Personal confession: I really enjoy true crime documentaries. The intrigue, the chase, the many twists and turns along the way—there is no denying the appeal of these shows and movies. It’s what’s made the genre popular: “The Staircase,” “Tickled” and “Evil Genius” are just a few that have kept me on the edge of my seat this past year.
As avid fans of true crime and docu-drama, my friends and I decided to watch “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” which Netflix released Jan. 24. The show was a combination of present-day interviews and archival footage. Netflix’s description of the show is as follows: “Two journalists set out to get the definitive story of infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, as told by the man himself” (Netflix, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” 2019).
The first episode of the Netflix original series, “Handsome Devil,” focuses on Bundy discussing his childhood, young adulthood, family and friends, essentially giving us his own narrative. As the show progressed, I found myself plagued with questions that wouldn’t go away: Why are we having a conversation with a killer? Why are we giving him a voice? Why is he given both the stage and the audience to normalize himself? Perhaps a forensic psychologist would benefit from his testimonies, but when we find ourselves gawking at these criminals in a practically pornographic way, I have to wonder what the point is and ultimately ask—who benefits from this?
Indeed, as the series continues, it becomes clear that Bundy has no intention of ever admitting to committing the crimes on tape, nor discussing why or how he was able to perpetrate them. The best we get from the series are non-definitive hints as Bundy talks about the murders hypothetically, expressing possible reasons one might commit serial rape. There is hardly a mention of his affinity for keeping corpses around for days after the murder, performing necrophilia and further mutilating them. The docu-series completely sidesteps the actual crimes and victims and instead lets Bundy glisten in the spotlight (San Francisco Chronicle, “Netflix’s Ted Bundy documentary is almost everything that’s wrong with the true crime genre,” 01.28.2019).
One day after the series came to Netflix, the first trailer for “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” an upcoming movie also about Bundy, was released for popular consumption. Or, as my friends introduced it to me, “the new Zac Efron movie.” This trailer has already incited backlash as audiences question the upbeat music and romcom-esque tone of the preview. I cannot fault Netflix and Hollywood for wanting to make money by cashing in on the fans who enjoy true crime drama. Casting a heartthrob actor as a serial killer is nothing new. In 2017, Ross Lynch—a former Disney star like Efron—starred in “My Friend Dahmer,” yet another film that humanizes the white, male serial killer.
Joe Berlinger, the director of both the movie and the Netflix show, explained that he wanted to focus on how Bundy deceived not only the American media but also the people closest to him. He stated, “Bundy challenges all of our beliefs of what a serial killer should look like because he used his good looks and intelligence to hide his double life for far too long” (Buzzfeed, “The Director Of The Ted Bundy Biopic Says The Notorious Serial Killer Won’t Be Romanticized,” 01.30.2019). With this in mind, I actually think Efron is an appropriate choice for the role, as Bundy was notoriously handsome. His courtroom audience was famously packed with precisely the type of young woman on which he preyed; some even slipped notes to him during the trial. However, by casting Efron, Berlinger ensured that movie theatres will be similarly packed with the same demographic. By telling the story through the eyes of Bundy’s long-term girlfriend Liz Kloepfer (played by Lily Collins), Berlinger ensured that Bundy will be considered an object of attraction. It seems the director is dead set on us forgetting the horrific acts that Bundy committed and instead impressing upon us with how fantastic he was at eluding detection. Kathy Kleiner Rubin, who survived an attack by Bundy in 1978, says of the film, “That’s who Bundy wanted you to see” (Nylon, “Ted Bundy Survivor Says Zac Efron’s Portrayal Is ‘Who Bundy Wanted You To See,’” 01.29.2019).
Ted Bundy raped, physically mutilated and murdered over 30 young women, aged 12 to 22. He escaped custody once, returned as if to flaunt his abilities and then escaped again. His attitude in the courtroom and toward reporters was always smug, calm and satisfied. One might argue that his desire to speak on these tapes was solely motivated by his need to have some control over his story. This is a valid desire. But Ted Bundy raped, physically mutilated and murdered over 30 young women, aged 12 to 22. Therefore, I challenge the idea that he deserves any control over his story and his image, or that his crimes deserve to be told over and over again. All he has done to earn it was perform especially gruesome atrocities over and over with a cavalier attitude, a notoriously charming personalityand a typically handsome face.
As a viewer, I think one of the biggest hooks of the true crime series genre is the unsettling concept that anyone you know could be hiding a secret life of brutality. If the Netflix show is any indication, it sounds as if the upcoming biopic will emphasize that a handsome face does not ensure trustworthiness by any means.
However, I think one of the hidden takeaways from the genre of true crime is that it’s important to consider criminals as people with friends, hobbies, careers and lives outside of their serial murders. But according to Netflix, only certain people fall under this category: those who are particularly clever, especially creepy, extremely wicked, shockingly evil…and only those that are white, male and often conventionally attractive. Even within the genre of fictional crime television, the antiheroes we hold dearly are more often white males than not: Folks like Walter White, Tony Soprano, Dexter and Hannibal Lecter may commit crimes but stay above the law and control their stories. Therefore, they become heroes.
“Dexter” brought in 2.8 million viewers (The Hollywood Reporter, “TV Ratings: ‘Dexter’ Series Finale Brings Record 2.8 Million Viewers,” 09.23.2013). “Hannibal” often averaged more than 3 million viewers per episode (TV Series Finale, “Hannibal: Season One Ratings,” 06.17.2013). The series finale of “Breaking Bad” brought in a record number of 10.3 million viewers (Entertainment Weekly, “‘Breaking Bad’ series finale ratings smash all records,” 09.30.2013). Altogether, these antiheroes’ shows garnered over 20 million viewers.
From the standpoint of a fan, I have fun watching crime shows. However, I can’t help but examine the interplay of race, sex and the criminal justice system which so systematically discriminates against a demographic that is never represented in true crime. It seems Americans are perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to the problems within our justice system, yet they are simultaneously captivated by the intricacies of murder cases from decades ago. I have no problem with media that makes us listen to those who have been systematically silenced, but I would argue that white male serial killers are not necessarily part of that group, nor do they deserve our consideration. Until we reexamine the school-to-prison pipeline, stop criminalizing black boys and girls and reform our justice system, Ted Bundy does not deserve our attention. Unfortunately, it saddens me that he has received exactly what he always desired: validation, glorification and permanent status as a legend in the serial killer hall of fame.