In the nearly 45 years since his first arrest, public fascination has grabbed hold of Ted Bundy’s crimes and refused to let go. Bundy’s crimes—he confessed to murdering at least 30 women—have been incredibly well-documented and discussed; every possible genre of storytelling has found a deep interest in Bundy. He’s been played by actors from Mark Harmon in 1986’s The Deliberate Stranger to Cary Elwes in The Riverman in 2004, and most recently, Zac Efron in the upcoming film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Bundy has been referenced in songs by Eminem, Tyler, the Creator, and T.I.; the Jane’s Addiction song “Ted, Just Admit It,” even features a sample of an interview Bundy did in the 80s. In 1989, the year Bundy was executed by electrocution in Florida, Blondie’s Debbie Harry told a newspaper that she thinks she once got into a car with him—this was later debunked as very unlikely, but Harry continues to tell the story to different magazines and newspapers, relaying it again in 2010 to The Sun.
In a Longreads essay on true crime’s “trash balance,” Soraya Roberts summed up four of the common explanations for why we love stories about crime: “true crime can be a cathartic conduit for our primal urges, a source of schadenfreude, a controlled environment to experience the thrill of fear, and way to arm us (women particularly) with the knowledge to keep ourselves safe.” All of these things can be true at once, yet when trying to explain our rotten pursuit of more and more crime stories, we tend to fall back on defensiveness. We think we can’t ever know enough about killers, so we pretend it’s alright to keep telling stories about them, and these falsities feed each other until they bloat. In reality, we know everything we need to know about Bundy, and the stories we continue to tell about him draw circles around the truth.
In 1978, the New York Times ran an article about Bundy called “All-American Boy on Trial,” in which the writer, Jon Nordheimer, agonized over Bundy’s “Kennedy-esque” looks, wondering how someone who seemingly had it all could commit the crimes he did. Netflix recently tweeted a “reminder” to people whose takeaway from the new documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes was that Bundy is hot.
Bundy benefited from his positionality as a white man his whole life, even during his trial. He was apparently attractive, but also average-looking enough to slip through the grasp of police multiple times. When he was finally caught, he was given special treatment in jail. He was given better food than other prisoners. The guards went easy on him because of his “humor and brightness,” allowing him to make court appearances without his leg irons, and Bundy used his “likeability”—his privileges as a white man—to briefly escape in June 1977 and again in December.
Even after his death, Bundy benefits from the racist ideas we have of which men commit violence. Where men of colour—particularly Black men—are seen as inherently violent, white men who commit crime often become glorified. In an op-ed for Teen Vogue, writer Sandra Song pointed out our cultural obsession with canonizing Bundy and other white, male serial killers as attractive; she noted the danger of casting hot teen idols like Zac Efron and Ross Lynch in fictionalized accounts of serial killers’ lives. Bundy is known for getting away with his crimes because of his apparent good looks, but he’s remembered this way because of the enduring media narrative that centres his appearance as central to his crimes.
Of course, the only other media narrative that is more popular than ‘Hot Bundy’ is ‘Enigmatic Bundy.’ We love the idea that we will never know what motivated Bundy to hurt people to such a horrifying degree. However, as pointed out by writer Zoé Samudzi on Twitter, many of the serial killers we are trying to understand are killing for reasons of privilege and entitlement.
In her book Defending the Devil, Bundy’s lawyer Polly Nelson wrote, “It was the absolute misogyny of his crimes that stunned me … his manifest rage against women. He had no compassion at all… His murders were his life's accomplishments.” Psychiatric tests as early as 1978 had found that Bundy had a deep anger towards women. Nordheimer himself wrote about these tests in his article for The Times—however, he went on to say that women entering the workforce was fracturing families and creating damaged children. Bundy blamed his victims for their deaths at times as well.
Because his position as a white, middle-class American male makes him the figure of American identity and nationalism, we’re convinced that Bundy couldn’t possibly be twisted for any reason we can easily understand. This is why Bundy has also been endlessly pathologized—diagnoses have included everything from bipolar disorder to psychopathy. While the psychological elements to his crimes are undeniable, by and large, Bundy was motivated by a hatred for women.
By continuing to make Bundy a subject of our movies, songs, TV shows, and podcasts, we’re giving a narcissist exactly what he always wanted—attention. And, none of this comes with any benefit, as most of the media about Bundy doesn’t do much to uncover the reasoning behind his crimes as much as it relays gory details for viewers’ twisted curiosity.
The photographer Henry Hargreaves has a series called “No Seconds,” in which he has chronicled the last meals of death-row inmates from the likes of Timothy McVeigh and Ted Bundy. Hargreaves has said the photo of Victor Feguer’s last meal—one olive—is his favourite. "We think about last meals, and is it something that's going to be totally gluttonous, and then he just has a single olive," Hargreaves said. "You know, it's so simple, beautiful and kind of final. It's like a full stop at the end of his life." The way Hargreaves talks about Feguer’s last meal is oddly romantic. To speak with this sort of tenderness about someone who kidnapped and shot a man dead is unsettling. However, it’s just one example of countless other artistic renderings of killers’ lives that put them on pedestals of fascination, bolstered by the constantly growing boundaries of our curiosity.
People who are called out for their fascination with Bundy often defend themselves by saying they are trying to understand the human mind, and what would drive someone to commit these horrible crimes. People also defend talking about serial killers because of the belief that we’ll never be able to stop future killers unless we understand them. Simply put, our society is obsessed with serial killers—particularly white, male ones like Bundy—and we have canonized them as impossible to understand, which allows us to keep making media about them. However, this media does nothing except make us want more.
There is an overwhelming amount of art, writing, and other media available to us that was created to feed our appetites for true crime, and yet, we continue to talk about serial killers like we can’t understand them. Bundy was found guilty of killing over 30 women and is thought to have killed over 100. Yet, most of us can’t name a single one of Ted Bundy’s victims. Even those of us who fervently say we don’t find Bundy alluring are participating in the decades-long sensationalizing of his crime and dehumanizing of his victims every time we look for more stories.
In its current form, true crime is a genre that relies heavily on exploiting the details of horrible crimes, especially those against marginalized people. It feeds our fascinations and prioritizes shock value over giving us definitive answers. But we shouldn’t look for the gory details; we shouldn’t seek to understand serial killers’ minds as the answer to stopping future killers. We should try to understand what systems allow for their crimes, and what gives them mobility. We must be deliberate in talking about their upbringings, privileges, and social position. We should identify the causes they supported and what they thought they were entitled to, and actually do something with that information. If we’re going to keep telling stories about serial killers, we need to create a fundamental change in how we talk about them.
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