As much as I’m fascinated by true crime, I’ve never cared for the stories of serial killers. Give me a look at the detectives who tracked him down. Give me an insight into the victims, living and dead. Give me a context for the society that contributed or conflicted with this murderer’s crimes and their coverage. But when it comes to looking into their crimes from the perspective of a serial killer, I have little interest and less patience. Yet in a single afternoon, I binged all of producer/director Joe Berlinger’s documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which play as the precursor to his narrative version, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. So, let’s dive into its good, bad, and ghastly.
This Netflix mini-series offers four episodes that center on recordings Bundy allowed to be made while he was in prison. This American serial killer targeted young women and girls between 1974 and 1978. He would be convicted of aggravated kidnapping, rape, attempted murder, and murder. Before his execution by the state, he would confess to 30 homicides, many unverified. Plus, he revealed his revolting habit of raping the corpses of his victims.
The Ted Bundy Tapes largely skirts the grisly details of these crimes. But it will offer a chilling display of the skeletal remains of several of Bundy’s victims. It will show crime scene photos of bite marks on dead flesh. It will show courtroom footage where Bundy—acting as his own representation—directs a witness to recount the crime scene of the Chi Omega sorority house, where Bundy systematically molested, mauled, and murdered co-eds. It will play Bundy’s tapes over this scene, allowing him to suggest in the third person he got off on hearing these ghoulish details recounted for the world. And as I sat and listened to Bundy—in the tapes and in archival footage—I couldn’t help but feel this doc is a victory lap for the vile and manipulative murderer.
There’s very little attention spared for the victims of his crimes. Many are presented as smiling, faded photographs. The descriptors used to define them are interchangeable. Each is perfunctorily painted as a lovely, pretty, good girl. They are stock characters plugged in to fill out the supporting cast of the Ted Bundy show. (For more on the victims’ lives and personalities, check the Twitter thread of investigative journalist Billy Jensen.) The exception is Carol DaRonch. She’s a captivating interview, sharing the harrowing day where she escaped Bundy’s clutches and handcuffs. But as things veer into his Florida murder spree, this survivor and pivotal witness is treated as little more than an afterthought.
Berlinger seems enamored with Bundy’s bravado, his insatiable hunger for murder (6 women in fewer than 6 months), his audacious prison escapes, his unfaltering arrogance, which led to some truly shocking courtroom antics, including proposing to a character witness while she was on the stand. (Carole Ann Boone would go on to marry the convict, and conceive his child while he was on death row.) Berlinger leans into these stories with an unnerving marveling as if the sheer nerve of Bundy deserves respect if nothing else.
At first, his fascination is subtle. The tone of the series is stern unlike the controversial teaser for Berlinger’s follow-up. Interview subjects range from police and FBI agents to psychiatrists, old friends, victims, and the journalist who spent roughly 100 hours sitting down with Bundy to write a book from his perspective. Their tone is grim, remorseful, and sometimes astounded. One man remembers Bundy as “the kind of guy you’d want your sister to marry.” A lot will be said about Bundy’s charms, which were put on display in the media and in the court. But it’s hard to understand that watching this footage when you already know the end, the truth, the terror.
Berlinger seems fascinated by how Bundy was able to hide in plain sight by being a moderately attractive man with some charisma. Who could know what kind of evil lurked beneath his snaggle-tooth smile? That’s actually the final thought the series aims to leave you with, hoping the horror will follow you home, down dark alleys, and around familiar corners. But this too feels galling, because the idea that seeming “good guys” can be dangerous isn’t new. Maybe it was a shock to the women of the ’70s. But in the wake of Me Too this “aw shucks” realization feels frustratingly obvious.
There’s a clear streak of misogyny in Bundy’s crimes. All of his victims were women. A childhood acquaintance recalls how he used to set tiger traps—a pit of wood spikes covered by foliage—which deeply wounded a local girl. The series dwells on Bundy’s first real girlfriend, noting how she was from a higher social standing and was “too much woman for him.” It’s suggested his feelings of inferiority only mounted when they broke up, which might be why he targeted young, educated brunette women, who would serve as her effigy in his violent vengeance. Berlinger is careful never to suggest it’s the ex-girlfriend’s fault. But the doc stops short of recognizing the toxic masculinity of Bundy and has no interest in suggesting how this might be a common thread to recent mass killers.
As we move into the murder trials, Berlinger juggles the facts of the case with the public support for Bundy with the legal defense who tried to prove he was not of sound mind to stand trial. This gives this section the feel of a macabre three-ring circus, with Bundy as its manic ringmaster. Then, a surprising amount of the show’s runtime is dedicated to Bundy’s time on death row. There, he famously spoke with the FBI, weighing in on other serial killer investigations, admitting things about his own crimes he never had before, and offering more terrifying tape recordings. But this was also a time when activists who opposed the death penalty took up Bundy’s cause, making for a new round of headlines.
Then came the crowds. Bundy’s execution was not a public execution. He’d die in the electric chair far from the prying eyes of the public. However, he could hear the raucous crowds who’d gathered outside the prison with posters, firecrackers, and commemorative t-shirts that read, “Burn Bundy Burn.” The revelers are remembered as drunken frat boys, who hooted and chanted and made a party of a man’s death. There are some women to be spotted in the archival footage of this strange gathering. However, the point Berlinger seems to make with this section is not about gender politics, but that the common man isn’t so different from Bundy, who thirsted for vengeful violence.
In the end, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is Berlinger grappling with his true crime fascination. Berlinger seems to see in Bundy a man whose dark urges—of rage, jealousy, insecurity—overtook him. And this doc series tries to explore the journey of that horrific step across the line from “good guy” to “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile,” which is what the sentencing judge said to Bundy, even as he wished him well!
Don’t mistake me. I don’t think he admires Bundy. I think he understands far better than I how people—his victims, the press, his defenders—fell into Bundy’s sway. However, Berlinger fails to make this case effectively in his series. Perhaps he has too much working against him. With even the vaguest knowledge of Bundy’s crimes, it’s hard not to regard his smiles and breezy attitude with a stomach-twisting suspicion. Which makes me wonder if that’s why Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is coming next. The Ted Bundy Tapes lays a lot of groundwork in telling the who and what of Bundy. But 30 years and infamy has made it nearly impossible to see him the way the people of then did. Plus, this series makes little time for Elizabeth Kendall, the single mom who dated Bundy and proved to be a major break in his first murder spree case. She’s said to be a lead character in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. There will Berlinger be able to better explore the dark charms of Bundy and thereby better explain how his story should serve as a warning to furious men on the verge and any women in their orbit? With Zac Efron as his Bundy, he’s already got plenty of attention and the promise of a more modern swagger. But the reviews out of Sundance are mixed. So, we shall see.
Header Image Source: Netflix