Ever since the docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes premiered on Netflix last week, America has been captivated by notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, who raped and murdered at least 36 women over the course of four years in the 1970s.
Bundy's mental health and psychiatric state have long been called into question. When Bundy was on death watch in 1986 for three murders in Florida, his attorney Polly Nelson attempted to delay the death penalty by proving that Bundy was not mentally competent to stand trial. "We were hoping to find some clear mental illness that we could use as an issue in the case," she said on episode four in the Netflix documentary. So, they enlisted Dorothy Lewis, MD, a psychiatrist who specialised in "understanding the brain chemistry of violent men."
Throughout Dr. Lewis' examination, Bundy insisted that he was competent. "I knew I wasn’t crazy, insane, or incompetent, or anything else," Bundy said in an interview featured in Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. "I was insulted by even the suggestion by my attorneys that we should consider the defence. They knew damn well I wasn’t crazy."
Some have argued that connecting his crimes to his mental illness creates harmful generalisations about people with mental illnesses. There are 43.8 million adults in the United States who experience mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, but the vast majority of people with mental illness do not engage in violent behaviour. But given the internet's endless fascination with Bundy, here's what we know about his mental health and neurological anatomy, based on the revelations in the documentary.
People are quick to label Bundy as a psychopath, someone who is emotionally blank, acts recklessly, never takes responsibility for their actions, and tends to be charming — at least superficially. Although psychopath isn't listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used to diagnose mental health disorders, it's a personality trait that falls under "antisocial personality disorder." People with antisocial personality disorder have a "long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others without any remorse," according to MedlinePlus. So, it tracks.
After the examination, Dr. Lewis called Nelson to tell her that Bundy met the criteria for bipolar disorder, a mental disorder formerly known as "manic-depressive disorder." People with bipolar disorder have dramatic shifts in their mood, and will swing between intense episodes of mania and depression, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). During a manic state, a person with bipolar disorder might feel extremely happy, start talking quickly, get agitated, and act overconfident. A depressive episode, on the other hand, is marked by sadness, low self-esteem, irritability, and difficulty concentrating, according to the APA.
Both episodes can include psychotic symptoms, like hallucinations, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In the Netflix documentary, Nelson said Bundy notoriously heard voices that told him to kill women. "Dr. Lewis realised that this was during the down phase of his manic-depression," Nelson said in Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. She also cited Bundy defending himself at his own murder trial, which is a common behaviour for killers, as an example of his "manic episodes." But people with bipolar disorder are not inherently violent: studies suggest that people with bipolar disorder are only at an increased risk of violence if they also are abusing substances.
Dr. Lewis told Nelson that she was "extremely confident that there was something unique about Ted’s brain" that had led to his crimes, she said in Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. "Some unique brain chemistry or even a tumour in a critical location that blocked his empathy." While we don't know what his brain looks like, there are a few theories about how the brain of a serial killers' differs from others. One common one from Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist who studied the brains of serial killers, suggests that they tend to have less-active orbital frontal cortexes, the area of the brain involved with moral decision-making and ethical behaviour. And some believe that this essentially blocks the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions, fear, and aggression.
In a 1989 interview with a fundamentalist Christian psychologist ahead of his execution, Bundy claimed that his "pornography addiction" was what inspired his murders. ''There was nothing he would see visually that could give him that high, and he made the tragic jump, and he killed a person," James Dobson, who videotaped his interview told the Chicago Tribune. When "the sexual frenzy occurred again," he killed another woman, he said. "He did it so many times that it got so he could not feel."
Compulsive porn use is a complicated topic, and experts have yet to classify "porn addiction" in the DSM, according to the APA. While plenty of people consume porn, compulsive porn use can certainly cause a rift in sexual relationships or lead to problems. That said, there's no evidence that suggests porn would lead someone to kill women so they can "feel."