only take recourse to the sturdier plotlines of Greek myths, Marxists narratives, or post-9/11 suspicion to explain their private calamities. Sitting in the glacial blue glow of my laptop, I imagined us as an army of amateur detectives united against some roving menace, one that had snatched our boys from our homes and dragged them into the void.
That winter, my thoughts took a doleful turn. I started noticing smiley faces around town. Some were spray-painted onto the pylons of campus buildings. Others were scrawled on the oxidized lids of industrial Dumpsters. Not far from my house, a cheerful visage with Xs for eyes was frescoed to the brick wall of a rundown bodega, like some jaunty retail mascot. I began taking pictures of these icons without quite knowing why, and soon, during idle moments, I found myself inspecting their nuances, trying to decipher commonalities. Was it possible the Smiley Face Killers were at work in my neighborhood? Did the faces augur future drownings? A snippet from Agent DeSouza burbled into my memory: “Sometimes there is advance preparation of sites for where a killer knows he’s going to be operational.”
At the time, I couldn’t account for the force of this obsession. Since Luke and I had shared so many similarities in life, I suppose my logic ran, it was not unreasonable to assume we’d suffer kindred fates in death. In terms of victim demographics, I had all of the relevant traits: I was a young white male who was bright and athletic, lived in the Midwest, and kept an assiduous schedule of heavy carousing. This admission will probably move you to contempt, but I began to suspect I was being followed. Most nights I went to a faddish dive bar called the Crystal Corner and walked home along the shoreline of Lake Mendota, its surface tinseled with moonlight. I hopped along the moraine of boulders marking the water’s edge, sometimes skipping stones or muttering drunken nonsense at the waves. At a distance of ten years, this behavior seems more indicative of survivor’s guilt than of grief, a salve to my creeping suspicion that my fate was bound up with Luke’s in ways that remained tenuous to me. The primary allure of the Smiley Face theory, I recognize now, was that it eclipsed any obligation to face the unalterable fact of his death, and instead allowed me to heave the bulk of the responsibility onto a network of elusive villains, their actions as intractable and unstoppable as a force of nature or an act of God.
Growing up in the Midwest, you end up cultivating an eerie premonition, an awareness that the wholesome landscape—the polychromatic farmland and serrated bluffs—belies the region’s more unsettling history: failed utopias, tent-meeting revivals, asylums for feebleminded children. If the Smiley Face theory failed to strike me as ridiculous, it was because Wisconsin offers a whole catalog of creepy occurrences and lurid killings—from the cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who stored the bodies of his victims in his refrigerator, to the two teenage girls from Waukesha who paid homage to their demonic overlord, the Slender Man, by knifing their friend to near-death on the outskirts of a prairie. Through the scrim of these horrors, it didn’t seem impossible to me that an A-team of psychopaths had conspired to drown college-aged boys throughout the region.
What gets lost in discussions about conspiracy theories is that they almost always derive from actual conspiracies. The historian Timothy Melley argues that in the twentieth century conspiratorial skepticism became a justified habit of mind, owing in part to two world wars and a slew of governmental scandals. Once citizens could no longer buy into the famous Enlightenment guarantee—that their lives were self-determined, that they were masters of their own fates—they faced a fundamental rupture, to which the contagion of tinfoil hats over the last sixty years can be seen as a traumatized response. Conspiracy theorists are not wrong to believe that their lives are at the mercy of a vast matrix of obscure forces. But the forms in which they perceive those forces—everything from false-flag operations by renegade governments to the sinister dealings of corporate entities to surreptitious invasions by extraterrestrials—are usually deluded.
Here, too, the academy has helped legitimize larger cultural anxieties. In the 1970s, Saussurean semiotics and Foucauldian poststructuralism popularized the idea that human agency is a myth: that an individual is nothing more than a Frankenstein of social forces, sutured together with a patchwork of received wisdom and stale ideologies. Marx argued that we are all products of social relations. Richard Dawkins held that humans express only the stubborn whims of their DNA. As these notions became accepted, a parallel effort tended to anthropomorphize structural institutions. (This custom lives on in the thesis statement of every bad freshman essay—“The larger culture tells us we must succeed at all costs” or “Society is making young girls into anorexics”—and arguably reached its apotheosis with the Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations the same legal rights as individuals.) This intellectual framework rightly accounts for the baffling complexity of social problems, but, as Jane and Fleming note, it also undercuts the importance of individual accountability. If people are just recombinant manifestations of social forces, it’s easy to lose sight of who’s responsible for a warming climate or economic injustice, a toxic housing market or racist policing.
Over the last couple of decades, Rust Belt politicians have almost always explained the region’s inoperative factories and rampant foreclosures as the by-products of an economy trending inexorably toward globalization and disinvestment. In town halls across the Midwest, the economy is made out to be a chimera whose conduct cannot be tamed, as if deindustrialization weren’t the handiwork of a thousand shoddy trade deals and greedy corporate decisions. Under the duress of crumbling infrastructure, minimum-wage jobs, and failing public schools, it’s no wonder disenfranchised voters in the Midwest find conspiracy theories so persuasive. Despite their botched logic and insular worldview, these theories read as tragic attempts to preserve the principle of individual culpability. Of course, the impulse to find a villain can often breed rage, prejudice, and knee-jerk scapegoating. But at its root is, perhaps, a legitimate suspicion that there are actors behind every system; that someone, somewhere, is responsible for our misfortunes. That there’s someone to blame.
I keep seeing Luke in various bodies of water, bloated and gray in the shallows, bumping against the berm. Ten years he’s been gone, and still he comes back to me like this. Last month my wife and I were driving through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, wending our way through vistas of alluvial forest, when suddenly the road opened up beside a river, and there he was in the water, faceup near the shore. A few days later, at a dinner party with friends, I recounted this sighting, and found myself explaining the Smiley Face Killers and my dalliance with the various theories proffered to explain Luke’s disappearance. But as I recapped the minutiae of these narratives, and as the expressions of my listeners grew cynical and bemused, I glimpsed the story for what it was: a delusion, a bad dream.
Speculation about the Smiley Face Killers has lessened appreciably over the last couple of years. There are many reasons for this, chief among them the allegation that a New York detective fabricated evidence to make the theory stick. (During the investigation of an East River drowning, he spray-painted Cayugawt on a cement wall near where the body was found, insisting the graffiti was a clue to a different drowning that had occurred along the Cayuga Wilderness Trail in Ithaca, New York.) Of course, such chicanery shouldn’t necessarily upend the entire case, but, as criminal profiler Clarissa Cole and others have pointed out, this is not the only fact that complicates the theory:
Roughly 3,800 people drown each year in the US, and seventeen-to-twenty-four-year-olds constitute the most common age group, after unobserved children.
Drowning on a weekend is 48 percent more likely than drowning during the workweek. Almost all of the men thought to be murdered by the Smiley Face Killers were found on a Saturday or a Sunday.
La Crosse is home to three colleges within one mile of a thriving riverfront district, where heavy drinking is not at all uncommon.
Finally, the smiley face is one of the most ubiquitous symbols in America, appearing on everything from the hippie era’s have-a-nice-day meme to Walmart’s price-rollback ad campaign. As one discussion-board skeptic pointed out, if you walk within five hundred yards of any body of water in America, you’ll probably discover a smiley face.
I graduated from my master’s program in the fall of 2010 and took a teaching position at a small college that is, like many institutions in this part of the country, bordered by a freshwater lake. Some afternoons I stare out my office window, watching students retreat down leafy campus footpaths and disappear into the forests that quaintly surround the residential buildings. If I’ve become less prone to conpiratorial thinking since Luke’s death, I’ve also become more keenly aware of the real dangers to which undergraduates are vulnerable. Deaths like Luke’s are often ruled accidental, as random and unforeseeable as a cleft of lightning. But there do seem to be responsible parties, even if they lack the sensationalist appeal of a roving band of killers. Is it unreasonable to expect a riverside college town to fence off hazardous stretches of shoreline after just one drowning? Given the boozy reputations of Midwestern campuses, would we be naive to expect administrators to do more to curtail overconsumption? The self-exculpation of these questions is not lost on me. In the end, my foray into the underworld of conspiracy was just an elaborate attempt to avoid thinking about my own share of the blame. How many times had I gone out drinking with friends, only to let them wander off with attractive women or cohorts of decent-seeming strangers, never once checking up on them? I still chide myself for not calling Luke that night, for not heading to La Crosse that weekend, for not keeping him safe.
The other morning, I was jogging near my apartment when I noticed, tagged on the facade of an ocher warehouse, a huge winking smiley face. It was maybe sixty yards from a riverbank. I wish I could say I trotted past it with a mind unadulterated by terror. But something inside me broke open, and I found myself succumbing to a familiar anxiety. When you dwell in these thought patterns long enough, it becomes ever easier to regard each day through the cracked looking glass of fear. “You behold in me,” Stephen Daedalus says in Ulysses, “a horrible example of free thought.” In certain frames of mind, I know the feeling all too well.
I turned and kept running down the elm-studded boulevard. It was late October, the clouds low and gothic, and my thoughts swerved to a long-buried memory: a football practice where Luke and I raced each other. All afternoon we’d been mouthing off about who was faster, two showboats reveling in aimless competition. At the end of practice, we hunkered down in the end zone and our teammates formed two lines, making an alleyway for us to run through. I can feel Luke beside me, even now, a mayhem of legs and arms. For twenty yards, maybe thirty, we ran stride for stride, the thunder of his body mirroring my own. But at some point my will faltered, and soon the distance between us lengthened, until he was no longer within reach.