Netflix’s new documentary series, “Conversations with a serial killer – The Ted Bundy Tapes” has sure caused a stir since first airing about a week ago (in Australia, not sure how long it’s been on US Netflix). Timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution on February 24, 1989, the documentary focuses on audio tapes journalist Stephen Michaud made while interviewing perhaps the most infamous and prolific serial killer in America’s history. It also features an interview with survivor Carol DaRonch, who was lured to Bundy’s car under false pretenses, managed to escape and was the first real eye-witness to give police an idea of who they were after. She also later testified against him.
Of course, in this time of the #MeToo campaign and the totally necessary (and in fact, overdue) heightened awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault and violence against women in society, the documentary couldn’t have come at a better – or worse – time, depending on how you look at it. There are those who believe both the doco and the movie about Bundy starring Zac Efron, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile do nothing but glorify and sexualize Bundy and his exploits, and that airing them now must be like a kick in the guts to the families of victims, even after all this time. Valid points, certainly. As a person who has lost a member of my own family to murder in 1993, I know I would not want my uncle’s killer (now deceased also, but by his own making) being almost celebrated in this way.
However, and that’s a really big however, I can definitely understand why the documentary and movie were made. The reasoning behind it is astonishingly simple. Bundy was able to stalk, lure and kill so many victims (some say as many as 36, some hint at more) because he was not what you would expect a serial killer to look like. For some reason, (perhaps because of the proliferation of slasher movies over the past thirty years) people still assume that a serial killer doesn’t look like you or me. He (or she, although female serial killers are rare) is painted in popular culture as being creepy, ugly, perhaps even deformed in some way. A loner who can’t speak above a whisper, or converse with the opposite sex, even to ask the time of day. Wow, that rhymed. Anyway, when they hear the term ‘serial killer’ most people think of someone who would be easy to spot as an outsider. An obvious misfit. Ted Bundy’s ‘career’ – if you can call it that – proves otherwise. Now, I personally can’t see what the fuss is about. I don’t think Bundy was particularly attractive, but as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I can however believe that he could be superficially charming, glib and eloquent, as he was a sociopath and that’s what they’re good at – fooling people that they’re just like everyone else, when they’re not. Of course, not all sociopaths are serial killers or mass murderers (there is a difference), but all serial killers are sociopaths. They’re self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, self-involved, deeply flawed human beings who lack the ability to empathize with others. Most sociopaths don’t wind up becoming serial killers, but for those who do, who knows why they turn out that way? That’s a longer story than I have space for here but if you’re interested there are a few good books on the subject, written by FBI profilers like John Douglas and Robert Ressler. Mindhunter, which was turned into a Netflix series as well, coincidentally, is a good one. Whoever Fights Monsters, by Ressler, is another.
But I digress. The point I’m trying to make here is that while the movie’s trailer may seem to glorify Bundy, it’s showing how normal he was; how easy it was for him to hide in plain sight. To attend university, have a serious relationship, work as a political campaigner, volunteer as a Crisis Hotline counselor, even! No one in Ted’s social circle mentioned his name to police, even when he had the same car as the “Ted” they were looking for, because they just didn’t believe such a normal, nice, friendly guy like the Ted they knew could kidnap, rape, murder, decapitate and defile his victim’s bodies. They just couldn’t conceive of such a thing. That’s how good he was at pretending to be normal. And that’s the point the movie most likely is trying to make (it doesn’t yet have a release date), and the point the documentary was trying to make. And I think it did a pretty decent job, overall.
In 1978, Kathy Kleiner-Rubin was a young woman living in Chi Omega Sorority house and attending the University of Florida when her life was changed forever. Bundy was on the run after an audacious escape from his jail cell in Colorado. He hopped a few buses and crossed the country, finding himself in sunny Florida. Now, most reasonable people would lay low for a while, and not do anything to call attention to themselves or risk getting caught, but Bundy couldn’t control his impulses. He broke into the sorority late at night, bludgeoned Kathy and her room-mate, murdered Margaret Bowman in her bed and raped and murdered their sorority sister, Lisa Levy. He was seen, albeit briefly, by a co-ed arriving home around midnight. This is partially what lead to his being caught, as she remembered his prominent nose and thin lips. Kathy didn’t see her attacker, just a dark shape, but over the years since she has watched a lot of media concerning Bundy and believes that the persona Bundy showed people is the one he wanted everyone to see. The charming, friendly, sociable law student. People trusted him. People liked him. Women liked him, and not just after his arrest and well-publicized trial. He had a long-term girlfriend, a single mother named Liz Koepfler, who eventually began to see through his lies and put the pieces together. She found items of clothing belonging to women in a bag in his room. She found a knife under the front passenger seat of his car. She reported other things – private things – that made her think something was definitely off about Ted, when she called the police and added his name to the long list of suspects police had at the time. But even then, Liz wasn’t entirely sure of her instincts. Kleiner-Rubin hopes that the movie will make women “more aware of their surroundings and cautious”, and to trust their instincts: “He had different tactics that he used to get people to help him get in cars or do things and in your gut if you feel like something doesn’t feel right, just say no.” This Is the very instinct that saved Carol DaRonch’s life. Bundy posed as a police officer and succeeded in getting her to agree to accompany him to the station to make a statement about someone breaking into her car at the mall. He even had fake ID, which looked real. Carol realized something was up when he drove past the route to the station and pulled up near an abandoned elementary school. She panicked and fought for her life, managing to get away despite his trying to hit her on the head with a crowbar and slapping a handcuff around her wrist. She flagged down a passing car and reported the attempted abduction to the police.
She appears in the documentary to tell her story for the same reason as Kleiner – to make women aware that guys like Bundy exist, they’re out there and we need to use our instincts to avoid becoming a victim. It’s not about victim-blaming: “oh, she was out late at night, what was she doing?” and other bullshit statements like that, because many of Ted’s victims were lured away in broad daylight, in public places. And it was just the fact that he was normal-looking, unthreatening, and even seemingly incapacitated (he used fake casts and crutches to get women to help him load stuff in his car, for instance) that they didn’t think anything of helping this poor guy. Personally, I would have been like “why don’t you ask some dude to help you load your sailboat on the car?” but hindsight is 20-20. We can always say what we would do in that situation, but we never know, do we?
Netflix has since expressed its collective revulsion at the fact that women are commenting on the documentary, saying that Ted – the real Ted, not Zac Efron’s interpretation – is ‘hot’ and they wouldn’t mind him sneaking into their room at night. And I can certainly agree with Netflix on this. If you are one of those women who think Ted Bundy was hot, and made such ridiculous statements, consider that he raped and killed roughly 36 young women by strangulation or bludgeoning, cut their heads off and had sex with their dead bodies. Is that really your idea of a hot date?! Apparently it is to some, as Bundy married one of his most staunch supporters while he was on death row, and somehow managed to get her pregnant despite the ban on conjugal visits. He had female supporters show up at his trial, their hair dyed brunette and parted in the middle, just like the majority of his victims. It’s the wild, inconceivable extreme of star-fucking to want to date or marry a serial killer, but it happens. Richard Ramirez, the Nightstalker, had his female fans, and like Bundy, married one in prison. Even one of his surviving rape victims said he was good-looking, but that he had really bad breath. These women seem to think their love alone will be enough to change the monster inside of him. They’re kidding themselves.
Above L to R: The real Bundy during his trial, Zac Efron as Bundy, Kathy Kleiner-Rubin (2017)