ted bundy: why are people stanning one of the 70s most notorious serial killers?
Ted Bundy has become the subject of both a Netflix documentary and a feature film, restarting a conversation on social media that has existed long before the internet -- the strange phenomenon of romantic or sexual fixation on celebrity killers.
Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Is it okay to have a crush on a serial killer and rapist? Even a long-dead one? Even if he’s being played in a movie by the admittedly very sexy Zac Efron?
Most of us would probably say no, but the internet seems to be divided on this subject at the moment, for better or worse. Ted Bundy, a notorious serial killer of the 1970s, has this year become the subject of both a Netflix documentary mini-series and a feature film. Director Joe Berlinger, who has always shown an interest in the true crime genre (his last doc was about Whitey Bulger), is helming both projects.
Last week saw the Sundance premiere of Berlinger’s film -- the inanely-titled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron as Bundy -- as well as the release of four-part Netflix documentary The Ted Bundy Tapes. Both of these have restarted a conversation on social media that has existed long before the internet -- the strange phenomenon of romantic or sexual fixation on celebrity killers. Women tweeted photos of the real Bundy calling him ‘hot’ and were quickly drowned out by a wave of condemnation. Some went so far as to claim that someone as popular as Zac Efron should never even have been cast as Bundy, fearing the implications of teen girls finding him attractive in such a role. This is nonsense, especially since the cult of love around figures like Bundy is nothing new: he received fanmail and love letters in prison while he was alive, and remains a figure of fascination in certain pockets of the internet.
Some on Twitter drew attention to the film’s trailer, which does appear to be uncomfortably enamoured with the charm of this conniving man. Post- The Wolf of Wall Street, a wave of watered down, stylised films about ‘unlikeable’ men have followed, most of them without an iota of the grace or wit or subtlety of Scorsese’s movie. We cannot say yet with confidence whether Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile will be the film to change that. But even Berlinger’s documentary takes less than ten minutes before it mentions Bundy’s handsomeness and affable nature. It’s a fair observation to make, though slightly less so after its mentioned for the umpteenth time in the 4 hour+ series.
Social media, like Tumblr, has allowed some of these ‘serial killer stans’ and Ted Bundy ‘fandoms’ to flourish in the relative anonymity of the internet. They’re discussing the relative merits of different serial rapists’ hair, drawing cutesy big-eyed comic strips of cannibal killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and photoshopping pictures of people like Bundy into their selfies, collaged with emoji hearts and crowns. Some put it down to a psychological inclination known as ‘hybristophilia’, or women who are aroused by men who have committed exceptionally violent acts like rape and murder. This reads mostly like an extreme extension of things most of us have come across -- attraction to men who are ‘bad’, women with a saviour complex, or an animal instinct that makes dominant, physically overpowering men attractive. All of these things are turned into a potent, dangerous addiction for the hybristophile. In truth, though, the majority of young women who stan Ted Bundy online probably do not fall into this category. For these teenage girls, serial killers are figures of total fantasy, in much the same way as someone might feel about a Seventeen Magazine pull-out of Justin Timberlake. Since these celebrity killers are usually dead, imprisoned, or otherwise, they’re at a safe distance. And they’re much edgier than your run-of-the-mill teen crush; other men must seem pretty boring if your ultimate daydream is a co-ed killer. And crucially, unlike a hybristophile, most of these girls would run a mile if ever faced with the genuine dangers of a man like Bundy.
Still, The Ted Bundy Tapes is undeniably compelling. It features a series of recorded 1980 conversations with Bundy in Florida State Prison, conducted by journalist and series co-producer Stephen Michaud. Over the course of four episodes, the series chronologically charts the frankly incredible story of Bundy’s development from mild-mannered law student to brutal sex murderer, as well as his apprehension, escape from prison, and the media circus around his eventual trial. The doc is constructed fairly typically for this type of fare, using Bundy’s voiceover combined with talking heads in the form of various law enforcement officers, psychologists, lawyers and others.
Berlinger and his team notably excise most involvement or input from survivors or victims’ families, making for a vacuum-sealed focus on Ted Bundy that is queasy, at best. The film doesn’t make excuses or shy from the crimes committed, but it also takes a tack that builds a narrative of Bundy as a damaged, troubled, manipulatively charismatic personality -- a familiar story, and one that takes the spotlight from victims and puts it onto the perpetrator in all the old-fashioned sensational ways that it claims to criticise. I’m left wondering if Berlinger wants me to feel something for this man, and even at my most empathetic, I don’t think it’s possible. There also comes the trouble of the way the talking-head figures are treated onscreen, as though they are nothing but straightforward and objective sources. Near the start of episode two, a female detective implies that the new freedoms of the second-wave feminist movement allowed for men like Ted Bundy to exist. Whatever she meant by the remark, the fact that it goes unchallenged and unexamined speaks volumes. As for the victims themselves, they get a short shrift -- the most we tend to learn about these young women, mostly in their early twenties, is that they were attractive, all looked similar and died horrifically. The only woman that The Ted Bundy Tapes allows a real backstory is Carol DaRonch who was 18 when she managed to escape one of Bundy’s attempted abductions. The many others who did not survive are simply floating black and white headshots.
For young women who are fans of true crime -- myself included -- this type of documentary presents a conundrum. As fascinating as the story is, it’s also four hours of non-fiction film about a man who snatched women from sunny parks on summer days or hotel elevators a hallway down from their husbands. We can find ourselves in these stories only in the lonely parking lot at night, or in a casual trip to the restroom, or even a college dormitory bed. We don’t identify with the troubled man and his paltry excuses about his love for violent porn. We identify with the sinking paranoia of these hunted women, the terrible vulnerability; a nightmare made real and brazen.
What leads a teen girl, not too far in age from Bundy’s victims (who were mostly between 18-22, with outliers on either side and the youngest girl only 12), to post on Tumblr or Instagram to say Bundy was ‘misunderstood’? Where is her sympathy or sense of identification with the dozens of young women who were brutally killed by these monstrous men? How much we can hold Berlinger and the Netflix series responsible for this kind of stomach-churning reaction is negligible. How much any of this is tied up in a film or a Netflix series has been the stuff of debates about art and morality since time immemorial. The Ted Bundy Tapes isn’t the sort of film that does much to alter the ‘fandom’ around figures like these, but neither is any work of art beholden to what responses it may breed.
It may not be unique to Ted Bundy or to Gen X or to the internet right now, but the whole concept of the serial killer ‘stan’ phenomena asks important questions. It asks us how our culture creates a space where young women feel more comfortable ‘stanning’ the male killer than feeling for the female victim. Or how the media creation of the superstar villain is still largely the the domain of men.
I don’t believe in policing representation in art, and I don’t believe that disturbing subject matter presented to an audience will spawn copycat killers or a horde of teen girls with a propensity for murderers. I do believe that in 2019, material which shuts out other points of view in order to deify a celebrity serial killer -- or which encourages its audience to think and feel about that killer’s life more than the stolen lives of his many victims -- seems tired and, ultimately, not very worthwhile.