Leaving us in a Bad Place: The Philosophy of The Great Zapruder Film Hoax

Joe Durnavich
"I then try to find something in there that provides a clean proof, violating the laws of physics, with as few uncertainties, as few undetermined variables, as possible. Most of the time, something doesn't tie down tightly enough - there is enough uncertainty that a devil's advocate (or more to the point, a disinformation agent) could "weasel out" of an airtight conclusion, based on a scientific possibility (even if it's not at all a likely probability). But once in a while all of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slide together without even a molecule of weasel room, and then I bring the jaws of the bear trap together and that's it - hasta la vista, Baby - you're out - and that's the end of the game, my friend, the end of the lie. It happens as quickly as that."
-- John Costella (155-156)

...In this fashion, Dr. John Costella promises to shine the light of science on a forty-year old homicide in his contribution to the Fetzer-edited book, The Great Zapruder Film Hoax.

The study of the John F. Kennedy assassination is primarily a historical investigation. We want to know the sequence of events that transpired that November day in Dallas, their causes, and their subsequent impact on our lives. Unlike the scientist, the historian does not spend time in the laboratory conducting experiments and deriving general principles from them. The historian strives to uncover evidence from a fading body of documents, photographs, testimonies, etc. and then develops an account that bests fits that available evidence.

Unlike the mathematician, the historian does not prove conclusions with analytic certainty. We do not expect from him conclusions deduced from axioms. Rather, in writing the story, the historian links the evidence together, relating the pieces of information to each other where possible, filling in the blanks where not.

The historian might fill in a blank with the wrong information, of course. That is an ever-present risk anytime you go beyond the evidence. But that is just a risk. A possibility. That fact by itself does not disqualify the historian's account. If we dismissed histories merely because there is no path for the historian to follow to gain absolute certainty about an event, there would be no history. Because the historian works in the way he does, we can get a glimpse into life in 4th century BC Athens and can appreciate that culture's contributions to ours.

Not a Good Place to Be

The historian writing the history of the Kennedy assassination starts with very little known about the event under study. He stands in a field wide open with possibilities. There may be an initial time, for example, where all he knows is that Kennedy was shot, but not the number of shots fired. Any number is possible...from a single pistol pop of a pistol to a barrage of automatic gunfire...because no information is available that allows him to move from the general to the specific.

This is not a good place to be. The historian must narrow the field of possibilities. The more possibilities he eliminates, the more likely the developing story describes the events as they actually happened.

Going Backwards

Because the Kennedy assassination was a murder, historical inquiry into it relies heavily on forensic investigation. The scientific disciplines of medicine, ballistics, analytical chemistry, photographic analysis, etc. help the historian write the story. John Costella describes his role as a scientist aiding the investigation of the Kennedy assassination as:

I see my job as putting before them [those who disagree with Jack White] the individual gems - perfect, flawless, self-contained proofs of fabrication - as objects truly worthy of such energetic efforts. (156)

According to Costella, the scientist aids the investigation by hunting through the films and photos of the assassination looking for inconsistencies critics can't explain.

Notice that the purpose of "such energetic efforts" is not to teach something new, to fill in a little more of the story, but to "prove" the Zapruder film a fabrication. The Zapruder film has long been a staple of the body of evidence available to the investigator. Perhaps no other single item of evidence reveals more about the assassination than the Zapruder film does. It contributes significantly to any historian's story. Costella, Fetzer, and others work to deny the film its status as genuine evidence so that it cannot contribute to any story of the assassination. We don't come away from the book knowing more about the assassination, we come away knowing less.

They might say in reply that they are sweeping the field of evidence clean of misleading evidence so that the real story can emerge. Not so. The following quote from Costella regarding a panel discussion at a symposium on Zapruder film authenticity reveals the end product of refuting the film's authenticity:

Again, what was most heartening about this suggestion was the realization that researchers were now considering what scenarios were possible given that the Zapruder film tells us absolutely nothing about the truth. We had stepped out behind the shadow of what was surely the greatest photographic hoax of all time. (163)

They want to open up the field of possibilities. David Healy suggested a specific alteration scenario, drawing the following editorial comment from Jim Fetzer:

[Editors Note: Which scenario for creating the fake was employed does not matter as much as that several alternatives were available.] (118)

Failing to pursue a single, most likely forgery scenario in favor of multiple alternatives is antithetical to the goal of true historical research which attempts to narrow, not widen, possibilities. The Zapruder film casts a shadow for them because it narrows possibilities. It eliminates from consideration a whole suite of scenarios. With the film dismissed, they are free to speculate about any number of both alteration and conspiracy scenarios.

For the historian, ending the investigation with less knowledge and more possible stories is not a good place to be. That is where historical investigations start--not where they end.

The Alterationist Proof of Forgery

(The term alterationist is used here to refer to those who persistently claim alteration of some or all of a body of photographic evidence and whose proofs consist almost exclusively of the noting of anomalies.)

Lenses tend to distort images causing straight lines out near the corners to appear slightly curved. The edge of the Stemmons Freeway sign in Zapruder frame 228 is just such a straight line. John Costella examined the sign in this frame and decided it looked too straight to him. He didn't see the curved edge he expected to see. He was faced with an anomaly. Based on the anomaly, he declared the Zapruder film a forgery. "No evidence of the fraudulence of the 'Zapruder' film is more unequivocal than this," he remarks.

This argument form is standard for the alterationist and it permeates the work of Costella, Fetzer, and company. By itself, it appears persuasive. Indeed, if we looked through forensic photographic case histories, we might very well find cases where the analyst judges a photograph a forgery and one of the anomalies noted is that an element of the photograph did not exhibit the expected distortion. A bit of logical conjuring is going on with the alterationist's argument, however. The alterationist cons us into thinking that all possible alternate explanations have been considered and by process of elimination, forgery remains the only viable explanation and logically, must stand by default. Costella insists that the anomalies he finds violates the laws of physics, exempting himself from having to consider competing explanations.

There may be other explanations for the anomaly, however. In Costella's case, he merely assumed what the sign distortion should look like. The distortion was, in fact, exactly as it should have been. He did not model it or educate himself enough on the issue to have more reasonable expectations. For his argument to work, Costella would have to identify and rule out all possible alternate explanations, leaving forgery as the only possible remaining explanation. That is a fiendishly difficult task and it is no wonder neither Costella nor the others attempt it.

When an alterationist like Costella tells us about an apparent inconsistency with the shape of the Stemmons sign, he is saying to us, "I don't understand how this can be." Photo analysis is complex enough that there may always be features in a photograph we cannot explain. The alterationist, though, takes another step and concludes the film is a fabrication. As we have seen, that does not follow. When we do not understand something, the field of possible explanations is wide open--not a good place to be. We are at the beginning of an investigation, not at the end. We are at the farthest remove from a position where conclusions can be drawn. Over and over again, Costella, Fetzer, and White confuse the beginning of investigation with its end.

A Better Way to Prove Forgery

The art historian who judges a piece of art a forgery likely will not base the judgement on mere puzzlement over an anomaly. Like other historians, the art historian, assisted by scientists, will try to find the story that best fits the evidence on hand. He understands the marketplace, he knows the art that is in demand, and he knows how forgers produce forgeries. The story that develops may go something like this (based on the May-June, 2003 American Scientist article, The Ancient Ceramics of West Mexico):

Ancient Mexican ceramics are in great demand. This ceramic figurine first appeared not in its original context at an archeological dig, but in a private collection. It has black spots on it, which are often seen on genuine artifacts. Forensic entomologists recently learned that these spots are dendrite-shaped patches of manganese deposited by bacteria. Unaware of this discovery, forgers would simply paint black spots on the fabricated piece. The dark spots on this piece are more like dabs of black paint. They have a round shape rather than a dendritic one, and they scratch off easily. Forgers are also unaware that insect remains are often embedded in the surface of these ceramics. This piece lacks such remains. The story of this piece, then, is the story of a fabrication. To make easy money defrauding unsuspecting art collectors, a forger molded and painted this piece in the style of ancient West Mexican art, dabbing on black paint to give the same stained appearance of genuine artifacts. Typical of these forgeries, the forger failed to duplicate the insect remains. Then the piece was sold to a private collector where it traded through the market until it was donated to the museum where it rests today.

To prove a piece a forgery, the art historian and forensic specialist identify the specific way forgers work and the specific indications of that work in the forged artifact. They acquire knowledge at the beginning and they produce new knowledge via their analysis at the end.

Costella and other alterationists mimic aspects of that process, but in the end they just plant seeds of doubt in our minds in hopes of getting us to dismiss the Zapruder film. In the above example, an art expert could explain the presence of the non-dendritic black spots as a consequence of the forgery process. But Costella, Fetzer, White, and Lifton cannot connect any of the anomalies they point to with a specific process of forgery. That is the difference between the two. They pretend that mere doubt or questioning is knowledge. Doubt may set us on the path to knowledge, but by itself it doesn't take us very far down that path.


Specialists routinely judge art, archeological artifacts, antiques, collectibles, and legal evidence as authentic. People act on these judgments and in the long run, the process works out quite well. We may be tempted to think that to demonstrate the authenticity of the Zapruder film, the historian must somehow travel back in time to November 22, 1963, stand on Elm Street, and witness the assassination firsthand. Only then, might we conclude, can he compare the film to the actual event and establish correspondence. That is an impossibility, though, so we would gain nothing by holding the historian to such a standard. Furthermore, giving accounts of events witnessed firsthand is the function of the reporter. The historian's specialty is giving accounts of events that he may be widely separated from in both space and time.

Being a specialist in the philosophy of science, we might expect Jim Fetzer to explain why judgments of authenticity do often work, and how techniques for establishing authenticity might be improved. Fetzer shows little interest in that, though, and instead goes overboard trying to undermine the whole endeavor holding the historian to a worthless standard:

A point of logic, proving that the film is authentic poses far more daunting challenges than proving that it is not. A single frame in which a specific event is not portrayed as it occurred in Dealey Plaza would be sufficient to impugn the film's integrity. Showing that it is authentic, by comparison, would require proof that, in each of the 486 frames, every feature of every frame portrays events in Dealey Plaza exactly as they occurred! But how could anyone possibly know exactly how every event actually occurred in Dealey Plaza? The very idea boggles the mind. It can't be proven and it can't be shown.

For Thompson's claim to make sense, even remotely, it would have to be possible--not just logically or physically, but historically possible--to possess independent knowledge of every event that transpired in Dealey Plaza to compare that knowledge with events as portrayed in the film. (xvi)

Fetzer has set the standard so high, even he can't attain it to prove forgery. To prove forgery in the manner Fetzer dictates, one must find one or more frames "in which a specific event is not portrayed as it occurred in Dealey Plaza." But how can one know how any event occurred in Dealey Plaza? The only way is through films, photographs, documents, witness statements, etc. But how can one know that any of these are authentic themselves and accurately represent what occurred in Dealey Plaza? By Fetzer's own standard, it is impossible to authenticate them. Thus, he has left himself no way to prove forgery. We would be unable to judge the film either authentic or fake with his standard. It is worthless, then, to the historian operating in the practical world and we can rightfully dismiss it.

It requires equally painstaking work to establish either forgery or authentication. There is no shortcut to forgery as Fetzer insists and as is practiced in his book.

We have seen some methods the historian and the scientist use to establish forgery. Their approach to the issue of authenticity is generally similar. If the documented history of the film suggests that it has a history consistent with that of authentic films, and if it exhibits technical characteristics of authentic films but none of fabricated films, and if it is consistent with other photographic evidence, then the historian justifiably concludes the film is authentic and proceeds with the inquiry. That the historian cannot witness the filmed event firsthand to match the film to the event is not a fatal limitation in the process of authentication. Historical research can be quite successful. In fact, we students of the assassination probably know more about the sequence of events that transpired that day than any single witness--all accomplished through credible historical research.

Sometimes art pieces that were initially judged authentic later are found to be forgeries. History has its share of fake diaries and documents. Sometimes the historian is wrong. The possibility of being wrong by itself, however, is not in any way evidence that one is wrong. Fetzer makes this mistake in the following citation:

Thompson's first line of defense is that the chronology of the possession of the original would not have allowed it [the original film being in the hands of the government to be forged], which he summarizes with the observation that, "At no time during this hectic weekend did the original of the film ever leave the custody and control of Abraham Zapruder and Life magazine." The Healy conjecture that the first negative, 0184, may have been flown to Rochester, turned into a positive, and then taken to NPIC, however, renders that argument unsound. (xvii)

In other words, Fetzer tries to use mere imagination, in this case Healy's conjecture on the film, as having real evidentiary weight that can disqualify Thompson's Zapruder film timeline. That you can imagine something is true, that you can fancy it being the case, is not evidence for it being true or even evidence for it possibly being true.

The true historian would look for evidence to confirm or disconfirm Healy’s conjecture. He would find that the number 0184 was never applied to a film at Kodak’s plant on November 22nd. He would find that the copies of Zapruder’s film were given numbers starting with 0185 because the perforation device was tested after stamping the original and automatically clicked over to the next number. He would also find that only three rolls of Kodachrome IIa in 8 mm film-stock were available at the Kodak plant and none were available at Jamieson Films. Hence, there was no other film-stock available to be perforated 0184.

One cannot know with absolute certainty that Healy’s conjecture is wrong. However, one can show that it is profoundly unlikely. Similarly, the historian can never prove authenticity in the sense that a mathematician proves a theorem. The historian treats authenticity like any other aspect of historical investigation: He finds the story that best fits the evidence on hand.

The Zapruder film has a well-documented provenance. The quality is excellent with low grain, good color balance, and good dynamic range. It is consistent with other films and photos. Even John Costella remarks on its many internal consistencies. All indications are it is Kodachrome camera original film. Finishing a forgery on such a stock would be made difficult by the lack of suitable intermediate stocks that would form a tone reproduction cycle that results in such good color and contrast. The possibility of forgery still remains, but the story that best fits this evidence on hand is that Abraham Zapruder brought his movie camera to Dealey Plaza, filmed over 26 seconds of the motorcade, and happened to capture the assassination of the President. That afternoon, he had the film developed at Kodak and had three copies struck at the Jamieson Company. That original film and its copies are what sit in protected storage today.


The historian and the scientist first understand, then conclude. The contributors to The Great Zapruder Film Hoax, don't understand, yet conclude. Fetzer doesn't understand two Greer head turns in the film. Costella doesn't understand why the signs in a pair of Zapruder frames don't appear the same after he digitally processes them. White doesn't understand why Toni Foster appears 6'5" tall. Lifton doesn't understand why Roland Zavada's intersprocket images don't extend full flush left. Mantik doesn't understand "numerous irregularities and paradoxes" in the Zapruder and Muchmore films. One guy doesn't understand this, the other guy doesn't understand that. People who parade their lack of understanding, puzzlement, and bewilderment over the film, who are at a loss to explain what they see, and who repeatedly challenge others to explain it to them are not the kinds of people we should take advice from on the status of the Zapruder film.

The present volume offers nothing but doubt, suspicion, innuendo, speculation, and suggestive fantasies of sinister agents lurking in the shadows, fabricating films, altering bodies, and draining the batteries of electric shavers. The imaginative mind can spawn an uncountable number of scenarios from that, no doubt, all leading to a complete fabrication of the Zapruder film by a large government conspiracy in a remarkably short amount of time. For those of us interested in the history of the Kennedy assassination, however, being lead to such a field wide-open with possibilities, where any number of scenarios are possible, is not a good place to be.

See Also

For an example of a real history of the Zapruder film, and for an example of the type of narrative Fetzer should have aspired to produce, see Josiah Thompson's Proof that the Zapruder Film is Authentic.

The alterationist argument form plagues more than just the Kennedy assassination. It is also a mainstay of moon hoax theories, 9/11 conspiracy theories, etc. The arguments are a form of indirect proof, often summarized in the Sherlock Holmes maxim: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." For a treatment of the proper application of this logic, see Jay Windley's The Holmesian Maxim.