This power of perversity may help to explain why Ted Bundy is having another cultural moment. The savage serial killer, executed in Florida in 1989, was a born storyteller himself, and he leveraged his blandly handsome looks and moderate intelligence into an exaggerated image of magnetic brilliance. Such alchemy was not unusual amid the anarchy and demoralization of the 1970s, a decade ushered in by such skeevy celebrities as the pimp Charles Manson and confessed rapist Eldridge Cleaver, and ushered out by Norman Mailer’s critically acclaimed bestseller about the two-bit sociopath Gary Gilmore.
Bundy’s sick charisma is resurrected in a popular Netflix documentary “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” And according to Hollywood trade publications, the same company will pay $9 million for rights to distribute a Bundy biopic, starring heartthrob Zac Efron. Titled “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” the Efron effort recently wowed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, an annual gathering of the wealthy and toned in the mountains outside Salt Lake City.
If the United States must rehash the Bundy myth, it’s best if people watch the documentary before the feature film. It is based on the work of journalists Hugh Aynesworth and Stephen Michaud, who persuaded Bundy to engage in roughly 100 hours of taped interviews while waiting through years and years of appellate review between his death sentences and his eventual appointment with the electric chair.
Transcripts of the interviews make excellent sleep aids, for Bundy in reality was a colossal narcissist and droning pothead. He refused to speak of his crimes directly but engaged in a third-person ruse in which he offered his informed theories about a serial killer’s mind. And one insight that cuts through the blather — one essential background for watching any glamorous fictionalized Bundy treatment. (A previous effort, for NBC in 1986, starred Mark Harmon, who was People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” at the time.)
Bundy viewed his whole life as a performance; indeed, he saw the world as a sort of stage on which he acted out his appetites with other humans as disposable cast members. He perceived postwar American suburbia to be anonymous, all the residents indistinguishable except to themselves. He was shocked whenever a witness claimed to have seen him in some incriminating place, because in his experience, no one ever really saw him — even as he lugged bodies in and out of his apartments. He expressed surprise to Aynesworth and Michaud that anyone noticed his victims were gone: “I mean, there are so many people. This person will never be missed.”
To experience Bundy on film as a seducer, a heartthrob or a sex symbol is to fall into his stage-managed trap. This is exactly how he wanted to be perceived, though the reality of his sordid life never added up to his script. Only briefly and sporadically was he able to play the suave up-and-comer — “Seattle’s answer to JFK,” to quote a line from the 1986 film. In fact, even at his best, Bundy was a petty thief, an alcoholic and a dropout haunting the sleaziest corners of the dirtiest porn shops. He was no Hannibal Lecter, no evil mastermind. Bundy was a savagely violent sex criminal who typically beat his victims to death within minutes of meeting them. Then he spent long periods with their corpses, for he was a necrophiliac, the details of which we won’t go into.
Bundy’s compelling fictional persona was a double-edged sword. His infamy pushed the FBI and local law enforcement to share information in ways that make it more difficult for serial killers to operate in anonymity. On the other hand, he lulled people into thinking he was less dangerous than he really was. On death row, he often signed letters all in lowercase: “peace, ted.”
His victims in Florida — three dead and three more brutalized — would never have been touched if Colorado authorities had guarded him more like a monster and less like a law school student; he wouldn’t have escaped to kill again.
Audiences love villains. But would we love them as easily if we had to look at them straight on? Would the crowds at Sundance be as enchanted by the reality of Ted Bundy — the terror, the gore, the sickness and the never-ending grief — as they were by the Zac Efron treatment? Surely not. But history gives Bundy all imaginable advantage.
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