Why notorious serial killer Ted Bundy is still glorified
He was one of the most notorious serial killers in US history, murdering and mutilating more than 30 women in the 1970s, yet the conventionally attractive Ted Bundy is fawned over and glorified. Lucy Jones asks why
It's been a good week for serial killer, rapist and necrophiliac Ted Bundy. A tedious documentary series based around the famous 1980s death-row tapes landed on Netflix and elicited gushing swoons from people who consider him "hot".
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a feature film starring ex-Disney heartthrob Zac Efron as Bundy, premiered at Sundance, sparking controversy over the casting decision and bringing Bundy back into the limelight - exactly where he liked to be.
People are interested in serial killers. Fine. But what's been bizarre is the overriding conversation and reaction about the supposed "hotness" of Ted Bundy and whether it should be up for discussion.
On Monday, Netflix US reproached Twitter users, saying: "(We've) seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy's alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally thousands of hot men on the service - almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers."
Considering that the first episode of Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, repeatedly tells us that he was clean-cut, articulate and good-looking, Netflix was being naive if it didn't think people would pick up on that element.
As it must have expected with the reaction to You, a rom-com horror series that subverts the romantic male hero character and turns him into a serial killer, the series has drawn criticism for romanticising extreme violence by casting a good-looking actor (Penn Badgley) in the main role.
On Twitter, Badgley hit back at some of his fans for fawning over the character. Sample tweet: "Joe can serial kill me anytime."
Why are we so intrigued by violent criminals who don't look like they could "tear girls apart", in the words of Stephen Michaud, the journalist who recorded the tapes? And why do their looks give them a free pass to be lusted over and glorified?
Certainly, we are primed from childhood, in the books we read and the Disney films we watch, to expect monsters and baddies to be ugly. But you'd think, by adulthood, it wouldn't surprise us that good-looking people aren't necessarily good, or that they can inflict great harm.
Why don't we want to believe that beautiful people can do terrible things?
Certain people have always been drawn to those who violate the social contract, parading their edginess by wearing pictures of Charles Manson on their T-shirts, or writing to serial killers in prison.
Perhaps we are also biologically primed to respond to perceived beauty in a certain way, though because - let's face it - Bundy was an average-looking person, that reason only takes us so far.
Perhaps we are still barbarians, really, but dressed up with modern clothes, smartphones and the illusion of a progressive society.
When Bundy is executed in 1989, there's an enormous crowd of mostly young-looking people outside the facility. They let off fireworks and brandish signs saying "Burn, Bundy, Burn" and "Tuesday is Fryday".
They cheer and whoop and grin when he is finally pronounced dead. It made me think that the days when we'd all file out to watch a hanging are not actually that long ago.
It's not just Twitter users in 2019; Bundy's looks blinded people to his actions at the time. He received fan mail during his trial and young women would turn up to see him.
The case was the first time a trial of its nature had been covered by TV and arguably the first 'true crime' media sensation. It allowed the killer to be turned into a celebrity and fed into the evil genius myth that was created around him.
Tellingly, Rhonda Stapley, whom Bundy attacked in a canyon in Utah, doesn't think the casting of Zac Efron as Bundy was a bad thing.
When asked whether it bothered her that he's a sex-symbol, she said: "No, that's what Ted Bundy kind of was."
The series shows how his "devil-may-care bachelor image" manipulated the court. He managed to convince the judge he should be in charge of his defence, despite seeming incompetent and irrational.
He smirked and argued for outdoor exercise, a different menu and access to the library. He turned up in a bow tie and proposed to a friend.
The trial became a ridiculous pantomime conducted by an entitled narcissist who cracked jokes which made everyone laugh as they forgot the bodies of the women and children lying in the ground. "We'll miss you," the judge cooed at one point.
Bundy's supreme arrogance and entitlement is hard to stomach, but even worse is the reaction. The most chilling moment for me was the judge's final address, in which he sucks up to Bundy while pronouncing him guilty. "You're a bright young man. I don't have animosity to you." It is grotesque.
Structures of power and the hierarchy of our society allow people like Bundy to get away with murder.
A good-looking, white, well-dressed, educated man can't possibly be guilty.
He was romanticised and kowtowed to because of his appearance and demeanour.
So, it's not that the Efron film, or You, or Dexter (starring Michael C Hall), or The Fall (with ex-model Jamie Dornan as the killer) shouldn't have been made with obviously good-looking people playing serial killers, but these stories - and our appetite for them - raise questions about what we value.
Who do we value more? The wise-cracking, charming, well-dressed, well-educated necrophiliac mass murderer, or the young women?
After watching these shows and the reactions to them, I'm not entirely sure. Sometimes, I wonder if we just don't mind too much when young women get killed.
Of course, because Bundy's not a threat to anyone now and younger people tend to imagine themselves immortal - I know I did - it is easier, perhaps, to joke.
Glorifying cunning is also nothing new. Look at Aesop's Fables and the stories about the fox who constantly outwits and outsmarts other animals who come to significant harm.
We like to watch cunning, but so soon after he raped, mutilated, tortured and killed these women?
And while their families are still alive?
I couldn't bear to watch much of You, but Penn Badgley was interesting on the character of Joe - and Dan Humphrey in Gossip Girl - in an interview with the New York Times.
"He's the very special white man who somehow thinks that he's an outsider and it's like, 'Bro, you're not an outsider, you are the inside; everyone else is on the outside'."
It would be so comical if it wasn't also the generating impulse for so much prejudice, which can get translated into violence. Don't we see this in our society again and again and again?