Responsible for the murders of over 30 women in the 1970s and 80s, serial killer, rapist and necrophile Ted Bundy inspired horror and fascination during his time. His crimes were horrific and gruesome, but his personality puzzled everyone. Charming, friendly and handsome, Bundy was the kind of guy you wanted your sister to marry, as one of his old friends said in the new Netflix original “Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes.”
Charged with constructing a narrative of Bundy from his childhood to his time of death, director and producer Joe Berlinger strove to show who Ted Bundy was through his conversations with journalist Stephen G. Michaud. The recording totaled 100 hours worth of audio, which were condensed into four 1‑hour episodes.
The documentary itself was masterfully done, overlaying Bundy’s voice with visuals of him, his victims, and unrelated images to conjure up the required reaction to Bundy’s brutality, the devastation of his victims’ families, and the ensuing media spectacle.
In the final episode, much of Bundy’s trial in the Chi Omega case was videotaped, giving the viewer the opportunity to see Bundy’s bizarre and celebrity-obsessed personality. Bundy consistently complained about his living quarters, citing the lack of reading light, and even went so far as to cross-examined witnesses against him, an unusual and rare break from courtroom practice. Bundy had an eye for drama, and the packed courtrooms and abundance of cameras and crewman surely didn’t help.
The gruesome nature of Bundy’s crimes and the fascination over his personality by both the media and those who followed his story makes for an appealing documentary. But the desire to make Bundy and his story appealing to the average viewer also creates a narrative that inevitably romanticizes the idea of who Ted Bundy really was.
If the purpose of a documentary is to capture real life, the camera may not be the best tool. English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge understood the great danger of the camera, even in 1976.
Muggeridge once said that “as I see it, the media have created, and belong to, a world of fantasy, the more dangerous because it purports to be, and is largely taken as being, the real world.”
If anything, the documentary was more an image of how society today views a man like Bundy. In the last portion of the documentary, only about two minutes are given to Bundy’s claim that pornography increased his desire to do these violent things, and a journalist and FBI agent dismiss this as Bundy merely using pornography as a scapegoat.
While Bundy may indeed have used pornography as an excuse, it demonstrates the larger issue. Rather than take seriously all of Bundy’s different parts, the makers of the documentary pieced together their own image of Bundy. Using their own interviews, images completely unrelated to Bundy or his family, and music, it starts to feel more like a fantasy, and less like a depiction of reality. The excessive culture that we live in today inevitably shapes the way we hear what he said.
Bundy is an infamous character, and his shenanigans made for great television. But perhaps the media’s obsession in following his every move played a part in the often irreverent manner in which he conducted himself. Bundy compared himself to Jesus at one trial, and even proposed to Carole Ann Boone when she was testifying to his good character. He loved the attention.
Muggeridge thought that a true documentary was one in which the person we seek to learn about should simply be put in front of the camera. But would anyone had watched if Berlinger simply put the tapes onto a black screen? I wouldn’t have.
Muggeridge wrote: “The cameras are our eye’s ego, our ages’ focus, the repository and emanation of all our fraudulence.”
This is not to say that the documentary didn’t capture Bundy’s character. The point is that as a viewer, I don’t know. I don’t know because all I’ve been given are interviews with pre-scripted questions, Bundy’s interviews, and, most importantly, the actual television program itself, which consists of masterful use of images, music and other tricks to make the show exciting. It does not just attempt to present evidence, it also attempts to draw conclusions.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” the new independent film which Netflix recently purchased,where Bundy is portrayed by a very sexy Zac Efron, will push us further into fiction and away from the reality of his repulsive behavior.
Perhaps on paper, Bundy would have just been a handsome creep who murdered 30 women: a cautionary tale. But with a camera, he’s something completely different.