If you’ve spent time on social media recently or even just a room with lots of people in it, you might have noticed that Ted Bundy—the serial killer who raped, tortured, and murdered at least 30 young women and girls across the United States in the 1970s before being caught—has become a prime topic of conversation. The point of this article is not to throw yet another opinion into an already crowded ring, but to lay out what has already been said and why with the goal of presenting as complete a picture as possible of the narrative as it currently stands. In other words, I read all the think pieces and hot takes so you don’t have to.
As it currently stands, the discourse on Bundy has gotten more tangled than earbuds left in a coat pocket unsupervised, so before diving into exactly what that discourse is, let’s establish why it started in the first place. The short version is that it all boils down to Joe Berlinger, the award-winning filmmaker best known for true crime documentaries including the Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis Three and Brother’s Keeper. In addition to creating and directing a four-part Netflix docuseries on Bundy, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, he directed a feature film about Bundy, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The docuseries was released on January 24, the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution, a trailer for Extremely Wicked hit the internet on January 25, and the film premiered at Sundance on January 26. In other words, a perfect storm for a total internet takeover.
And now, onto the discourse.
Let’s start with the docuseries. From the start, reviews of Confessions with a Killer have been mixed. Ed Power of The Independent describes it as “exploitative and underwhelming,” while Variety‘s Daniel D’Addario calls the series an “extended romp through the worst of humanity.” Overall, the two most frequent complaints had to do with a) the elements of Bundy’s story the series chose to emphasize and the amount of time given to Bundy’s tapes, allowing the killer to shape his own narrative and b) its purpose, as the series doesn’t shed any new light on Bundy or his victims that can’t be found in other true crime media.
As FSR’s own Val Ettenhofer recently wrote, there are aspects of true crime and our fascination with it that are inherently problematic, and with regards to this discourse—the implications of mining real-life atrocities for entertainment, whether or not this can be done in an ethical and responsible way, and then if so, how—the current Ted Bundy dilemma is only the latest flare-up of a longstanding debate. That said, some of the discussion falling under this general umbrella has been somewhat more specific to the situation, as Bundy fits a particular category of killer, the so-called “gentleman killer”—charming, white, and educated—”a trope societies the world over have elevated in pop culture,” writes Katie Dowd in the San Francisco Chronicle. And as Ashley Alese Edwards breaks down for Refinery29, Bundy’s narrative can also be understood as yet another heinous example of white male privilege.
However, a lot of the talk surrounding Confessions of a Killer has had less to do with the docuseries itself and a lot more to do with the reaction certain viewers had. Namely: some women went on social media and commented that they think Bundy is hot, several outraged rebuttals gained serious traction, and then Netflix engaged with the Twitter discourse through their official account, using personal pronouns because corporations are people now, and things exploded.
I've seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service — almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers
— Netflix (@netflix) January 28, 2019
This brings us to some intriguing food for thought: if you look through media coverage of the “Hot Bundy” debates, you’ll notice that most of the more mainstream outlets only jumped on the bandwagon once the Netflix Twitter account started participating. In other words, while the tweet chastises viewers for lusting after Bundy, in doing so it turned “lusting after Ted Bundy” into a national news story. And as Adam Epstein writes for Quartz, Netflix is probably not too upset about all the free press generated by the ongoing “Hot Bundy” debate. All of which begs the question—an unintended consequence of a well-intended public service effort or a premeditated marketing ploy? Make of the situation what you will.
But getting back to the debate itself, what are people saying? As mentioned before, some women commented on social media that they think Ted Bundy was hot. It is worth mentioning here that, as attractiveness is entirely subjective, you cannot actually debate with someone what they consider hot. You can vehemently disagree and make the case as to why, but you cannot actually tell them that they are wrong, because they determine their own definition of “hotness.” That hasn’t stopped some people from trying, though. While actually discussing whether or not Bundy qualifies as “hot” is fundamentally pointless due to aforementioned subjectivity, it is objectively fair to say that Conversations with a Killer does not shy away from making Bundy look, for lack of a better word, glamorous. For instance, of the numerous images of Bundy that were available to choose from, there are several the documentary uses repeatedly that, if shown out of context to someone unfamiliar with Bundy, could easily be mistaken for an actor’s headshots.
While Bundy’s “charm” undoubtedly benefited him and quite likely contributed to how he was able to evade capture for so long, the series does return to this point repeatedly every single episode, begging the question how much is too much. Reading Berlinger’s comments on both his Bundy projects in interviews given to various outlets makes it clear that he thinks this is a hugely important takeaway from Bundy’s story, thus the emphasis. Others strongly disagree with his take.
Now, onto Extremely Wicked. Zac Efron’s casting as Bundy has been known since May 2017, and the relatively small amount of commentary that announcement generated tended to be along the lines of calling it an interesting career move indicative of an actor looking to prove himself to be more than just a pretty face with impressive upper body strength. But then came the release of the trailer, and suddenly a lot of people had a lot of feelings.
To be clear, there were several things about the trailer that sparked considerable internet commentary. The tone of it, for instance, is unexpectedly (and arguably uncomfortably) upbeat for the subject matter, generating some concerns over how the film will treat Bundy and his victims. But overall, most of the debate has centered around casting. Considering the commentary on Efron’s casting as Bundy did not start getting criticized until the release of the trailer, it might arguably be more accurate to say that the issue isn’t that Zac Efron plays Ted Bundy, but that Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy still looks like Zac Efron, the Nice Hot Guy from movies such as High School Musical, Hairspray, and The Greatest Showman.
In other words, we’re dealing with “Hot Bundy” Discourse #2. The “Hot Bundy” discourse is really two debates—one about actual Ted Bundy and one about Efron-as-Bundy. The former has to do with people commenting on the looks of an actual serial killer executed in 1989; the latter has to do with concerns over having a heartthrob actor play the killer in a 2019 biopic. Of course, because a large portion of this discourse is happening in 280 characters or less on Twitter, some wires are getting crossed. The main concern in both cases is romanticizing Bundy, but the difference is that between a documentary and a biopic. Literally.
Responding to the backlash to Bustle, Berlinger stood entirely behind casting Efron, saying, “The fact that somebody like Ted Bundy got away for so long, eluded capture for so long, because he was charming and manipulative and people around him thought he was not capable of these crimes, that’s a lesson you can’t learn enough and a very valid lesson to put out into the world.” It’s implied that casting someone known for being charming and attractive helps bring home this message. Hotness may be subjective, but Efron is currently pulling off a “platinum blond” hair—according to the internet, to me, it just looks white but whatever—and dark beard combo that really should not work, so let’s just take a moment to admit that there are some people whom a general consensus has deemed more aesthetically gifted than the average. Anyway, on one side there’s Berlinger, who says that bringing in Efron to play Bundy drives home the important message/warning about Bundy’s charm and looks (as already discussed, your mileage may vary with regards to the latter). On the flip side, there are those that say that romanticizing/sexualizing Bundy, regardless of the reason why, is irresponsible and condemnable, and that Efron’s casting, for lack of better phrasing, only recruits new members for the “Hot Bundy” club.
Another emerging point of controversy surrounding Extremely Wicked has to do with murder. Namely, that the film chooses not to show any of the murders Bundy committed. On one hand, this choice could be considered taking the “high road,” so to speak; on the other, since the film highlights Bundy’s charm and leaves his evil deeds to the imagination, it could be argued that this decision only makes him more inappropriately empathetic. In that earlier mentioned talk with Bustle, Berlinger mentioned this catch-22 as a no-win situation, though underwhelmed reviewers of Extremely Wicked such as Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson were quick to point out a third option that they think Berlinger should have picked—that is, not to make a movie about Ted Bundy at all (“I left Extremely Wicked wondering what the point of it all was,” he writes in his review).
Overall, the Sundance reviews for Extremely Wicked have been all over the map. FSR’s own Luke Hicks calls it “an okay watch.” Over at Variety, Owen Gleiberman calls the film “an honestly unsettling and authentic inquiry into the question of who Ted Bundy was,” and has nothing but good things to say about Efron’s “startlingly good” performance. Rodrigo Perez at The Playlist, meanwhile, describes it as “a phony, glamorizing serial killer drama” that’s “smitten with the cult of Bundy.”
So that’s what’s going on, which brings us to what is arguably the most important question of all—when will it end? Considering social media is generally not known for its long attention span, the answer is probably soon. That said, it’s probably more accurate to call it a pause in the discourse than an actual end—a release date for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has not been set yet, but it seems safe to say that once the film reaches a wider audience we can expect another round of Bundy debates.