To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.
Robert Graysmith visiting the home of Bob Vaughn in ‘Zodiac’ is David Fincher’s most purely terrifying scene. Here’s how it came together—and came to stay in the movie.
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York.
September 24, 2020
On a wet September night in 1978, Robert Graysmith couldn’t resist his curiosity.
A month earlier, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist had received an anonymous phone call regarding the identity of the Zodiac, the notorious Bay Area serial killer. “He’s a guy named Rick Marshall,” the mysterious voice told him at the start of an hourlong conversation. The killer’s string of murders in 1969 had gone unsolved, but Graysmith suddenly had a new lead. According to the tipster, Marshall—a former projectionist at The Avenue Theater—had hidden evidence from his five victims inside movie canisters, which he’d rigged to explode. Before hanging up, the nameless caller told Graysmith to find Bob Vaughn, a silent film organist who worked with Marshall. The booby-trapped canisters, Graysmith learned, had recently been moved to Vaughn’s home. “Get to Vaughn,” the voice told him. “See if he tells you to stay away from part of his film collection.”
After years spent independently entrenched in the open case, Graysmith dug into Marshall’s history and found several coincidences. His new suspect liked The Red Spectre, an early-century movie referenced in a 1974 Zodiac letter, and had used a teletype machine just like the killer. Outside The Avenue Theater, Marshall’s felt-pen posters even had handwriting similar to the Zodiac’s obscure, cursive strokes. On occasional visits to the upscale movie house, Graysmith observed Vaughn playing the Wurlitzer and noticed the Zodiac’s crosshair symbol plastered to the theater’s ceiling. There were too many overlapping clues. He had to make a trip to Vaughn’s house. “We knew there was some link,” Graysmith tells me. “I was scared to death.”
Almost three decades later, director David Fincher turned Graysmith’s nightmarish visit into one of the creepiest movie scenes of all time. It takes place near the end of Zodiac, after Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) follows Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) to his home through the rain in his conspicuous, bright-orange Volkswagen Rabbit. Once inside, the mood quickly becomes unnerving. After disclosing that he, not Marshall, is responsible for the movie poster handwriting, Vaughn leads a spooked Graysmith down to his dimly lit basement. As the organist sorts through his nitrate film records, the floorboards above Graysmith creak, insinuating another’s presence. After Vaughn assures his guest that he lives alone, Graysmith sprints upstairs to the locked front door, rattling the handle, before Vaughn slowly pulls out his key and opens it from behind. Graysmith bolts into the rain as though he’s just escaped the Zodiac’s clutches.
Ultimately, the third-act encounter is a red herring. Vaughn was never considered a credible suspect. But in a movie filled with rote police work and dead ends, those five minutes of kettle-whistling tension turn a procedural into true horror. The scene is a culmination of Graysmith’s paranoid obsession with the Zodiac’s identity—a window into the life-threatening lengths and depths he’ll go to solve the case—and a brief rejection of the movie’s otherwise objective lens. “It’s actually so different from the rest of the movie,” says James Vanderbilt, Zodiac’s screenwriter. “It does kind of give you that jolt that a lot of the movie is working hard not to [give].”
Most simply, the basement scene is a signature Fincher adrenaline rush—a moment buttressed by years of intensive research, attention to accuracy, and last-minute studio foresight. Thirteen years after the movie’s release, it still sends shivers down Graysmith’s spine.