On January 24, the 30th Anniversary of Ted Bundy’s execution by electric chair at Florida State Prison, Netflix will premier Joe Berlinger’s Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. The four-part docu-series centers around 100 hours of recordings collected in 1980 and 1981 by journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, who spent 15 months interviewing the infamous serial killer while he was on death row for brutally murdering and raping upwards of 30 young women from 1974 to 1978. A necrophile who decapitated some of his victims, Bundy proclaimed his innocence for years before last minute confessions to delay his execution.
In 2017, Michaud brought the tapes to Berlinger, a true crime pioneer who directed the Paradise Lost trilogy and Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. The filmmaker immersed himself in the recordings, seeking to understand Bundy. While the killer wouldn’t admit to his crimes on tape at that time, the reporters cleverly got him to talk about himself in the third person, as if he was an expert witness to the rapes and murders he himself committed.
“I thought ‘here's an amazing opportunity to tell a story that's been told before, but in a fresh new way,’” Berlinger told VICE. “Specifically by entering into the mind of a killer and hearing his perspective.”
Through the tapes, Berlinger was given what he calls a “new entry point” into Bundy, showing just how someone who exudes charm, attractiveness, and humor could coldly and calculatingly commit murder after murder.
“I think that Bundy taps into everyone's worst, darkest fear,” Berlinger said. “He didn’t fit the typical serial killer [stereotype]. He was charming, handsome, had friends, and a potential career in politics or law. There's no real good reason why he started to kill. The people who most often do evil in this world, sadly, are the people you know and trust."
Building off the success of shows like The Jinx, Making A Murderer, and Evil Genius, The Ted Bundy Tapes brings a chilling account that focuses on Bundy as a man, not just a monster. A law student that wanted to get into politics before metamorphosing into a criminal celebrity, his story unfolded in real-time, with America’s eyes on him as he evaded capture and terrorized young women across the country. Then finally, the world watched his story come to a close in 1989 when hundreds chanted “Burn, Bundy, burn” outside the prison on the day of his execution, and wore shirts sporting the same slogan.
Berlinger says there were a few aspects of Bundy’s upbringing that likely played a part in forming his murderous ways. For one, he never knew the identity of his real father, and felt deep anger and resentment against his mother because of this. And coming from an average family with limited means meant his greater life aspirations were harder to realize. Coupled that with a shift in culture around male and female dynamics and it sparked something in Bundy.
“He felt inadequate, which gave him rage,” explained Berlinger. “His psychotic breakdown occurred at a time of social progress with regard to women being more liberated, so ironically the social progress of the 60s, that made women stronger and more independent, actually tapped deeply into his own inadequacy.”
Berlinger thinks that Bundy’s deep-seated insecurity produced an arrogance and sense of superiority that made him believe that he’d never get caught, but he also stresses in the series that Bundy was a person like everyone else.
“Serial killers are not two dimensional monsters, they're three dimensional human beings who have good and bad sides,” Berlinger said. “Here's a guy who could compartmentalize his life. That’s why it's so bone chillingly scary. It's not some freak who emerges from the shadows, it's a guy who had a family unit with Elizabeth Kloepfer and her daughter; a guy who in addition to his compulsion to kill also craved a sense of normalcy. I want to understand that.”
Ted Bundy is the guy that everyone’s heard of—a dark, sadistic icon amongst true crime fans fascinated with the sordid details of his heinous crimes as well as the strange events that followed him after he was caught and imprisoned. Bundy got married and fathered a child while in prison, and attempted to blame his crimes on porno. He spurred the FBI to start a profiling unit, and his case was the first to use bite-mark evidence, which was all the rage in the 70s, but widely considered junk science now. He was a chilling character who made a mockery of the justice system by representing himself in a court of law, escaping prison multiple times, and murdering again and again.
“Who escapes from prison once, let alone twice?” Berlinger said.
Bundy is arguably the first serial killer to create the true crime obsession on a larger scale thanks to his trial being the first one televised in American history. It became a media spectacle and turned a murder trial into prime entertainment. All this research was useful in another Bundy project helmed by Berlinger: the biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which he directed. Starring Zac Efron as Bundy, the film premieres at Sundance this week and tells the story from the perspective of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer.
There was no grand plan to become the Bundy storyteller of 2019, Berlinger relates, but shortly after the tapes came to him in 2017, the script landed on his desk also.
“Bundy had a live in girlfriend, who by all accounts was treated by Bundy wonderfully,” Berlinger said. “He was a wonderful boyfriend, and a wonderful surrogate father to this woman's daughter from another relationship. She had no idea that he was so evil. And understanding how serial killers deceive, and people who do evil deceive, really is kind of the theme of the film.”
Berlinger thinks the scripted and unscripted stories he’s made are great companion pieces—two completely different takes on the same material, giving insight into the man who is still grabbing our attention 20 years after his reign of terror ended.
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