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Ted Bundy glamorized by Hollywood portrayals on TV, film

by Philip Martin | February 3, 2019 at 2:07 a.m.
Ted Bundy was convicted of multiple murders and executed in 1989. He is the subject of two programs: "Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes" on Netflix and the film "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," which stars Zac Efron.

There is no doubt that Cain had motive.

The Lord favored his big brother Abel, the offering he made of the prime cuts of his slaughtered flock, but had no respect for the produce Cain gathered from his fields. And then the Lord rebuked Cain, telling him not to sulk but to do better.

Cain brooded. God always liked Abel better. He was always in his big brother's shadow. (Abel, Abel, Abel.)

God played favorites, Cain insisted. He was arbitrary. Why else would he favor Abel's offering and not his own? He was a tiller of the land, not a herder of sheep. He gave what he had.

But Abel countered that the Lord wasn't playing favorites and God liked his offering because it was a good offering. The fact that God didn't accept Cain's was indicative of a certain wickedness. So maybe he should just strive to do better.

This further peeved Cain.

In some versions of the story it gets complicated because each of the brothers had a twin sister that they were to marry in order to propagate the human race. But Cain preferred Abel's twin to his twin, a situation into which we might read a little self-loathing. So he thought long and hard about how to rid himself of Abel.

Cain had opportunity.

One day Abel's sheep got out and trampled Cain's crops. That didn't help matters, but things escalated when Abel told him that if Cain would pay him for the meat he had eaten and the clothes he was wearing he'd just give up herding sheep and fly up into the air, if he but couldst.

Seeing how there was no one around who would demand his blood were he to kill Abel, Cain started looking around for the third element necessary to convict him of the first murder, which was capability, which he discovered in the form of a substantial rock.

We kill each other for all sorts of stupid reasons.

Sometimes we understand how we might profit from murder, but more often we kill in insensible rages. Most murders are pathetic and messy, like Cain caving in Abel's head with a stone while forgetting all about the Big Eye Witness in the Sky.

So maybe we can be forgiven our fascination with serial killers who seem to carry on their work with efficient precision and elude capture and punishment for years -- if not forever. Even as we understand they are evil, we remain deeply interested in the hows and whys of their crimes. We sometimes see them as dark lords possessed of charisma and discipline. We make movies about them, we turn them into folk monsters.

Charles Manson was a shifty madman who preyed on weak-minded kids needing someone to tell them what to do. Henry Lee Lucas was the broken product of a dysfunctional childhood who had the good fortune of picking victims no one cared about. Ted Bundy was a decent looking dude who had bad wiring and incredible luck.

None of them were superheroes. They were just moral imbeciles who, for myriad reasons, kept stumbling on opportunity and capability.

What they have in common is a pre-installed motive.


Bundy was executed on Jan. 24, 1989.

It took place in the Florida State Prison in the unincorporated rural northern part of the state, with the closest town bearing the poetic name Starke. The guards had to haul him to the electric chair.

"He was weak-kneed, if not wobbly," a witness to the execution told People magazine. "He looked old, tired and gaunt. I was expecting a yuppie. But he looked wild-eyed."

He bargained for his life to the end -- for years he maintained his innocence while asserting various technical challenges to his conviction, such as the competence of his trial attorney. Then he confessed to more than 20 homicides, and hinted there were many more he could help clear if they'd only keep him alive. At the last minute he confessed to two murders in Idaho in which he had not been a suspect. The state didn't go for that.

After a night of alternately weeping and praying, Theodore Robert Bundy, law school dropout, would-be governor of the state of Washington and necrophile, was executed in the electric chair. There are people who believe he may have murdered 100 people. When he was 14 years old, an 8-year-old girl who took piano lessons from his uncle disappeared. He always denied having anything to do with that.

You could probably spend as much time reading books and watching movies and thinking thoughts about Bundy as you could exploring metaphysics. Someone has probably taught a college class on Bundy. (There are a lot of classes that seek to interrogate the cultural construction of serial killer tropes.)

Zac Efron portrays Ted Bundy in "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile."
Zac Efron portrays Ted Bundy in "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile."

There are two new Bundy products coming to market; the more controversial is Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which stars former Disney teen/High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron as Bundy and is directed by Joe Berlinger, who with his late directing partner Bruce Sinofsky made the West Memphis Three trilogy Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011).

In the March 2018 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Efron insisted the movie "doesn't really glorify Ted Bundy ... It simply tells a story and sort of how the world was able to be charmed over by this guy who was notoriously evil and the vexing position that so many people were put in, the world was put in. It was fun to go and experiment in that realm of reality."

The one you can watch right now is a four-part documentary series on Netflix executive-produced by Berlinger called Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.

The series draws on archival footage and interviews with people who knew Bundy or his victims or were involved in the investigation of his crimes, but at its heart are taped interviews with Bundy, most made by journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, who recorded more than 150 hours of death row conversations with Bundy. (Full disclosure note: I worked with Aynesworth on a series of stories about Henry Lee Lucas in the 1980s.)

Bundy had originally contacted Michaud in hopes that he might write a book that would exonerate him, but the book Michaud and Aynesworth published in 1989 (with the same title as the Netflix series) doesn't do anything like that. Michaud flattered Bundy's vanity, asking him to comment as an expert witness on the crimes. In the Netflix series, Bundy holds forth about what kind of person might commit the crimes of which he has been accused:

"Well, it's not an easy question, but I think we can speculate," he says. "We can generally describe manifestations of this condition of this person's being skewed toward matters of a sexual nature that involve violence."

Ted Bundy, with his 1970s girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer
Ted Bundy, with his 1970s girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer

Bundy says that "perhaps this person hoped that through violence" he might be "fulfilled," while discounting that belief as "obviously irrational." He says the person would begin acting out when he reached "a point where the anger, the frustration, the anxiety, the poor self-image, feeling cheated, wronged, insecure. He decides upon young attractive women being his victims."

After he finally confessed, Bundy blamed his pathology on an addiction to pornography. He had one of his spiritual advisers, a man who hosted a call-in radio counseling show, deliver his final advice to society.

"You are going to kill me, and that will protect society from me. But ... there are many out there addicted to pornography and ... potentially violent."

Alrighty then.


Much has been made about how Bundy seemed normal and well-adjusted -- a good-looking and well-spoken young man from the American middle class who oozed competence and charisma. But the truth is complicated.

True crime writer Ann Rule, who met Bundy when he was an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Washington and worked with him as a volunteer on a suicide hotline, remembered him in her 1980 book The Stranger Beside Me as "kind, solicitous, and empathetic" when dealing with distraught callers, but also noted he "was never as handsome, brilliant, or charismatic as crime folklore has deemed him."

Rule, who died in 2015, always seemed a little bewildered about the public's fascination with Bundy. In 2009, in a new foreword to an updated edition of The Stranger Beside Me, she wrote, "I always believed that time would blur the interest in Bundy, particularly after his execution. Instead, he has become almost mythical."

But she was wrong; "infamy became him."

"I shouldn't be surprised that I still get letters and emails from 20-year-olds who are fascinated with Ted Bundy," she wrote. "Thirty years ago, I watched the Florida girls who lined up outside the courtroom in Miami, anxious to get a place on the gallery bench behind his defense table."

Mark Harmon played Bundy in 1986's The Deliberate Stranger, a TV miniseries; Michael Riley Bourke in 2002's theatrical release Ted Bundy ("the Boogie Nights of serial killer flicks," online critic Harry Knowles proclaimed); Billy Campbell in Ann Rule Presents The Stranger Beside Me, a 2003 TV movie; Cary Elwes in The Riverman (2004), a TV movie about Bundy's odd role as a consultant in the investigation of the Green River Killer case, and Corin Nemec in 2008's straight-to-video Bundy: A Legacy of Evil aka Ted Bundy: An American Icon. And that's not to mention the list of fictional characters inspired by some aspect of Bundy's career.

Yet it's clear Bundy was hardly a master criminal. His methods were crude and risky. A lot of women simply refused his overtures, which usually consisted of him slipping his arm into a sling or affecting a pair of crutches and asking them to get in his car under some sort of pretext.

(Bundy's ruse has become a staple of movie serial killers -- see the characters Raymond Lemorne in George Sluzier's 1988 film Spoorloos, Barney Cousins in his 1993 Hollywood remake of The Vanishing in 1993, and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Bundy's role in the Green River investigation also probably informed Hannibal Lecter's mentoring of Clarice Starling in the film.)

Bundy left witnesses behind practically everywhere he went, and he routinely transported damaging evidence in his (typically stolen) car and saved trophies in his apartment. He would drive for hours with dead bodies of women in his car, he often returned to the secondary crime scenes where he dumped their bodies.

Bundy wasn't a mastermind. His real gift was not for mesmerizing his intended victims but for appearing nondescript. He was just ordinary enough not to call attention to himself.

He was opportunistic. And, like Cain, he availed himself of whatever capability was at hand. He never used a gun because guns were noisy and drew attention. He picked up blunt objects. A rock, a tree stump.

And his motive wasn't readily apparent to anyone.


In 2013, scientists found the remains of about 30 human skeletons from the Paleolithic at the bottom of a 43-foot deep shaft inside a Spanish cave called Sima de los Huesos in the Sierra de Atapuerca in north-central Spain.

At first they wondered how the bodies could have ended up in such a strange and remote place. Was this some kind of burial site? There was no evidence that people gathered or lived near it. Then they turned up evidence -- a skull smashed into 52 fragments by what the cop shows would call blunt force trauma -- suggesting that the bodies were murder victims. Maybe they were dumped there by an ancient Ted Bundy. Maybe he came back to stand on the rim and think about what he had done.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe couldn't imagine a crime he was incapable of committing. There are homicide detectives out there who believe everyone has within them some dark potential given motive, opportunity and capability.

I think we're fascinated with Bundy because he seems like people we know, at least superficially. You might or might not get a socially awkward vibe from him -- people who knew him gave vastly different descriptions of his behavior. Some really liked him. Others thought he was a little off.

But on screen he's always portrayed as a glamorous avatar of evil, more because that's the convention of our entertainment products than any real truth.

We don't know what Cain looked like. But in the movies, he'd be dashing.

Style on 02/03/2019

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