Serial killer Ted Bundy was executed by electric chair on Jan. 24, 1989, shortly after he confessed to murdering 30 people throughout the previous decade. (Estimates of the actual body count are higher.) Thirty years to the date, Netflix released a docuseries titled “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.”
Bundy’s unknowable nature has long fascinated some, exhibited as early as the media circus surrounding his trial in the 1980s. “Conversations with a Killer” offers an unprecedented peek into Bundy’s mind, as it draws from roughly 100 hours of taped interviews that journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth conducted with Bundy while he was on death row.
The results, as you might expect, are harrowing — so much so that Netflix warned viewers not to watch the series alone. But if you’re wondering whether to watch at all, here’s what to consider.
How much of a time commitment is this?
“Conversations with a Killer,” directed by Joe Berlinger, spans four episodes. Each one is roughly an hour long. The series is very bingeable, but you might opt for separate viewings so you can sleep at night.
Who is in the docuseries?
Pretty much everyone relevant, in some form or another. Bundy maintains a presence throughout, whether through news segments or the titular tapes. His mother and his ex-wife, Carole Ann Boone, appear in archival footage. His long-term girlfriend Liz Kloepfer can be heard in a recorded interview.
Berlinger also conducted on-camera interviews with a number of people who interacted with Bundy at various points in his life or who were somehow involved in the murder investigations: former friends, detectives, prosecutors, psychologists, Michaud, Aynesworth and other journalists, as well as a near-victim.
What does it actually reveal about Ted Bundy?
This depends on how much you already know about him. “Conversations” is a bit of a misnomer because the tapes mainly consist of Bundy delivering monologues about his life and personality. None of the largely one-sided conversations — during which Bundy often refers to himself in the third person, a method Michaud suggested so Bundy would speak more freely — includes a confession or acknowledgment that he killed anyone. It’s unclear how many of the murderer’s statements are true.
It might be more accurate to say that “Conversations with a Killer” reveals how Bundy wished to represent himself. He told the journalists, for example, that he had a normal childhood and “never lacked playmates.” But a childhood friend said Bundy never fit in, was made fun of because of a speech impediment, “had a temper” and “liked to scare people.”
Berlinger includes fact checks like this throughout the series, often through the interviews with journalists, attorneys and law enforcement. There are some revelations, such as the fact that Bundy almost tried to kill himself before the execution. There are also details most people know, such as the fact that Bundy didn’t feel bad about committing such heinous crimes and considered this to be an “enviable position.”
“Guilt is this mechanism we use to control people,” he said. “It’s an illusion. It’s this kind of social control mechanism, and it’s very unhealthy.”
What are critics saying?
Several came to the uncomfortable realization that Bundy, a known narcissist, would probably have reveled in this renewed attention. The A.V. Club’s Katie Rife noted that the featured reporters seem a little too proud of their participation in the aforementioned media circus, the defense lawyers of the “notoriety” that came with representing Bundy. “This angle is under-explored,” she wrote.
Variety’s Daniel D’Addario described the series as “a must only for true-crime completists,” while the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan questioned whether it should exist at all: “What does massing those who knew [Bundy] as a friend, as a lover or who suffered at his hands really do, except add to his mystique and the glamour of such crimes?”
Isn’t there another Ted Bundy project coming out soon?
Yep! And it’s from the same guy, oddly enough. Berlinger premiered his feature film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” on Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival, accompanied by stars Zac Efron, who plays Bundy, and Lily Collins, who plays his girlfriend Liz. The story is told from her viewpoint.
After the film’s splashy first trailer hit YouTube, many expressed fears that casting a heartthrob as Bundy would misrepresent the serial killer, who was also a rapist, kidnapper, burglar and necrophile. Efron addressed this concern in a recent interview: “I feel a responsibility to make sure that this movie is not a celebration of Ted Bundy,” he told Variety. “Or a glorification of him. But, definitely, a psychological study of who this person was. In that, there’s honesty.”
Right? To cleanse your mind, here’s a handy Twitter thread of “Men Who Were Actually Hot In The 1970s And Were Not Named Ted Bundy.” You’re welcome.