Finding the balance between romanticization and erasure
January 24, 2019 marked 30 years since the execution of Theodore Robert Bundy, and media outlets have taken notice. The serial killer who commited over thirty known murders in the 1970s has been remembered in the hit Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. And the biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins is slated to hit theaters this fall.
The renewed attention leads us to question the line between remembrance and romanticization when we imagine serial killers of the past. On one end, a new generation of fangirls (or stans) is flourishing on social media, reminiscent of the women who gathered outside the courtrooms thirty years ago hoping to catch a glimpse of the charismatic killer.
On the other side of the spectrum, voices like NBC contributor Natalie Shure maintain that, “There is no productive purpose for any layperson to ruminate on the inner lives of anomalously evil people.”
These two voices have been loudest since the release of Conversations with a Killer. They fit well into the current climate of discourse, especially on social media. Easy answers to complicated problems lead to two clashing communities. “Stans” view figures as harmless and untouchable, while the “cancel culture” demands that problematic aspects be erased without a second thought. This binary thinking is certainly easy, but when examining one of the most gruesome criminals who thrived during one of the most unstable periods in American history, the reality is much more complicated.
The 1970s may be romanticized as a time of disco and bell-bottoms, but in reality things were not so carefree. At the time of Bundy’s first recorded killing in 1973, the Vietnam War was at an incurable stalemate, the political pendulum swung far to the right after the liberal 1960s and more women —Bundy’s primary victims— were entering college and the workforce than ever before.
From Watergate to the energy crisis, everyday life had become increasingly uncertain. Furthermore, people were not accustomed to the idea that a serial killer could lurk in plain sight. The large scale murders Americans witnessed on television —wars— were committed by established enemies, far away “others” and any other random homicide was thought to be the result of an introverted outcast, an unexplainable “bad seed” people would know when they saw.
This was not what people saw when they looked at Ted Bundy. He was a young, clean-cut, college-educated Republican who smiled for the cameras when he was in handcuffs. As shown in Conversations with a Killer, he frequently cracked jokes in court and spoke in his own defense with the confidence of an actor on stage.
They saw that Zac Efron-like figure. And as broadcasting technology became more advanced, a wider population of Americans had access to a variety of news outlets, and the charming defendant became a staple of the evening news. “I’m not afraid,” one young woman stated outside his trial, “He just doesn’t look like the type to kill somebody.”
Opinions like these became central to the Bundy narrative, the narrative that persists to this day. But that doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Ann Rule, who worked with Bundy as a suicide hotline counselor during his college years, wrote of her former friend, “Ted was never as handsome, brilliant, or charismatic as crime folklore has deemed him… he somehow became all of those things as the media embraced him.”
Bundy’s influence remained even after he was sentenced to death by electric chair. The widespread nature of his crimes resulted in police stations being more willing to communicate with one another and connect similar evidence.
A generation of increasingly independent young women who grew up in the hitchhiking, drug heavy days of the 1960s were now painfully aware that their safety would always be at risk, a fear that still rests with every young woman as she walks down a dark street at night. And most importantly, it became clear to law enforcement and everyday Americans that there were not many guidelines to determine whether or not someone was capable of murder. Outward appearance, education level and socioeconomic status are not shortcuts to convictions.
Psychological analysis also became more prevalent. Forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland elaborates, “As we see how Bundy shifted for various contexts, it’s evident that a sophisticated evaluation of chameleonic flexibility would be a useful tool for dealing with predatory psychopaths, in any context.”
Regardless of controversies, Ted Bundy’s actions have become cemented in American folklore. But as far away as his killings seem now, and as quick as we are to bury what we can’t understand, the impact he had on the lives of his victims, their families, and the culture at large cannot be forgotten.
Working to untangle a complicated time in American History and defending the actions of a murderer are not mutually exclusive. And as we continue through this anniversary, perhaps this is one part of the 1970s that should not be examined with rose-colored glasses, nor should it be lost to history.
Rachael Powles is a first-year theatre-studies and culture & communications major who wouldn’t date Bundy for a million bucks.