The JFK Image So Awful I Had To Cover My Screen: Two Weeks With the Zapruder Film

What it's like to watch a president assassinated over and over and over

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Bettmann / CORBIS

President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie and Texas Governor John Connally ride in a motorcade from the Dallas airport into the city shortly before JFK's assassination, Nov. 22, 1963.

Frame 313.

That’s the most famous of the 486 frames in Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second film of JFK’s assassination. The frame where the President’s head explodes in a fountain of red gore.

I saw it for the first time this month when I began editing a video about how LIFE magazine acquired the footage the day after the shooting. When the image hit the screen, my entire body shuddered in a visceral “No.” My hands shot up to cover it. I had no idea it was going to be so brutal—or that in making this video, I’d have to watch that moment over and over.

When LIFE magazine first published the film as a series of black-and-white still images, editors left out Frame 313 out of respect for the grieving Kennedy family. Most Americans didn’t see the actual film until ABC aired the full footage more than a decade later, in 1975. To me, it seems old-fashioned that the public was prevented (or some might say protected) from seeing the film, in the way parents try to shield their children from scary things. But after experiencing the shock myself—even 50 years later—I better understand that decision. This was the President, whose death drew howls of despair from every corner of the country. To see it was just too much.

Fifty years later, there are plenty of people who have watched the Zapruder film countless times: federal investigators, conspiracy theorists, fans of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” anyone with access to YouTube. Nowadays you can see any number of horrific, real executions and assassinations on video. And it invites the question: How, in a culture so accustomed to (and entertained by) violent imagery, does this particular video still have the power to shock us? Is it because it was real? Because he was ours, and taken from us before our eyes?

Richard B. Stolley, the LIFE editor who procured the film, recently told TIME, “I’ve seen that film now perhaps a 100 times in my life. The impact, remarkably, has never diminished.”

Having seen it nearly 100 times in the past two weeks, I can only agree.

I’m not one for violence on screen, real or not. I wince and hide my eyes whenever someone raises a gun on TV or in a film. But no matter what horror or historic heft a film holds, the act of editing is clinical. You suppress your feelings as you wield your dissection tools. In my dark office, I flipped the film back and forth. One frame clean, the next a mess. Tap the left arrow, and his head is whole. The right; it is shattered. I figured out how to work with it. Whenever I encountered that one frame, I’d hold up my palm to cover the play window.

I wasn’t alive when JFK was alive. I didn’t know or love him the way so many Americans did. But after repeatedly watching the footage of him being shot, I realized I wasn’t just reacting to frame 313. What really burrowed into me was the haunting image of his wife crawling across the back of the car for help. And what I felt turned from shock and revulsion to plain old grief; that consuming, inescapable ache of wanting to reverse what has happened, but knowing that you can’t.

Click here for an extended look at the film and how Richard Stolley acquired the rights for LIFE.