As Netflix pays $9million for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a new Ted Bundy biopic starring Zac Efron, we examine what our obsession with the serial killer really means.
With the recent release of Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, the upcoming Zac Efron-starring biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and Netflix’s $9 million purchase of said film, there’s been a sudden boom of interest in serial killer Ted Bundy.
This is more cyclical than actually new, or so it seems. Since his arrest in 1975 and eventual execution in 1989, the world’s fascination with Bundy has only ever waned, but never truly disappeared. More generally, an obsession with true crime has recently become a millennial go-to, with “true crime doc and chill” replacing “Netflix and chill”. You only need to look at the unwavering popularity of shows like Making a Murderer, The Keepers and The Staircase, and podcasts such as My Favourite Murder, Serial and The Teacher’s Pet for proof.
An interest in true crime stories such as these is often framed as an ‘alternative’ interest, but that’s not necessarily the case. Throughout the Nineties and Noughties, the women in my family devoured every true crime magazine and made-for-TV documentary going. Even the tamest of my grans would read real-life magazines in the hairdresser, feverishly consuming the gory tales of rape and murder that would generally fill its pages.
Despite the fact that women make up the vast majority of victims in these stories, we as a gender actually consume more true crime content than men. Melissa Hamilton, a senior lecturer in law and criminal justice at Surrey University, told me that this is likely to be because “women are more fearful of being victimised by men” and it is a normal “human reaction is to be fascinated by things that scare us”.
But it isn’t our obsession with true crime that’s been controversial recently: rather, it’s that women are now revealing they are attracted to Ted Bundy. The reaction to this realisation has been hysterical, with people taking to Twitter in their droves to shame these women. Netflix US even sent out a tweet to remind them that Bundy killed people, just in case they’d forgotten.
This shaming comes on the tail-end of a similar incident, in which viewers of the hit Netflix series You said they were attracted to the murderous main character. In response, its star Penn Badgley glibly reminded them that “he is a murderer”. This perceived romanticisation has been sensationalised. And yet, in the same way that our interest in true crime isn’t new, our attraction to the men who commit the crimes isn’t, either.
Ted Bundy, who murdered and raped at least 30 women and girls in the Seventies, was the focus of media attention and evaded capture for so long partly because he was deceptively charming. Back then, before mobile phones and social media, an educated, smooth-talking, OK-looking, white man could move around the world mostly undetected. He wasn’t a genius. In fact, he was stunningly mediocre, making erratic mistakes and doing goofy stuff like wearing disguises or leaving evidence in his car that might have gotten someone else caught.
But he was not, for a long time, because he did not look scary. He seemed “normal”, and it was only to people who knew him really well that anything might have seemed amiss. The reason he got away with so much, and for so long, was because his looks were passable.
There are entire Tumblr blogs dedicated to Ted Bundy. Teenagers, often with complex relationships to their own mental health and traumas, dress him up in flower crowns and proclaim their love for him. (There is even a psychological term, called Hybristophilia, to describe people who are aroused by those who’ve committed heinous acts.)
But the attraction goes back much further than Tumblr: around Ted Bundy’s trial, women showed up in droves with their hair parted down the middle because they wanted to look like a Bundy victim and catch his eye. He even managed to get a woman pregnant while he was behind bars. It is easy – too easy – to create a gulf between a horrific crime and the person you see before you, because the truth is so difficult to understand.
Of course, openly adoring a man who killed and raped at least 30 women and girls is in poor taste. However, the situation is far more complicated than the outraged people on social media would have you believe. For a woman to be attracted to a dangerous man doesn’t mean that she doesn’t care about the atrocities he committed – many are in denial. If we have been abused or traumatised, we might have a different idea of what it means to be loved or aroused.
Naomi Murphy, a clinical psychologist who has worked in prisons for 18 years, tells Stylist that the women who write to the violent men she works with “often have their own histories of trauma and neglect”. She points out that the people we are drawn to are often influenced by our experiences of early attachments in life, and “many of these women have a history of serious sexual trauma”. She points to the chemistry that we feel with people who remind us of past relationships during childhood, “even if these relationships were harmful and destructive”, adding that our early relationships shape our beliefs about ourselves. Murphy believes that nobody is evil – instead, we are the product of our own experiences, neglects and traumas.
Ted Bundy horrified the world because he could have been anyone: your boyfriend, your brother, your dad. As he allegedly said himself: “Society wants to believe it can identify evil people, or bad or harmful people, but it’s not practical. There are no stereotypes.”
He was not a monster – he was a man. Even his live-in girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer (or Kendall), had to see overwhelming evidence before she realised the truth. She eventually wrote a book about it, The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy, which served as the inspiration for the aforementioned Zac Efron film. Reading it reveals that she struggled to see who he really was because she had low self-esteem and a difficult history with men. So when faced with a man who wanted to care for her and her child, she managed to ignore terrifying things – until eventually she helped to turn him in. Crime writer Ann Rule wrote a book entitled The Stranger Beside Me that dissected the cases but also explored her own conflicted feelings about Bundy, a killer she had once called her friend.
Hamilton believes that an attraction to serial killers has evolved partly due to socialisation. “Throughout much of the Twentieth Century there was a cultural value in women ‘taming’ men, in the sense of getting a man to settle down,” she says. “Thus, a woman could receive social approval for calming a violent man.”
And it’s true: how many of us have believed we are responsible for “fixing” the men we date? She also points to the distinction we make between men and their behaviour, in which we do not attribute men’s actions to the men themselves. “Abused women, for example, often engage in such a distinction which helps to explain how an abused woman can still love the abuser,” she explains. “They often say they simply want the abuse to stop, not for the relationship to end. A serial killer who is caught can presumably no longer engage in the bad behaviour, so he can be forgiven”.
It takes abused women an average of seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship: the situation is not as simple as realising someone is ‘bad’. Hamilton also mentions the deception that Bundy had mastered: “serial killers with female victims must usually develop a personality that is able to lure and manipulate potential victims into their sphere”. And a woman falling for that doesn’t reflect negatively on her.
Some women write letters to serial killers. Some marry men behind bars. Some love their own abusers. Others performatively fawn over murderers online. The reasoning behind this is complex and varied, and the conversation requires nuance and understanding. The point is not to make these women feel weird. Perhaps they have low self-esteem or have been maltreated, but whatever their reasons, the only conclusion to be drawn is that they are human and complex. Our desires aren’t our fault, but they are there to be unpicked and understood so that we don’t harm anyone with them.
The topic is vast and difficult for us to confront: it is hard to look at darker things in ourselves, and easy to say that the women who are attracted to serial killers are different. It is easy to say that the men who kill women are different to our friends.
But dangerous men are not a different species to the ones that we invite into our homes, and in reality that is the scariest thing of all about Ted Bundy.