Last year, the FBI launched a recruiting campaign with a head-scratching trope taking center stage: the so-called crazy wall. You’ve seen it many times before—some sort of a criminal or terrorism investigation that uses a corkboard with photos, Post-its, maps, and other paraphernalia attached to it, tied together by red string held aloft by thumbtacks. If you stare at it long enough, you can solve the crime or stop the terrorists.
This “string theory” trope is now firmly established as part of our common understanding of plot—on television, in movies, in a Lego police station set, in video games, and, of course, the famous It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia meme that will likely outlast the cooling of our sun. At least one real-life serial killer in Australia fashioned a yarn-connected “spider wall” that connected pictures and Post-its of his victims together.
Despite its ubiquity, the trope feels terribly dated. If you’ll closely examine the FBI’s modern recruiting website, its wall has Polaroid photos attached to the corkboard—as if investigators wander around crime scenes with a technology whose parent company went bankrupt in 2001 (and has now been resurrected by social media influencers).
Certainly, it’s a “visually striking attribute usable for anything from ‘genius mind at work’ to ‘very complicated situation’ to ‘crazy obsessed person,’ ” as Anne Ganzert put it in her 2020 book, Serial Pinboarding in Contemporary Television. But no one can quite pinpoint when this trope emerged. The earliest version of it seems to have come from the 1979 BBC production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which had an understated series of red lines connecting photos to a calendar in one episode. It’s unclear how it might have taken off from there.
Here’s the bigger problem: Neither the FBI nor the CIA has used pinboards to solve investigations in a generation or more. I was a counterterrorism analyst at the CIA years ago, and I attest that I’ve never tacked yarn, crimson or otherwise, to a wall to figure out who was related to whom, ever. I never placed handwritten notes, photos, cellphones, or anything else onto a complicated wire diagram. Even if I might have wanted to, I was never allotted the wall space required for such an endeavor.
Neither did anyone I spoke with who had lengthy histories at the CIA. Larry Pfeiffer, who served as the chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, said, “I’m really not sure from whence that comes.” Gail Helt, who joined CIA in 2003, said, “I definitely never used the ‘yarn on a corkboard’ method.” When asked why not, she said, “Yarn on a corkboard is just unwieldy. Imagine if every analyst tracked their issues that way. You’d need to add extra office space just to accommodate it. Also, it’s kind of dumb—anyone could alter your work.” Contrast this with the pinboard Jessica Chastain’s analyst character uses to catch Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty—meant to be a true-to-life examination of the pursuit of al-Qaida’s chief. There is clearly a disconnect between how Hollywood views the intelligence world and what real intelligence officers actually do.
Alma Katsu, who spent decades as an analyst with the CIA and NSA, noted the agency used tools “that can handle millions of nodes and use very advanced physics models to help draw relationships that allow analysts to make nuanced assessments of the quality of relationships between those nodes.” When pressed about yarn tucked away in secret supply cabinets, she replied that she didn’t even have it “to decorate doors at Christmas.” Tracy Walder, a former CIA officer and FBI special agent, noted, “The only corkboard [at the FBI] was in the employee lunchroom, which contained Chinese takeout menus.”
This is not to say there isn’t significant link analysis—a way to visually connect relationships among people, places, and things using lines—performed on computers, but what we see on television and movies does not exist in real life. Companies like Palantir and i2 Analyst’s Notebook have made a killing over the last 15 years selling link chart technologies to the intelligence community (even if, in the case of the former, the relationship has cooled).
But does the “crazy wall” phenomenon have some connection to the real world of police and intelligence investigations? For the most part, no. “The NSC does use a board and yarn, but spends too much time meeting about what color yarn to use for it to ever work,” joked former National Security Council official Perry Blatstein. Still, retired FBI special agent David Gomez suggested there was something like the string theory phenomenon in the FBI to better visualize evidence prior to the normalized use of computers. He said that in early 1987, when he helped investigate the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire—an arson case in Puerto Rico that claimed almost 100 lives—he and his colleagues “had the case up on butcher paper on the wall” until the unit dedicated to computer link analysis flew in from Washington.
More to the point, this trope might have been an outgrowth of real-life Mafia investigations—and the eventual need to explain it to a wider public. As the FBI generated information on the Commission during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, it helped to have link charts and diagrams showing which mob boss was connected to whom.
Perhaps the place where it was lodged in the public’s imagination was in February 1985, when a puckish U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani announced the indictments of the heads of New York City’s Five Families while standing in front of a large link chart. In another photo from that era, the mob bosses and their photos were attached to a large chart showing the hierarchy of bosses, underbosses, and soldiers. Mug shots and thumbtacks. The board appears made of cork, of course. Giuliani didn’t use red yarn, however.
Nowadays, some might chalk up the explosion of this trope to prestige television and cinema trying to advance a complicated plotline. This is why journalist Richard Benson in 2015 called our age the “Post-it Procedural.” For example, the Baltimore detectives in The Wire, now almost 20 years old, tried to crack a complicated drug ring using a board to pin up all the photos, press clippings, and index cards with information on the suspects. The board—and the data flowing in from the detectives—became the focal point of the investigation and the show, helping the audience to know who and what was important. If it was on the big board, it mattered. As Phil Gyford, who runs a Tumblr named Crazy Walls dedicated to curating this trope, suggested: “For a police investigation, it makes visible all the suspects, evidence, and locations in a way that looks better than people standing in an empty room talking or looking at a computer screen. It’s a handy visual shorthand.”
Indeed, Donna Cline, a longtime film illustrator and technical adviser on television productions like Bones, The X-Files, NCIS, and CSI, noted that there’s an inherent tension between telling an engrossing story and adhering to an accurate portrayal of the methods used. “Screen time is everything,” Cline said. “It’s a prop that’s extremely useful to get a concept across very quickly.”
Furthermore, there are the oppositional forces at work between the depth of the story the writers want to tell and the more practical issues of budget and time on the set. “Basically, with one pop like that,” Cline noted, “you can tell the audience, ‘Look at all the factors they have been examining.’ You can’t do that with a file or with a screen.” In any case, she reiterates that perhaps audiences shouldn’t take things on screen, even those that appear to strive for accuracy, too seriously. She notes that directors and artists manipulate reality on-screen constantly from color to lighting. “It isn’t arbitrary,” she says. “It looks different from reality—because it is.”
Ultimately, the FBI’s current recruiting efforts notwithstanding, yarn on a corkboard is not used in the real-life world of stopping terrorists and breaking up criminal enterprises. As Gail Helt noted, “it’s intelligence, not arts and crafts.”