Another revival of Ted Bundy is underway. It seems to happen every decade. Each time it does, the world is bombarded with reminders of his “movie star good looks” and bountiful charm. These attributes always rise to the surface, and this superficial veneer — how he wanted the world to think of him — dominates the narrative. Why?
I understand why people are fascinated by interspecies predators like Bundy. Personally, their existence validates my misanthropy. I like solitude. I don’t like crowds, and I don’t like strangers. I perceive them as a threat. I’ve only recently begun to parse this out, though. Yes, I’m downright reclusive, and presses of people make me uncomfortable. But it’s deeper than that. The people I’m trying to avoid are men. They are why I have eyes in the back of my head. I had to grow them before I got my first training bra. Having to navigate through leering, inappropriate sexual comments, and grabbiness for decades has been exhausting. I’d rather stay home and read.
When I used to go out more and my friends and I would leave each other at the end of the night, I’d sometimes ask them to check in to let me know they hadn’t been “floorboarded.” They guys took it as a joke, and sometimes I’d even have to explain what I meant. The women always knew, though. Viscerally. Let me know you haven’t met the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he hasn’t made your final resting place a lime-filled burlap sack under the floorboards of his house.
A certain kind of man likes to insist that all men are hunters, and women are their prey. It’s natural, biological. It’s destiny. I don’t think they fully understand how sinister that framing is and just how real the fear of being killed at the hands of man is to many women. They want to be told that it’s all right to make us feel unsafe when they approach us in the middle of the night to make their play. How can any man still not understand that “Might this man who is twice my size horribly rape and murder me?” is running through the mind of the woman he approaches when she’s pumping her gas alone after dark? It’s not obtuseness. Not after all the news stories. Not after all the “Take Back the Night” campaigns. Not when Ted Bundy’s grinning face keeps cropping up to remind us that the worst can happen.
I haven’t seen the Netflix documentary that delves into the recordings of in-depth interviews with Bundy. I might. But I’ll have to brace myself for the depravity. I’m more than a bit disturbed, though, by the trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile, the Zac Efron-led feature film about Bundy, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. There’s a way to show viewers that Bundy could put on a good show for people and had enough social skills and charm to lure his victims without making him look like a roguish scamp. The tone of the trailer crosses the line, I think. Throughout it, Bundy is a winking, charming prankster with a million-dollar smile. I think the film means to show that he had everyone fooled. That’s not the same thing as there being no signs of what he was, though. There were red flags. Big ones. I remember reading that when he was a boy his aunt woke up to find that he’d taken all the sharp knives out of the kitchen and arranged them around her sleeping body. He was what he was before he hit puberty. People knew something wasn’t right about him, but strange or even disturbing interpersonal interactions are a long way away from serial murder and necrophilia. It’s not surprising that no one put together that he wasn’t merely a bit sinister or maybe even dangerous. His proclivities were too far outside the realm of even murderous human intentions for an ordinary person to have put the pieces of the puzzle together.
I don’t like how rehabilitative the narrative around Bundy often is. For context, Bundy would return to his victims’ rotting corpses to have sexual intercourse with them. One of them was a twelve year-old girl named Kimberly Leach. That is the level of utter, depraved, language-defying wickedness we’re talking about. Nevertheless, somehow, the story always comes back to how handsome and charming Bundy was. Personally, I don’t see the good looks. I think Bundy was an average-looking (perhaps moderately attractive) White guy, who presented as middle class and college-educated. That was and remains his shield. Yes, Bundy was tried, convicted, and executed, but the total devastation of reputation that befalls some criminals never really found its way to his cell door. Even in death, even after all he did, he’s still allowed some measure of humanity, some measure of worthiness, and, most importantly, desirability. He’s been introduced to a whole new generation, and plenty of them are thirsting over him on social media.
Bundy turning up like a bad pop culture penny again is important. After thinking about it a bit, I understand more clearly why that preppyish image of him is being maintained almost lovingly. There’s a reason it can nearly cover the horror of what he did. It’s to protect the other moderately attractive, superficially charming, college-educated White guys who prey on women. Not respecting women, invading our personal space and making us feel unsafe has to be normalized in order for them to operate. A powerful way of doing that is to label the tactics of disarmament and ingratiation Bundy used to lure his victims as something to be shined up and admired. Lauding Bundy’s charm is a way to preserve the honor and integrity of the hunt. It is also a kind of reverse psychology, reminding us again and again who is to be trusted and believed.
Bundy’s depraved crimes separated him from even other violent murderers. His looks and charisma separated him from more average men. The connection between his charm and his violent criminality is always made, but it gets muddled. I think that’s because if we look too closely at what’s lurking in that gap, we may not see many serial murdering necrophiliacs, but we’ll find a whole horde of sexual assailants, rapists, and abusers.