Ted Bundy has recently been hard to ignore. On January 24, Netflix released Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a four-part documentary about the serial killer based off Stephen Michaud’s Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer. Subsequently, Twitter and news sites filled up with musings about the murderer’s attractiveness, setting off a different round of debates about how inappropriate that was. Zac Efron, the former High School Musical and Disney Channel star, was put under fire for supposedly romanticizing the convicted killer in the film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a Bundy biopic that premiered at Sundance shortly thereafter.
The documentary and Efron’s upcoming film are just the beginning of this year’s Bundy-mania. Another documentary, titled Theodore, is due out later this year, as well as a film titled Bundy and the Green River Killer about Bundy’s collaboration with police to catch Gary Ridgway, the serial killer with the most convicted killings in American history. Aside from that, there have been other recent accounts of the Bundy story unpegged to the anniversary: 2017’s Fry Day, a short film set the night before Bundy’s execution and Oxygen’s 2018 two-hour special, Snapped Notorious: Ted Bundy. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least in the true-crime community, that Ted Bundy would be irritatingly pleased with all the attention he’s getting lately,” Vulture’s Tori Telfer wrote last summer.
It would be bizarre if all this arose in a vacuum, but Bundy is the beneficiary of the content industry’s love for round numbers. January 24 was the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution for killing more than 30 (some estimate more than 100) women, mostly young and attractive college students with their hair parted down the middle. After all this time, the Bundy mythos is up for consideration by a new generation born long after his crimes, with access to greater and more comprehensive historical resources. “This anniversary has seen much more attention paid to Bundy and his crimes than in previous anniversaries,” David Schmid, University of Buffalo English Professor and author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture (2005) told The Outline. “This may be because the crimes are now sufficiently in the past to allow, necessitate, and justify a thorough recap and reappraisal.”
This is, we might agree, a large amount of allotted time to fixate on a single subject who committed such awful acts. But memories fade: I initially blamed my own ignorance of Bundy on not being an avid fan of true crime, rather than any sort of failure to take part in cultural collective memory. Still, I was curious about the hype. I wanted to see where this sort of fascination stems from and why anyone, unless you are directly connected to a victim, cares about a man who was executed 30 years ago.
Bundy was born Ted Cowell to a single mother; his father’s identity is unknown. Around 1951, he and his mother moved to Tacoma, WA, where they lived with his great-uncle Jack Cowell, a music professor. Cowell was middle- to upper-middle class — well-traveled, had worked in Europe, and didn’t drive a junky car. Ted’s real hope, according to Rebecca Morris, author of Ted and Ann — The Mystery of a Missing Child and Her Neighbor Ted Bundy, was to be adopted by his great uncle. Instead, his mother remarried and Ted Cowell became Ted Bundy, a part of a “have-not” family on the block as Ted’s home was referred to in Conversations with a Killer. “He started shoplifting as a teenager, and he shoplifted his whole life. He didn’t take things he needed, he took skis, and skiwear, and things that he wanted to keep himself in that life, in the better class,” Morris said.
In 1973, the year before Bundy went on his murder spree, he struggled to be accepted into a top law school. He eventually settled and attended night school at the University of Puget Sound. “He’s bitterly disappointed because it lacks any mahogany and tweed that he had in mind. And it was a miserable year for him,” Michaud said during the Netflix documentary.
At this point, Bundy’s relationship with his first girlfriend, Diane Edwards, fell apart because he had no money. “I experienced any number of insecurities with Diane,” Bundy said on the tape recordings with Michaud. “There were occasions when I felt that she expected a great deal more from me than I was really capable of giving. I was not in any position to take her out and squire her around... in the manner in which she was accustomed... or buy her clothes... I think I was coming apart at the seams.” Shortly after, Bundy killed his first known victim, University of Washington college student Lynda Ann Healy. “His victims were all of a better class,” Morris said, emphasizing his obsession with status.
The first fictional depiction of Bundy aired in 1986, while he was on death row at Florida State Prison — a network television movie titled The Deliberate Stranger, starring Mark Harmon as Bundy. After the movie aired, Ann Rule, who in 1980 published a book about her relationship with Bundy called The Stranger Beside Me , received countless letters from young girls saying things akin to “I’m in love with Ted,” “I think he’s innocent,” “I’m gonna move to Florida,” and “I want to help him.” “You’re not in love with Ted Bundy, you’re in love with Mark Harmon,” Rule would reply.
Rule’s work was the first of many written adaptations of the Bundy mythos. Others include Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth’s 1989 collaborative effort, Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer (the basis for the Netflix documentary) and The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History (2009) by Kevin M. Sullivan. Aside from Mark Harmon in 1986, Bundy has been portrayed by other physically attractive actors, including Billy Campbell in the made-for-TV movie adaptation of Rule’s book in 2003 and Corin Nemec in 2008’s horror film Bundy: A Legacy of Evil.
True crime has been a compelling genre for decades, but the rise of the streaming economy and other instantaneous media formats has made a well-produced documentary just a click away, for those who wouldn’t normally think about serial killer narratives but may have their curiosity tickled by the collective discourse. “There’s a younger generation now who didn’t know who [Bundy] was and who are rediscovering him as this cultural icon,” Morris told me. With a decline in the threat of actual serial killers, Americans can view the likes of Bundy from a distance.
“Revisiting old serial killer cases has never been ’safer’ than it is now because this crime is no longer perceived as an imminent threat (unlike domestic terrorist acts such as random shootings),” Schmid said. “Consequently, there is a strangely nostalgic feel about some of these revisitings, as the audience goes back to a ‘simpler’ time.”
Morris compared the fascination with Bundy to just one other historical figure: Adolf Hitler. “There are lots of books about Hitler,” she said, “and the people who are fascinated by Hitler try to explain what made Hitler Hitler. ... People are constantly revisiting Hitler to see if there’s something new to say, to see if there are clues to explain what made him who he became.” But unlike Hitler, Bundy is irrelevant in world history, even if he was the first serial killer to seem like the guy next door — a handsome dude, like a million others. That this collective interest in him endures surely would’ve thrilled him. When Michaud told Bundy that he and Aynesworth were going to write a book about their taped interviews, Bundy responded, “I don’t care what you say as long as it sells.”