Ted Bundy Wasn't Special Or Smart. He Was Just White.
Bundy crafted the mythology that he had superhuman charm and intelligence. The media fell for it.
Ted Bundy, though dead for 30 years, is again having his moment in the spotlight. In 2019, the serial killer — who brutally raped and murdered at least 36 women — is the subject of a new four-part docuseries on Netflix, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and will be portrayed by a chiseled Zac Efron in the film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which will be released in theaters on January 26.
In both the docuseries and the film, Bundy is painted as an artful, handsome, and exceptionally intelligent man; one whom you would never, ever think was capable of bludgeoning women to death and then having sex with their corpses. In the movie’s trailer, Efron’s Bundy smirks, winks, seductively takes off his shirt, and passionately rips off a woman's blouse.
Bundy’s image in 2019 is not much different than what it has been since he was first arrested in in 1975. News media at the time depicted Bundy as charming and charismatic. (Here's Dan Rather calling Bundy "intelligent" and "articulate" the day before his execution in 1989.) In Conversations with a Killer, PBS correspondent Ed Hula says “the lurid nature of the case, the depravity of the violence, and the personality of Ted Bundy combined to make this something that the media could not ignore.” Marlin Lee Vortman, a friend of Bundy who met him when they both worked on the campaign for a Utah Republican gubernatorial candidate said Bundy was “the kind of guy you want your sister to marry.” This perception of Bundy as a bewitching Lothario, who was able to hide his evil double-life so well because he was almost supernatural, has been the inspiration for dozens of TV specials, documentaries, and movies; Buffalo Bill, the serial killer from Silence of the Lambs, was based loosely on Bundy’s supposed ability to outsmart law enforcement. Positive descriptors like “good-looking,” “clean-cut,” and, of course, “charming,” are used countless times in reference to Bundy throughout Conversations with a Killer.
He was going to show the world that he was the one to be dealt with and it was a lot of blowhard talk. He tried to fool you and lie to you.
But the Ted Bundy of America’s consciousness is a myth. Bundy was not special, he was not smarter than the average person; he did not have a personality so alluring that his female victims could not help but simply go off with him. He did not have a superhuman skill to be one step ahead of the police. What Bundy did have was the power of being a white man in a society that reveres them and has implicit faith in their abilities. This privilege gave Bundy the ability to make even the most heinous of crimes take second place to his personality. Bundy isn’t even exceptional when compared to other American serial killers. So why is his legacy treated with fascination and twisted admiration rather than condemnation?
In “Handsome Devil,” the first episode of Conversations with a Killer, which is based on taped deathrow interviews of Bundy by journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, Bundy paints a rosy picture of his own childhood growing up in Tacoma, WA. “First grade I was a somewhat champion frog-catcher,” Bundy said. “I mean, I was a frog man.” By Bundy’s own words he was a normal kid. But, slipped between the macabre praise of Bundy’s personality is his childhood friend Sandi Holt’s take on who Ted really was: He didn’t fit in, he couldn’t do anything right, and at one point he was teased for a speech impediment. “In high school, he wanted to be something he wasn’t. He was gonna be president,” Holt said. “He was going to show the world that he was the one to be dealt with and it was a lot of blowhard talk. He tried to fool you and lie to you. He wasn’t athletic. He wanted to be number-one in class but he wasn’t.” He was listed as “illegitimate” on his birth certificate and there is reason to believe he was abused as a child. From the beginning, he was creating his own mythology.
The docuseries and coverage of Bundy in general selectively frames his credentials and his crimes. That Bundy went to law school is popular knowledge; that he got mediocre scores on his LSATs and eventually stopped going to class altogether is not. Casting heartthrob Zac Efron to play Bundy would make one believe he was a ladies' man, when in reality he had few girlfriends and was dumped by his affluent and successful college sweetheart because he was directionless and insecure. While the docuseries makes note of these facts, they are overshadowed by non-stop dialogue about Bundy’s appearance and his alleged hypnotizing effect on those around him. While on trial in Utah for the kidnapping of Carol DaRonch (who escaped), Bundy wore nice suits, had his hair coiffed, and playfully bantered with reporters about finishing law school. The media ate it up, but the brave eyewitness testimony of DaRonch canceled out Bundy’s lies and he was convicted and sentenced to prison.
The man’s a wimp. I mean, people that sneak up on women and kill them — what else can you say?
Although the overarching theme is that he had a magnetic energy, DaRonch recalls feeling creeped out when Bundy approached her in the mall parking lot impersonating a police officer. The way in which Bundy found his victims is somewhat of a footnote in the series and movie because it’s a very inconvenient truth: He did not lure women with his wit, but rather tricked them by pretending to have a broken arm or pretending to be law enforcement. He snuck up behind them at night, when there was no one around. He crept into their rooms under the cover of darkness while they were fast asleep, at their most vulnerable. Bundy was able to evade capture for so long simply because in the 1970s when women began disappearing, police departments did not have the DNA technology nor coordination between different jurisdictions to link the crimes to him.
Even the journalists who somewhat enabled Bundy’s false narrative had to admit the truth: “The man’s a wimp. I mean, people that sneak up on women and kill them — what else can you say?” Hugh Aynesworth, one of the journalists who interviewed Bundy while he was on death row, said on the day of his execution in 1989.
When Bundy was on trial in 1979 for the murders of Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy at Florida State University’s Chi Omega sorority house, he was allowed to represent himself. Young, white female admirers of Bundy would flock to court each day and reporters would interview them on camera as they gushed about his good looks. As Bundy paced around the courtroom free from handcuffs or shackles, journalists and attendees would laugh at his jokes and shenanigans as if he hadn't been accused of savagely sexually assaulting and bludgeoning two women to death.
Much as his ill-fated law school tenure foreshadowed, Bundy’s stint representing himself proved he was hardly a brilliant legal mind. He self-sabotaged, he rambled, he got angry and belligerent, and was held in contempt. But because Bundy, with the help of the media, was seen as just a young man who may have lost his way, he was allowed shocking levels of leeway that were unlikely to be afforded to men of color, particularly those who are Black. The same year Bundy was executed, Donald Trump took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, a group of Black and Latinx young men ranging in age from 14 to 16 years old, who were accused and convicted of raping a white woman in New York City. The teens, who were called “savages” and compared to animals in the press, were later exonerated by DNA evidence.
Judge Edward Cowart, who was presiding over the trial, toured Bundy’s cell and ordered he be moved to a different one after a petulant Bundy complained of not having enough light to read. The judge would often refer to Bundy, who was then 33 years old, as “young man” and “partner.” To watch footage of the trial is to see in action the infantilization of Bundy in front of America despite his monstrous acts, simply because he was white and conventionally attractive to the dominant culture at the time, while Black men and women accused of crimes are sexualized and made into violent caricatures as a default.
“It’s a tragedy to see such a total waste, I think, of humanity that I have experienced in this court. You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer,” Judge Cowart said as he sentenced Bundy to death by electric chair. “I’d have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t have any animosity to you, I want you to know that.”
And therein lies the crux of the Bundy myth: Even when convicted of the most depraved crimes, a white man’s supposed potential will supersede reality. From the time he was first arrested, to when he was strapped to the electric chair, to present day when he is being romanticized into some machiavellian Romeo, Ted Bundy was given the benefit of the doubt.
When police bag a serial killer, he is usually a weak man, cowardly, not terribly savvy, and a failure at most everything he's ever done in life.
We don’t need Ted Bundy to be reminded of the white male privilege so embedded in American society. We see it when white men are given lenient sentences for rape and manslaughter because they have promising futures or because they were raised with such affluence, people think they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. We see it when dozens of people are shot dead in churches, schools, and newsrooms and lawmakers take no meaningful action because the perpetrator isn’t Brown or from the Middle East. We see it when women are targeted because they left an abusive relationship or turned down a man’s advances and it barely makes a blip in the 24/7 news cycle. We see it when Ted Bundy’s name is cemented in pop culture but his victims remain supporting acts in his story.
Ted Bundy should not only be left in the past, the story of who he really was needs to be accurately rewritten. Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach wrote in 1991, “The imaginary serial killer is a powerful creature, brilliant at his craft, an implacable death machine. He's like a shark, driven not by mindless hunger but by an elaborate malevolence — evil, if you will.”
He continued: “Real life is not so gothic. When police bag a serial killer, he is usually a weak man, cowardly, not terribly savvy, and a failure at most everything he's ever done in life. He's a loser.” In 2019, it’s time to undo Bundy’s delusions of grandeur and remember him as he should be: as a gutless creep who could only feel power by preying on the vulnerable.