(Not So) Real MonstersWhy Do We Still Care about Ted Bundy?

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (Photo credit: Brian Douglas/Netflix)

Ted Bundy captivated America in the ’70s when he killed more than 30 women in a cross-country spree that ended with a nationally televised trial. Thirty years after Bundy died in a Florida electric chair, his ghoulish crimes continue to inspire books, movies, and TV shows, including Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, Netflix’s part-glam, part-gritty biopic based on his former girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer’s 1981 memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy. Extremely Wicked chronicles Bundy and Kloepfer’s relationship—from meeting at a Seattle bar in 1969 through his 1989 execution— juxtaposed against Bundy kidnapping women, killing them, and dumping their bodies in woods throughout Washington State and Utah. Kloepfer doubted Bundy’s innocence even as she communicated with him throughout his first trial, his escape, and his second trial.

In 1974, she called a tip line because he so closely resembled a police sketch circulated on the local news. Still, Kloepfer struggled to believe that her charming boyfriend was capable of such brutality. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile follows Confessions with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a Netflix docuseries featuring never-before-heard interviews, news footage from before and after Bundy’s capture, and original footage from his second trial. The docuseries and the movie were both billed as opportunities to glean insight into the mindset of a brutal and notorious man, but what is there to learn from a serial killer who, like almost all notorious serial killers, is white, male, and wholly mediocre?

While we glorify the Bundy’s of history as dark geniuses with a unique capability to shut off their humanity, there is nothing new about men who stare too long and make our hair stand on end or boys who get rough with women after a few too many beers. Bundy is one of many—not an anomaly. Yet, Confessions with a Killer and the Zac Efron-led film lean into the disbelief that someone like Bundy could commit heinous crimes against unsuspecting women in small, presumably safe cities where residents leave their doors unlocked and children can play outside without supervision. The Bundy Tapes’ trailer opens with a voiceover: “He didn’t look like anybody’s notion of somebody who would tear apart young girls.

It’s a naïve disbelief that I know all too well after growing up in an upper middle-class suburban town similar to the ones Bundy terrorized. Local news broadcasts often feature suburban residents expressing disbelief about another tragedy happening in a community where everyone knows and trusts their neighbors. But an insular sense of safety invokes racist and bigoted notions about crime and violence, revealing our assumptions about who is good, who is bad, who is capable of violence, and who is most likely to suffer at the hands of it.

The Bundy Tapes and Extremely Wicked both offer intimate looks look into the life and mind of someone who wanted exactly the kind of infamy that’s being bestowed upon him. Sensationalizing his crimes and humanizing him simultaneously belittles his victims, their families, and those who survived their violent encounters with him. Taking a step back though, these pop culture manifestations of a life violently lived are an effective study in why our systems are still so broken. Bundy’s trial unfolds in both the docuseries and the biopic: When Judge Edward D. Cowart (John Malcovich in the movie) sentences Bundy to die in the electric chair, he speaks sympathetically about Bundy squandering his ability to be a great lawyer and he also wishes the serial killer well. Some of Bundy’s friends are still struggling to understand how he could have done it.

But there’s still an arresting catharsis to all of this: Women are still the biggest consumers of horror and true crime. As Sady Doyle points out in her most recent book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power, these genres seek to affirm women by justifying our our anxieties and confirming our worst fears. Doyle’s assessment rings true for me as an avid consumer of true crime: Bundy’s charisma and self-assuredness reminds me of many men I’ve known. The ease with which he slipped back and forth between longing for his girlfriend’s companionship and seeing other women as subhuman also felt familiar. The way his friends talked about him in the Bundy Tapes–“he was the guy you’d want to marry your sister”–reminded me of the ways in which we still talk about the inherent innocent of white male predators.

Critics of the latest wave of Bundy-mania—and of serial-killer lust at-large—are pushing people to examine America’s fascination with serial killers.

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Yet, there’s something unsettling about the persistent shock factor in Bundy’s story because among his peers—Dennis Rader, Edmund, Ed Gein, and Jeffrey Dahmer—he blends in perfectly. All of these men were violent, unexceptional men mad at their mothers, at women, at the world. These are the killers with the most name recognition, the most movies, the most TV shows, so why are we still shocked when men who look like Bundy commit brutal murders? Why do we become obsessed when brutal things happen to suburban white girls? You know the names and crimes committed against JonBenét Ramsey and Sharon Tate, but what about Angel Lenair, Anthony Carter, and Earl Terrell? These boys were among the nearly 30 Black children and young people murdered in a brutal spate of killings that left Atlanta paralyzed with fear from 1979 to 1981.

The second season of Mindhunter centers on the true story of the Atlanta Child murders, which  is one of racism, apathy, and senseless loss. While the country watched rapt with fear as Bundy killed young white women from suburban communities, over two dozen mostly Black boys were brutally murdered. It wasn’t until the seventh child went missing that the FBI became involved, and while agents arrested Wayne Williams for the murders, there are still questions about who killed them. The case of the Grim Sleeper tells a similar tale; he evaded an apathetic Los Angeles Police Department for decades because his victims with Black women who were often addicted to drugs.

Critics of the latest wave of Bundy-mania—and of serial-killer lust at-large—are pushing people to examine America’s fascination with serial killers, their mostly white victim pool, and the glossy veneer that Bundy received while people of color continue being mistreated within the criminal-justice system and victims of color are overlooked. This is perhaps why the second season of Mindhunter seemed so singularly refreshing and enraging all at once. Each episode was a reminder of how inexcusably law enforcement acted and how still today, such a heinous serial killer doesn’t register in our public consciousness the way his white counterparts do.

The same apathy that allowed the killing to go on—that allowed Williams to go undetected—has relegated this haunting crime spree to relative obscurity, even further perpetuating the tragedy of them by diminishing its significance. This also speaks to a deep-rooted problem with consumers of true crime; the market responds to demand, so what does it say if the demand is only for murderers who look like Bundy? Our ongoing efforts to understand Bundy’s rationale have buried the lede: Bundy’s infamy lives at a dichotomy of unfathomable cruelty and utter commonality. Perhaps we will succeed in understanding Bundy when we stop being surprised that men like him can be extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile.

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by Caroline Reilly
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Caroline Reilly is a student at Boston College Law School and a reproductive justice advocate. She has also written for Bust and Frontline (PBS). You can follower her on Twitter @ms_creilly, where she tweets about abortion rights, social justice, and being a feminist killjoy.