I’m on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, a ring of corrugated boxes stacked so tightly around me I can practically breathe in their cardboard musk. Three more boxes sit at my knees, propped against a window overlooking Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, frozen beneath a cloudless sky. I peer down through the trees lining Elm Street. I think about the trajectory a bullet might take from here.
I lean forward, disturbing the cat sleeping in my lap here inside my Austin home. She stirs, then begins rubbing against the virtual reality headset I’m wearing. The Dallas skyline trembles.
This scene (minus the cat) is part of JFK: Memento, an “immersive” documentary set to debut this November at Dallas’s the Sixth Floor Museum. Through stereoscopic wizardry, visitors can experience the chaos that unfolded there on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was killed. They’ll stand with spectators as Kennedy’s motorcade passes and sit in the so-called sniper’s perch, where the Warren Commission concluded that a disgruntled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald had changed the course of American history. In JFK: Memento, you see it all—except Kennedy’s murder. Those details remain obscured, impossible to divine no matter how close you get.
JFK: Memento is just the latest software update to a morbid fascination that’s thrived for sixty years. November 22 has been parsed across more than one thousand books; its secrets have inspired countless political thrillers and reams of internet punditry. The grief it evokes has been immortalized in TV melodramas and maudlin folk songs. The sheer volume of assassination-tainment we’ve amassed speaks not only to the tragedy’s historical importance or to the urge to solve its mysteries. As this expansion into virtual reality illustrates, we keep returning to the Kennedy assassination because, over time, we’ve made this story about ourselves.
When the Sixth Floor Museum opened, in 1989, it was geared toward “what the museum calls ‘the rememberers,’ ” its executive director, Nicola Longford, says, those with firsthand accounts of when Kennedy was assassinated. JFK: Memento, however, is aimed at a generation whose familiarity with the events are based on what sociologists call a collective memory—a pool of images and feelings passed down through the generations. This collective memory has largely been shaped by pop culture, into what the cultural-history professor Alison Landsberg terms a “prosthetic memory.” Most of the estimated 350,000 people who visit the Sixth Floor Museum annually know the Kennedy assassination this way.
Collective memories are inherently biased, and they change over time. Our impression of the Kennedy assassination—formed in grief, then tainted by everything that followed—is an ever-evolving Rorschach test. Any chance we had at closure died with Oswald. The skepticism that greeted the Warren Commission report was compounded over a decade of turbulence, as America’s idealism was further tested by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., by the furors over Vietnam and Watergate, by the revelations that the CIA had behaved like a gang of extralegal thugs. By the seventies most Americans no longer trusted the government. Even today a slight majority still doesn’t buy that Oswald acted alone.
Read Next: Our Investigation of JFK Conspiracy Theories
The collective memory of the Kennedy assassination is one of anger and suspicion. Our prosthetic memory, fashioned from media depictions that keep November 22, 1963, playing on a constant, Kodachrome-vibrant loop, has only calcified that unease. This cynicism has, in turn, shaped how we see ourselves. The art the assassination inspired nurtured a culture of mistrust whose influence has grown only more mainstream. Today the details—who killed Kennedy and why—are almost beside the point. The story has a life of its own. And we can’t seem to stop telling it.
If we’ve spent much of the past sixty years viewing the Kennedy assassination through any particular window, it’s the one into Oliver Stone’s mind. In 1991 the postmodernist provocateur came to Dallas to make JFK, a film that is part political thriller, part nervous breakdown, and surely the most influential version of the story since the Warren Commission’s. JFK’s success—it raked in more than $200 million and eight Oscar nominations—rankled those who abhorred its frenetic blend of fact and fabrication. Yet its impact as a “countermyth,” to quote Stone, remains undeniable. As Roger Ebert, one of JFK’s many champions, wrote, “This is not a film about the facts of the assassination, but about the feelings.”
Those feelings had been percolating even before Kennedy assumed office, in the film noirs born of post–World War II disillusionment, and in Cold War thrillers such as 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. After Kennedy’s death, American cinema turned even more self-loathing. Vietnam-era movies, such as 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 1969’s The Wild Bunch, replaced white-hat cowboys with amoral antiheroes waging nihilistic violence. Watergate seeped into Chinatown and The Parallax View, both from 1974, and 1981’s Blow Out, films that teemed with systemic rot and shadowy cabals. Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) captured a country in spiritual crisis, both films culminating in assassinations carried out by golems conjured from our fractured national psyche.
Stone’s JFK drew upon all of these, adding a Capraesque righteousness that rallied baby boomers still in mourning. It also validated teenagers, like me, who suspected that everything was rigged—that, as Don DeLillo wrote in Libra, his 1988 assassination fantasia, “There is a world inside the world.” JFK made me a burgeoning assassination buff, a hobby I fed by devouring conspiracy books and the paranoid entertainment, like The X-Files, it inspired.
For a kid—or anyone—grappling with a world beyond their control, conspiracy theories can be soothing. James Pennebaker, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in the field of writing therapy, likens them to journal entries for trauma victims. “When we’re dealing with something that’s unresolved, our minds automatically try to resolve it,” he says.
Pennebaker is no fan of Stone’s film: “A shameful rewriting of history,” he says. “I’m appalled by that movie.” Still, he understands why JFK resonated with anyone who needed to assign meaning to chaos. “It constructed a conspiracy theory that was really digestible, that gets into this collective memory of ‘the government cannot be trusted,’ ” Pennebaker says.
More than scapegoats, JFK offered the seductive illusion that by uncovering the “truth,” we could right the wrongs of history. We’d suffered under this delusion since at least 1964, when Dallas’s self-proclaimed “schlockmeister” Larry Buchanan, director of Z-grade fare including Mars Needs Women, dreamed up The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. Since then, we’ve pinned Kennedy’s death on comic book supervillains, such as Red Skull and Magneto, or on The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man, or leaped through time to rescue him, in an episode of The Twilight Zone and in novels such as Stephen King’s 11/22/63.
These fictions reflect our surprisingly resilient grief, if not for Kennedy specifically then for some part of ourselves that believes we can still be the heroes. As the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday pointed out, Stone’s JFK arrived the same year as the World Wide Web, a convergence that would essentially gamify the assassination, giving newly minted conspiracy hobbyists such as me endless rabbit holes to tumble down.
The assassination was even adapted into video games—not just as a subplot in titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops but, in 2004’s JFK Reloaded, where, as a first-person shooter, you could try your hand at killing Kennedy. Carrie Andersen, who studied JFK assassination–related games while completing her PhD at UT–Austin, understands that most people’s reaction to something like JFK Reloaded would be “rightfully, dismay and disgust.” Nevertheless, she says, the mere act of challenging an official narrative—even through a video game—can give us a rare agency over history. “The morbidity of seeing the Kennedy assassination in a video game, I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon,” Andersen says. “But there is something powerful about being able to put yourself in a historical figure’s shoes.”
I’m on the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository again, only this time I’m physically here. Ten feet away lies the sniper’s perch, walled off behind plexiglass, stacked with replica cardboard boxes. (The real ones were hauled off by the FBI.) The window is a copy too, the original having been removed by one of the building’s previous owners. Running along the wall facing Elm Street are touch screens playing a CGI reimagining of Kennedy’s motorcade. The president’s face is reduced to a featureless, Lego-like blob.
I’ve paid a dozen visits to the Sixth Floor Museum, and each time I’m struck anew by how it feels less like a place where history happened and more like a movie set. Part of that, of course, is because everything from JFK and 2013’s Parkland to Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” video was filmed right outside. But some of its uncanniness is because the museum, too, is another representation. It relies on photos, re-creations, and (soon) virtual realities. One of its main attractions is a model of Dealey Plaza used by the Warren Commission, a replica of the very building you’re standing in. Even up close, Kennedy’s assassination seems distantly artificial, a simulacrum wrapped in plastic.
That clinical remove is by design. After all, a lot of people in Dallas didn’t want this museum. In 1988, a year before it opened, James Pennebaker coauthored a study that revealed how rates of murder, suicide, and heart disease had spiked among Dallasites in the year after the assassination. Local luminaries including Tom Landry and Mary Kay Ash called for the School Book Depository to be leveled. Arsonists tried, twice. Dallas’s collective memory was one of shame. Twenty-five years later, Pennebaker had found that 79 percent of Dallas natives still believed the world held them responsible.
The Sixth Floor Museum remains hypersensitive about reopening those wounds: “We’ve been criticized for being too careful,” Longford says. But while the museum remains tastefully above the fray, the street below tells a different story. More recently Dealey Plaza has been invaded by increasingly outlandish groups. Dozens of QAnon conspiracists gathered here in 2021 to await the resurrection of Kennedy’s also-long-dead son, John F. Kennedy Jr.—and maybe even President Kennedy himself—whom they believed would return to help Donald Trump take back the White House. Our deep state paranoia has become so quaintly old hat, apparently, that today’s conspiracy theorists are asking not who killed Kennedy but whether he was killed at all.
Dallas was able to purge its guilt over the Kennedy assassination. Oliver Stone absolved it, shifting the blame onto more vast and nebulous forces. What remains is a free-floating, ambient paranoia that colors everything—from 9/11 to COVID-19, from the January 6 insurrection to last month’s school board meeting. By the assassination’s seventieth anniversary, there will be even fewer who remember it—who know it beyond inherited feelings and experienced it other than virtually. But this fractured-mirror world it has created as its most lasting legacy will have become all too real. That story’s only just begun.
This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Endless Death of John F. Kennedy.” Subscribe today.