Even though I’m a native Kansan, my first glimpse of Emporia–a city I would call home for a dozen years–was on the big screen while on my exodus to California. I still remember sitting with a few hundred other Trojans in Norris Cinema Theatre during USC’s famous Cinema 190 class, watching In Cold Blood. We were supposed to be watching it for the brilliant cuts and montage scenes. But I was mesmerized by this new window into my home state.
I moved to Emporia in 2000, more than 40 years after Dick Hickock and Perry Smith brutally murdered four members of the Clutter family in their Holcomb home. The murder happened long before I was born. But the scene where Hickock and Smith drive through Emporia stayed with me because it was an important part of Hickock and Smith’s journey.
Emporia was where Hickock and Smith bought the rope they would use to tie up their victims before shooting them.
In a handful of real-time minutes and even fewer cinema minutes, Emporia became part of the history of the Clutter family.
It is a strange thing to see your home through the eyes of an outsider. Truman Capote‘s poetic descriptions of Kansas and its people would go on to influence how generations of Americans–and generations of Kansans–would perceive our state. But the movie is something different altogether. If you can take your eyes off the stars of the film, you begin to realize that the movie is a time capsule of 1960s Kansas: old buildings, old cars, and younger versions of today’s older people. Behind Robert Blake and Scott Wilson pretending to be murderers are real images of our real state.
When we reached the scene where KBI agent Alvin Dewey and other law enforcement officials lead Hickock and Smith into the Finney County Courthouse, there is some excitement coming from a few rows behind us. “That’s me!” a woman exclaims. “There on the lawn! I was fifteen and was standing on the lawn when they filmed this part! That’s me!”
And this is the real reason why Kansans are fascinated with this story. It’s not just about a famous murder. It’s a reflection of ourselves, our history, and our state. It’s about trying to understand us.