Last year saw a sudden rise in true crime thrillers, and one can only speculate its reason. Some of these films or TV shows presented a truly terrifying picture of such psychopathic individuals. ‘The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker’, streaming on Netflix, is one such addition to this list, which showcases the problem with mental health issues going unchecked. Directed by Colette Camden, this new crime documentary film focuses not just on the mindscape of this particular individual but traces the aspect of fame in modern society and the way it shapes our understanding of ourselves. It also illustrates the horrifying impact of glorifying them or their actions.
The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker (2023) ‘Netflix’ Documentary Plot:
Who is Kai? Why was he considered to be a hero?
The story begins in Fresno, California, on the 1st of February 2013. On that day, a white man, who claimed himself to be Jesus, stomped on an innocent black man while saying all sorts of racist things. While a few female bystanders tried to stop him, he also ended up hurting them. A long-haired passerby with a bandana on his head and a huge backpack on his shoulders saw this incident from some distance. He came up to this man to hit his head repeatedly with a hatchet from his possession.
Soon after, a news anchor, Jessob Reisbeck, from a local television network, arrived at the scene. Since there was no news anchor to cover it, he decided to cover this bizarre incident despite being a sports anchor himself. He went to interview this unhoused man. The hitchhiker introduced himself as Kai and started rambling about what had happened at the time. Due to his effort, those bystanders were saved. So, he was heralded to be a hero at the time.
Later that night, Jessob decided to put up the video of Kai speaking on his YouTube channel. To his surprise, by the next morning, it became incredibly popular. People took a liking to Kai’s way of speaking and his incredibly relaxed attitude, which made him a viral sensation in no time. Be it Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, he gained worldwide popularity on social media. Several memes started being created, especially due to Kai’s hysterical manner of narrating how he killed the man with a hatchet. ‘Smash, smash, smash’ – one of the things that made this hatchet-wielding hitchhiker an overnight sensation.
The Nature of Fame
The sudden fame put Kai in the spotlight of pop culture and made him a desired star in the eyes of broadcast television. People started recognizing him wherever he went and made him feel like a celebrity. They loved how authentically he hated the rich white man without any pretense. Stephan Colbert also mentioned him in his comedy segment as a joke of being scared of hitchhikers, henceforth thinking they might have a hatchet as Kai had. The producer of Keeping Up with the Kardashians wanted to create a show with him. Jimmy Kimmel’s team wanted to get him on his show as a special guest.
On the internet, this type of sudden boost in popularity is fairly common. However, fame is a double-edged sword and can prove to be harmful to the person who receives it. While one day, your existence hardly matters to any other person, the next day, you become the talk of the town. That is bound to mess up your brain, and the same happened with this nomad. Not just him, but Jessob ( who was the only person Kai was ready to speak with from the media) got a rush due to his limited span of stardom. Even when you see him speak in the documentary, you notice how proud he is over something that is immaterial in the grand scheme of things.
To be honest, the humanist of looking at something isn’t heroic but a matter of common decency. Jessob paints a picture of Kai as the loveliest chap one could ever meet. He gushes about the message of love the nomad shared during their first meeting. However, he finds solace in making Kai a hero due to the number of opportunities it provides him, quickly and unexpectedly. On the other hand, The Kardashian show producer sees fame as a drug that she can sell to her viewers. She speaks without an iota of guilt about her desire to monetize Kai’s overnight stardom. Instead of the glossy lives seen in reality television, Kai represented an unhoused person that a large part of the population can resonate with. She sees it merely as an untapped market without thinking about the repercussions of her actions.
Childhood Traumas & Mental Health
While Kai keeps riding on the waves of popularity, he keeps sharing his unfiltered views and opinions. On the Jimmy Kimmel show, he veers into commenting on Christianity, which the host cleverly knew how to divert to a non-controversial side. In the subsequent interviews with Jessob, he started speaking about terrible, dark experiences he faced during his childhood, which surprised these listeners since they saw only the zen, hippy side of Kai and considered just that to be the person as a whole. They could not believe the accusations he made against his relatives of getting raped, closeted, among others.
While Jessob and his corresponding cameraman were uncertain about the truth in Kai’s comments, those remarks made them think about the initial interview on a closer level. Over there, he mentions another incident of hitting a person over a minor cause. Since, at the moment, Kai was only seen through the prism of heroism; nobody cared to trace it down to his quick temper issues. He was only seen as a hilariously unhinged guy, while no one cared about the ghastliness of the things he said. His dark side started becoming evident through the videos clicked by his fans with him. The inclusion of these clips by the director is highly commendable for how it organically showcases his deranged persona that went unnoticed due to their meme quotient.
Around that time, a local singer was asked if he would like Kai to join him in one of his concerts. He stumbled upon Kai’s video of singing while playing the guitar and saw potential in his musicality. He agreed only to notice the terrifying nature of this man by how casually and openly he noted his desire to commit a dangerous crime. Many of these comments trace back to Kai’s childhood. As confirmed by his cousin, he was locked inside his darkened room as a kid for long periods and was not allowed to socialize with his peers. On the other side, his mother, who claims it as her protectiveness for this disobedient kid, appears unhinged in her own defense. Much of Kai’s (original name: Caleb McGillvary) temperament issues seem to have stemmed from the trauma he faced at such a young age.
What changed people’s perception of this hatchet-wielding hitchhiker?
Around three months after he became popular, a New Jersey resident was found dead in his house in a pool of blood. The police investigators found a note in the house that mentioned Kai’s name. They googled it to end up on the viral video and then called the police department from California to trace his location. However, since he was a nomad, i.e., a person without any address, it became extremely difficult to understand his location.
There was a broadcast of him being accused of first-degree murder, which a Starbucks barista took note of and called the police. Somehow, they managed to get hold of him. By then, having cut a significant amount of his hair, he was not easily recognizable when compared to his photographs that went viral. Despite the arrest, Kai maintained his stance of being innocent by claiming to have acted in self-defense against this person from New Jersey, who he claimed to have tortured and raped him.
The investigators found no such physical evidence to ascertain it. They rather saw the inhumane way that man was murdered, which resulted in Kai facing years of police custody. While being mortified by the nature of his acts, you also start seeing how his fans made him want to pursue this violent side of himself to the extremes. Every single fan meeting involved the mention of Kai smashing someone’s head. For a person who has difficulty making heads and telling of the reality, it makes him see his violent side as poetically just. If that is not telling of the harmful celebrity culture on the internet, I am not sure what is.
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The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker (2023) ‘Netflix’ Trailer