The Ted Bundy Tapes paints a problematic picture of the famous serial killer



By Jasmine Silk, Third Year, English

The first of two works on Ted Bundy by director Joe Berlinger is a gripping Netflix docu-series which dangerously presents him as attractive and charismatic, similarly to the casting choice of his upcoming biopic, starring Zac Efron.

Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is a detailed account of Ted Bundy’s crimes, and attempts to shed light on the psychology of the famed murderer. Further research on Bundy reveals that in his selection of material, director Joe Berlinger is far more focused on, or even enthralled by, Bundy’s persona. This is in part what makes The Ted Bundy Tapes such a gripping series, but it is also where it is at its most problematic.

Based on a series of taped interviews with journalist Stephen Michaud in 1980, the docu-series’ trailer would have you believe we are going to hear about Bundy’s crimes from the killer himself. However, Bundy never speaks about these crimes outside of the hypothetical. As Michaud notes, Bundy speaks ‘without saying anything that could ever be taken to court’.

Youtube / Netflix

There are tapes and filmed interviews where Bundy speaks far more frankly about his horrific acts. These were recorded closer to his death, before which he began to confess in a bid to have his execution stayed once more.

Berlinger, however, does not make use of these. He puts the series through the vague lens of Bundy’s self requested, regularly narcissistic and aggrandising interviews, in which he attempts to present a better version of himself. It is quickly noted that Bundy is presenting an ‘idealized’ version of his life, and it is easy to google the facts and see that the stories do not line up. Bundy continues to present a version of himself he would like people to believe in, and Berlinger does not utterly refute this.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Berlinger presents some quotes and interviews acknowledging some of the discrepancies, but ultimately glosses over many in favour of the more interesting image of Bundy. With episodes titled ‘Handsome Devil’ and ‘One of Us’, Berlinger seems to have been drawn into the narrative that Bundy had a normal life and a uniquely abnormal evil. To this end, he skips over much of Bundy’s real family trouble and strange behaviour, just as Bundy does in these tapes.

This representation of Bundy; the intensity of listening to his voice on and off for four hours, of seeing his face appear every two minutes, is part of what draws the audience in. The difficulty in aligning Bundy’s acts with the confident, grinning man on the screen seems to have enthralled Berlinger as much as his audience. Berlinger represents him as a mystery; emphasising the image of Bundy as good looking, charming, and intelligent, to the extent it risks grossly exaggerating Bundy’s significance.

IMDb / Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile / Sundance Institute

Of course, he wants us to see this version of Bundy as significant; he’s based a whole film around it. With the trailer release coinciding with its premiere at Sundance just a day after this series, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) will be Berlinger’s second piece on the killer. A discussion, which began with controversy over the casting of Zac Efron as Bundy, has quickly become a wider discussion of the ethics of true crime for entertainment.

Many people felt that Berlinger’s choice to cast a one-time teen heart-throb as a mass rapist and murderer could lead to the very group of women he targeted romanticising and sexualising him. Despite the artistic merits of this choice, this has already proved true in the response to the documentary. Emphasising the more normal or charming aspects of Bundy’s character Berlinger does not help this.

However, the backlash to this reaction has been huge, with even Netflix tweeting:

Along with many others pointing out that no, necrophiliac rapists/murderers are not sexy. At all.

However we can hardly blame Berlinger or his casting of Zac Efron for this. As The Ted Bundy Tapes notes, women have been fetishising Ted Bundy since his trial, even passing notes to him in the courtroom. In this way it raises awareness of an important issue: criminals do not always look like criminals.

One benefit of true crime documentaries is that the investigate how and why terrible things happen, in the hopes they will not be allowed to happen again. In the larger controversy over true crime this awards season, with the Oscar nomination of Detainment (2019), this has been put forward as justification.

The film concerns the murder of James Bulger, whose mother was not consulted about its production, and is now calling for its withdrawal. In defence of his actions, director Vincent Lambe has said: ‘The film was made in the interest of understanding why it happened in order to prevent something similar happening again in the future.’

This justification may also stand for The Ted Bundy Tapes, so long as we remember him as he was - unusual only in his cruelty, dishonesty, and narcissism. I do not believe he would be considered unusually attractive, charismatic or intelligent had he not been a monster. It was only due to less advanced technology and his ability to take advantage of kindness that he succeeded for as long as he did.

If you do watch, I also recommend that you take a moment to remember his victims, many of whom were also young university students like so many of us. In a reaction to the series Billy Jensen posted a Twitter thread, giving information about the lives Bundy stole.

So by all means, I recommend this series on the basis that it is a gripping and interesting addition to Netflix’s true crime catalogue. Just remember not to get too caught up in Berlinger’s fascination with this truly disgusting figure. Based on tapes where Bundy makes one of many attempts to glean sympathy, this series only reinforces the feeling that we cannot ever fully understand him, and that is probably a very good thing.

Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Netflix

Have you seen The Ted Bundy Tapes and what are your thoughts on the perception of the serial killer?

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