Ted Bundy, Netflix and Artistic Responsibility

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When I first saw the trailer for the four-part Netflix original, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, one sentence put me off. In Bundy’s own voice, “I am looking for an opportunity to tell the story as best I can” makes it ominously clear that this is Ted’s moment, his last chance at the spotlight.

I had one huge hesitation: why does a serial murderer, rapist and necrophiliac deserve a platform to tell his story? The idea of putting a sadistic narcissist on a pedestal and allowing him to indulge in the story of what was, to him, his life’s masterpiece, didn’t sit well with me. But, saddled with a natural curiosity and intrigued by the snapshot reviews popping up on Twitter, I decided to give the series a try.

Thankfully, Bundy’s tape recordings were of minor emphasis throughout. Once you’re aware that he was considered a compulsive liar who has rarely told the same story twice (I mean, you can’t really be a serial killer and not be a compulsive liar), you have to take anything he says with a pinch of salt. And indeed, much of what comes out of his mouth is proved categorically untrue or contradicted by others. The series did indeed seem to acknowledge this important point and downplayed his third-person recount accordingly, so it seems ‘The Ted Bundy Tapes’ and its claim of showcasing ‘the story in his own words’ was more of an attention grabber than a groundbreaking documentary format.

What was much more interesting than the voice recordings was the video footage of the killer during and in the build up to his trial. I braced myself for a charming, witty man who I could imagine swooning his poor victims. Sure, he wasn’t your stereotypical killer; he had a degree in psychology, dressed smartly, and engaged easily in small-talk and banter. From watching the footage, I admit it was clear how Bundy passed for a normal young man to many of those who knew him.

I braced myself for a charming, witty man who I could imagine swooning his poor victims. 

But charming? Not so much. Granted hindsight is a blessing and four hours of documentary footage is not conclusive, you don’t have to be a psychology graduate to spot the erratic, impulsive and overwhelming narcissism of this man. The constant diversion tactics he used in court and with journalists, coupled with an uncomfortable nervous laughter when questioned about his innocence, was unsettling to say the least. What has stuck with me the most is the scene in which he cross-examines a witness himself, against the advice of his legal counsel, demanding over and over again the excruciating detail of the corpse of one of his victims, visibly relishing in the imagery.

And ultimately, for all the charm people claim this killer had, the arrogance and remorselessness he oozed in the courtroom “sabotaged” him and secured a guilty verdict despite very little physical or forensic evidence. For me, this was the most enlightening part of the documentary series; a show about a man who allegedly smiled his way into his victims’ lives quickly offered a more accurate picture of someone who maintained a facade of normality to only a limited extent.

We learn that he nearly failed his LSATs and was out of his depth at law school, rather than being an “evil genius” who skilfully defended his own case. We hear that he lived an entire life of crime and theft from childhood, rather than being an otherwise upholding member of society. The episodes explore how those close to him were, contrary to popular belief, were able to see holes in his fake life, including his girlfriend, who at numerous points named him a suspect to police.

The viewer isn’t made to sympathise with him, nor do we conclude the documentary feeling like we understand his behaviour.

We also owe it to the victims to remember that Bundy did not use the art of seduction to entrap them; on many occasions, he broke into their sorority house bedrooms and bludgeoned them to death while they slept. Not very charming, is it? And if he wasn’t preying on sleeping women, he was pretending to be handicapped and in need of help; the series doesn’t claim that any women ‘fell for’ Bundy, as I had many a time read was the case.

Another strength of this documentary is that it doesn’t try too hard to explain away Bundy’s crimes. There were a handful of cliché and eye-roll-worthy references to not fitting in at school or having a possibly abusive grandfather, but on the whole, the filmmakers did not fall into the trap of giving Bundy a victim-complex.

The viewer isn’t made to sympathise with him, nor do we conclude the documentary feeling like we understand his behaviour, which though frustrating, is positive. Despite being Bundy’s opportunity to tell the story in his own words, I was impressed by its balance and refusal to romanticise the killer in the way that many other sources have done.

Of course, a mere four episodes means that many of the 30+ victims were skimmed over and the important trials and appeals that followed were squeezed into only the last half hour. However, the series selling-point remains that it gives a balanced view of somebody who was not a charming bachelor with a sick hobby on the side, but rather a creepy psycho first and foremost, and a pleasant man second.

Image Credit: Twitter Trends 2019