Midwestern Gothic by Barrett Swanson, The Believer Magazine, Feb/Mar 2018

So, not a short story, but a creative nonfiction essay that is thoughtful, disturbing, and illuminating all at once.

The author, Swanson, was in college when he friend, who went to a different college, was found dead in a river. The official reports were of an accidental drowning, but Swanson couldn’t help but wonder if something else might have happened. While he suppressed the conspiracy theory for the well being of his friend’s family, and for his own sanity, years later the smiley face murders theory comes to his knowledge.

The theory, or conspiracy theory depending on who you ask, posits a killer or network of killers across the United States that targets athletic, popular, and prominently (though not exclusively) white male college students. The symbol of the smiley face was found near or at least some hundreds of yards from many of the bodies found over the years, which some say proves a link. Swanson, for some years, believed–or at least entertained the idea concerning his friend–whose death was one of the possible smile face murders, as a spray painted smiley face was found near a bridge not extraordinarily far from where Swanson’s friend was found.

Swanson uses his friend’s death, in this piece, as a launch pad for a variety of issues, not least of which is the over-consumption of alcohol on, or near, college campuses–but also the willingness of Midwesterners to believe in conspiracy theories whether they are political, social, extraterrestrial, etc. But Swanson reels himself back from what could have been a dive into unsubstantiated flat earth theories with some cold facts near the end of the piece.

“Roughly 3,800 people drown each year in the US, and seventeen-to-twenty-four-years-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 the men [as well as Swanson’s friend] thought to be murdered by the Smiley Face Killers were found on a Saturday or Sunday.”

This piece is perhaps less about conspiracy theories and more about the willingness of white males in the U.S. to believe they are the target of some nefarious plot. It’s a story and account I’m thankful to Barrett Swanson for sharing and teaches readers about the struggles our country is going through right now.


I apologize for my absence. I have been away at school and very busy. I will recommence my daily freewrites on January 19th.


“Even the people for gun control can’t say deserved it. Then all those people came out about how responsible she was with her guns. How responsible can you be when you have a loaded gun in your handbag and your two-year-old can get it to it?”

“Right, I’m not sure. Obviously pretty oblivious.”

“So we were talking about the overpopulation situation and to tell you the truth, and it’s not such a big issue. There are a lot of places in the world where the population is going down.”

“But it’s still a problem.”

“Well they think the population will level out around 2050 and will stabilize.”

“I’ll let you know about when I get there.”

“Oh, I doubt you’ll be able to.”

“Not unless the church is right.”

“Even if the church is right I don’t know if you’ll be able to.”

“I have girl problems.”

“What to do you mean?”

“I’m interested in two girls.”


“Yeah. And I think they’re both interested in me.”

“Uh oh. You have to choose.”

“I know.”

“Or you could not and just enjoy time with both of them.”

“What that means to me is that I should have sex with both of them.”

“No. What that means is you should have sex with neither of them.”

“That’s not fun.”

“It will be more fun in the long run.”

“You’re probably right.”

“Do we have any tea in here?”

“Not sure. Look in the cupboard.”

“Who’s mint is this?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m going to eat it. . . You know Mom called me the other day and told me the distillery won the best score of some competition in the united states, tied for best globally.”

“Well, those people are geniuses.”

“Right. They just have so much going on. They love me though. They’re so excited to see me each time I stop by.”

“Lucked out on the gene pool with that. Charming.”

“The other day I was texting that girl—”

“Which one?”

“It doesn’t matter. I was texting her and she said I was smooth like butter, so I asked if she was calling me fat.”

“That’s funny. The way you joke with people works because you point out the ways in which people misunderstanding each other and in doing so show you understand the situation.”

“Yeah. I guess. It’s just fun.”

“Just fun.”

“Yeah. Just fun.”