James Dean was an iconic actor of the 50s, becoming the poster boy for teenage rebellion thanks to his fast living and typecasting as tough-but-sensitive bad boys. At only 24, Dean was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after filming wrapped on the movie Giant, taking the life of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars before he even had a chance to rise. Despite being a fairly open and shut case, rumors and conspiracies still surround the actor’s untimely demise to this day.
James Dean was an icon of boomer youth culture
As recapped by Biography.com, Dean got his start doing commercials, minor TV work, and uncredited roles in movies, all leading up to his work on Broadway. From there, he starred in the John Steinbeck adaption, East of Eden, making him a sensation almost overnight. As a result of his popularity and skill at playing the rebellious Cal, Dean would be cast as Jim (his most famous role) in Rebel Without a Cause, following it up by playing against type as Jett in the aforementioned Giant, the latter two films both released after his death.
Dean’s raw, passionate performances spoke to many of the Baby Boomers who saw his work. In Rebel in particular, he and the other stars embodied a kind of restlessness and dissatisfaction with life that few other forms of media even acknowledged. As a result, Dean has lived on long after his death, remaining a major cultural touchstone for multiple generations.
People believe Dean somehow faked his death
HuffPost summarized one of the more popular Dean conspiracies, its supporters claiming that the car crash that sent his passenger (mechanic Rolf Wutherich) to the hospital would not have been able to kill him. Forensics experts that they are, they claim that the car wasn’t moving fast enough to break Dean’s neck, as the actual coroners that examined the body reported.
Supposedly, the actor did all of this to simply run off somewhere and live a normal life, apparently deciding that crashing his car midway to a race in Salinas he was planning to compete in would be the perfect cover. In truth, though, conspiracies like this are more likely a reaction to how sudden and tragic Dean’s passing was. Even in his short time acting, he’d become an icon to teenagers across the country, so the idea that he might have quietly disappeared to become another face in the crowd was a lot more comforting than confronting just how random and cruel life can be.
Dean’s car had its own conspiracies
Not only is Dean himself plagued with conspiracies around his death, even his car can’t escape this legacy. Motor Biscuit discusses the strange fate of Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder he drove that night, noting its connection to several confirmed and rumored incidents after its owner’s death.
Following the crash, Dean’s insurance company took possession of the Spyder, only to dump it in a Burbank salvage yard. There, it was bought by a doctor named William Eschrich, who wanted to refit the Spyder’s engine into his own racecar. Additionally, he took out the car’s transmission and gifted it to friend and fellow racer, Tom McHenry.
A year after Dean’s death, the two raced together in the Pomona Sports Car Races. Partway into the race, Eschrich’s car ran over some gravel that caused him to crash, severely injuring him. McHenry’s steering stopped working for unknown reasons, the car going out of control and fatally colliding with a tree. Both of these accidents were blamed on the salvaged parts from Dean’s Spyder.
Now dubbed a cursed vehicle, the Spyder was sold to George Barris, the famous Hollywood custom car designer who had modified the car originally. Though he intended to fix it up, he quickly found it to be beyond repair. Instead, he decided to loan the car out for presentations.
Things only got creepier from there. For the next few years, the car was rumored to be at the center of several major disasters. Unconfirmed reports of garages burning down around it, people being crushed by it while it was in transport, exhibits collapsing while it was being displayed, and more started to come in. To top it all off, the remains of the vehicle disappeared in 1960 while it was being moved from Miami to Los Angeles.
To this day, no one knows where the Spyder went. While the conspiracies around Dean’s death are pretty unbelievable, the ultimate fate of his car gives people a lot more to work with.