Content warning: The following posts contains graphic depictions of violence.
It's been exactly 30 years since Ted Bundy was executed in the electric chair at Florida Sate Prison, the cheers of a crowd of 2,000 people eagerly anticipating his death wafting into the prison from outside. Back then, Bundy was terror, personified. Three decades years later, Bundy's raw threat has worn off, and he's become a fixture of pop culture fascination instead. In 2019 alone, Bundy will be the subject of a Netflix documentary series, a documentary called Theodore, and a feature film called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron.
"Ted Bundy is the quintessential American enigma," Joe Berlinger, the creator of both the new Netflix documentary series and the upcoming film, told Refinery29 in a phone conversation. "He taps into our most primal fear: That you don't know, and can't trust, the person sleeping next to you. People want to think those who do evil are easily identifiable. Bundy tells us that those who do evil are those who often people we know and trust the most."
Berlinger also credits Bundy's highly televised trial as the locus of today's true crime-saturated entertainment landscape. "The Bundy trial is the big bang of today's insatiable appetite for crime programming," said Berlinger. Bundy's 1979 murder trials in Miami were a televised spectacle, complete with unusual quirks. For one, Bundy represented himself and charmed audiences with media-ready quips. Then, at one point, Bundy proposed marriage to his girlfriend, Carole Anne Boone. Bundy was ultimately sentenced to death for his crimes.
The four-part Netflix series, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, is poised to introduce a new generation to Bundy's heinous crimes. "The Netflix series is a cataloguing and deep dive into the cradle to grave of Ted Bundy, really dissecting his crimes and methodologies" said Berlinger. As if the subject matter weren't disturbing enough, Bundy narrates his crimes and his techniques himself. Woven throughout the documentary are interviews with Bundy recorded on death row by journalist Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth in 1980. In 1989, Aynesworth and Michaud fashioned heir 150 hours of taped interviews into the book Conversations with a Killer. When used in the documentary, the audio tapes forge a disturbing intimacy with Bundy.
Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes spans Bundy's life — and his life of crime. Bundy confessed to killing 30 women between 1974 to 1978, though the number could exceed 100. Tall, slender, and with brown hair parted in the middle, many of his college-aged victims shared remarkable physical similarities to his first girlfriend, Stephanie Brooks, who broke up with him in March of 1968 while he was in college.
Bundy capitalised on his handsome, unassuming appearance to lure women towards his (now- infamous) yellow VW beetle. For example, he would often fake an injury and ask women to help him carry belongings to his car. From there, Bundy would torture, rape, and murder the women, and bury their bodies in the woods, where he would continue to visit them.
Meanwhile, Bundy continued to hide these crimes behind the exterior of a put-together personal life. He had a six-year relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer and considered himself a father to her child, Tina. Bundy and Kloepfer met in a bar in 1969 and moved in soon after.
"I handed Ted my life and said, 'Here. Take care of me.' He did in a lot of ways, but I became more and more dependent upon him. When I felt his love, I was on top of the world; when I felt nothing from Ted, I felt that I was nothing," Kloepfer later wrote of their hot-and-cold relationship in her memoir.
While the Netflix docuseries is more concerned with Bundy's crimes, the upcoming film — Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which gets its name from the description the judge used to describe Bundy's crimes in court — will focus on the troubling dichotomy of his personal life. In the film, Zac Efron will play Bundy and Lily Collins will play Kloepfer, his girlfriend of six years.
"The movie is really focusing on the positive relationships he had. We're seeing the entire story through the eyes of Elizabeth Kloepfer. That was my way of giving the audience the emotional journey of betrayal," Berlinger said.
Kloepfer was dating Bundy while he went on his 1974 to 1978 killing spree, which claimed the lives of at least 30 women. Kloepfer began noticing some strange behavior, like seeing a meat cleaver on his desk or his unexplained long drive to Colorado. She went to the police several times with her findings and eventually helped in the investigation. However, she and Bundy stayed together even as he was on trial for the kidnapping of Carole DaRonch.
Like the hit shows You and Dirty John, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is about women caught up in proximity to a charismatic evil. "It's not your typical serial killer film, where we focus on a grisly murder. I hope this movie will turn the serial killer genre on its head a bit and explore the nature of evil and explore how one becomes a victim to a psychopath because of how believable they are," Berlinger continued. "The thing about Bundy, is that people believed him."
Berlinger purposefully cast Zac Efron, a beloved former teen star, to exacerbate the effect of Bundy's disturbing charm for audiences. "Zac was perfect. Casting him allowed me to play with his real-life persona and turn it on his head. It was a brave decision on his part to take on this role and to challenge his image as a teen heartthrob," Berlinger said.
In that sense, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile resembles last year's My Friend Dahmer, which cast current teen star Ross Lynch as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in his teenaged years. Lynch's Dahmer isn't a monster yet — though he is strange. He skins animals in a hut in his backyard, tunes out his parents' fighting, and is the blatant odd-one-out in his friend group. The movie concludes with Dahmer picking up a hitchhiker soon after graduation. Both movies focus on the men's psychology, not necessarily their killings, and draw attention to the banality of evil.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile does not yet have a theatrical release date, but will premiere at the Sundance film festival. For now, catch Berlinger's less dramatised play-by-play of Bundy on Netflix on January 25.
"Bundy would love the attention," Berlinger said.