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Why Are We Still Fascinated by Ted Bundy?

A new Netflix documentary makes the case that the serial killer is a mirror for our darkest selves.

Netfix

There is a rich abundance of nonfiction entertainment about Ted Bundy, America’s most notorious serial killer. In each instance, the author or television producer tells the story of Bundy’s heinous crimes, juxtaposing Bundy’s handsome face, in whatever disguise he favored that day, with the beautiful young women with long center-parted hair whom he murdered. These are the bare facts of the case, and they have been enough to generate a frisson in the American audience that has buzzed, undimmed, to the present day.

This year is the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution in an electric chair, and the buzz is rising to a screech. This week the biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, starring Zac Efron as Bundy, premiered at Sundance. And the latest television contribution to Bundy canon is Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a four-part Netflix docuseries. It is based on 150 hours of audiotape belonging to journalist Stephen Michaud, who interviewed Bundy for his book, Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy, while Bundy was on death row in Florida. In the tapes, Bundy describes his own actions in horrible detail, and we get to listen in. Lucky us.

The show is put together chronologically, with archival footage cut between talking-head testimonials from cops, friends, and survivors. Its organizing motif is an animated reel of tape, meant to invoke the analogue origins of the show and connect it to other recent serial killer offerings set in the 1970s, like Mindhunter. Michaud’s tapes are pretty remarkable. He describes how resistant Bundy was to his queries at first, but how he then opened up like a flower once Michaud asked him to speak about himself in the third person.

As in every single piece of entertainment ever made about this killer, the show heavily emphasizes how impossible it seemed that he could have been guilty of these crimes. He seemed smart, normal, handsome, well-adjusted, everyone says. And yet here is Carol DaRonch, the extraordinary woman who in 1974 fought Bundy off even after he had her partially handcuffed inside his Volkswagen. No matter how unlikely of a killer he seemed, she is here to tell us that he hit her with a crowbar.

The show’s chief flaw lies in its sympathetic portrayal of law enforcement. Various cops describe Bundy as preternaturally intelligent, evading them at every step. In fact, he simply started out murdering women in different jurisdictions, then crossed state lines to do the same thing again. It’s true that the police at this time had no easy way to cross-reference evidence from different cop shops, but there are multiple points in the Bundy story where sheer idiocy prevented his capture.

After he murdered 21-year-old Lynda Healy in Washington, for example, investigators initially assumed that the blood in her bed was either from a nosebleed or menstruation. In his book The Riverman: Ted Bundy and The Hunt for the Green River Killer, King County detective Robert Keppel wrote of the first investigators that “[b]ecause they assumed Lynda Healy was possibly having her period at the time of her disappearance, they couldn’t figure out why anyone would kidnap her—they assumed no kidnapper would want to have sex with her.”

None of this makes it into the show. The focus is instead on Bundy himself. Netflix, to a distasteful degree, plays up the ghoulish fascination he exerts over us. In its press materials, the streaming service says he “invades our psyche in a fresh yet terrifying way.” The idea is that it’s really “our psyche” on display here. The ultimate question Bundy asks the audience is this: Would you have known?

Something about his persona is extremely disconcerting to white, middle-class Americans. His superficial charm and medium good looks were all the cover that he needed; simple disbelief prevented his identification for far too long. The “career” of Ted Bundy, which claimed 30 lives or more, is therefore a direct indictment of American society. It turns out that the kind of face we find attractive is also the kind of face that can disguise. What does that say about male beauty in the 1970s and beyond? Well, it says that we are most attracted to the average, to the indistinct, the kind of face that could belong to anybody.

There’s also the question of Bundy’s legion of female admirers, who showed up to support him during his trial. His fans professed a simple attraction to his face and comportment, but there’s no doubt that his misogynist violence fascinated a certain sector of women. Perhaps it’s the idea that women exerted a mythical, archetypal power over him. If he was powerless to resist the urge to bite Lisa Levy’s nipple almost clean off, then, the thinking goes, Lisa Levy must have really meant something to him. It’s a strange logic, but it works perfectly inside the matrix of gendered power, in which women are supposed to be empowered by passivity, ruling the domestic sphere like goddesses. It’s no coincidence that Bundy liked to invade homes and murder women in their beds.

Ted Bundy, then, turns out to be an avatar for our darkest selves. And who doesn’t want entertainment like that? I had to admit, watching the show, that in certain of Ted Bundy’s guises, he resembled a man that I would consider attractive. In other disguises, not. Looking at his different incarnations, I trained my analysis on my own desire, trying to figure out whether I believed him when he spoke; whether I found his courtroom jokes funny; whether I would have known that my coworker murdered women for pleasure.

But this kind of entertainment isn’t particularly enlightening. The experience of watching Conversations With a Killer is characterized by prurience, self-obsession, and, ultimately, a failure to hold to account the men who should have investigated these crimes properly. At its best, it reminds us that DaRonch, the crowbar survivor, was beautiful then and remains beautiful now. She puts a face to the kind of woman that Bundy’s victims could have—should have—become. I prefer to remember her face than his.