Ted Bundy Keeps Coming Back, Like a Bad Cold
I’ve walked by the house at 4143 12thAvenue NE in Seattle’s University District any number of times. It’s an unprepossessing building; a faded light brown, originally a single-family home, later broken up into individual rooms for housing students from the nearby University of Washington.
But one thing makes this house stand out from others in the block. It’s the only one to have signs on the fence surrounding the property, tacked on both the front and rear entrances, sternly warning the passersby that this is “PRIVATE PROPERTY,” and there is to be “NO TRESPASSING.” It’s easy to guess the reason for the signs: they’re likely to keep out the crime fans and gawkers. Theodore Robert Bundy once lived here.
At least the Seattle house has a fence offering added protection. Residents of a former Bundy home in Salt Lake City with no fence have been complaining about Bundyophiles regularly trespassing on their property, in increasing numbers. Why? Because Bundy is back. Thirty years after the state executed him in Florida State Prison on January 24, 1989, for the murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, Bundy is the focus of two new documentaries and a feature film–and related tie-in books.
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a four-part documentary series on Netflix, arrived first. Interestingly, the series’ director, Joe Berlinger, also directed the upcoming feature film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, which stars Zac Efron as the notorious (Bundy’s invariably described as “notorious”) killer. Extremely Wicked premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it received mixed reviews, though critics singled out Efron’s performance for praise. Netflix picked it up for distribution. They plan a theatrical release in addition to streaming through their own service. Also on deck is Theodore, from first-time director Celene Beth Calderon, a six-part series that the filmmakers hope to have ready by the fall.
Conversations With A Killer
The Netflix series takes its name from the book Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, published in 1989, and which is itself a companion volume to their first book on Bundy, The Only Living Witness, first published in 1983. Bundy wanted his story told. His agent offered Michaud the book deal, later bringing in Aynesworth to help with research. Bundy maintained his innocence in interviews, but the results of their research convinced Michaud and Aynesworth that he was most decidedly guilty.
But with no incentive to confess (Bundy was then in the process of appealing his convictions), there came a stalemate. Then Michaud had the idea of getting Bundy to “speculate” on how the crimes “might” have been committed, allowing him to speak about them in third person without incriminating himself (though he never spoke, speculatively or otherwise, about the Florida murders).
Berlinger co-directed Brother’s Keeper and the Paradise Lost series of films with Bruce Sinofsky, who died in 2015. So he knows the terrain of true crime. He skillfully weaves together contemporaneous footage and new interviews, with Bundy’s narration bringing additional spice. Bundy chillingly and dispassionately describes women as nothing more than inanimate objects to be possessed. He sounds relieved when he talks about being in the “enviable position of not having to deal with guilt.” Footage of his arrogant performances in the courtroom astonishes. It’s a wonder authorities allowed anyone this self-absorbed and narcissistic, to represent himself in court.
But while it’s a good comprehensive version of Bundy’s story, even at four hours (the longest Bundy documentary to date) Witness still feels like it skims the surface in some respects. It doesn’t explore the full extent of Bundy’s crimes in much depth; some victims aren’t even mentioned. Berlinger provides scant witnesses to his personal, non-criminal background (one childhood friend, two adult friends). Two of Bundy’s lawyers raise the likelihood of his competency to stand trial, but the film doesn’t really delve into that either. One of the lawyers, Polly Nelson, explored the issue more fully in her own book, Defending the Devil: My Story as Ted Bundy’s Last Lawyer, just republished last year.
Bundyites saw his ability to escape detection for so long as part of his purported “genius.” Yet Conversations doesn’t really examine a larger factor: the inability of the police to come up with much evidence, or their tendency to overlook what they had in front of them. Despite the efforts of numerous police departments, none of their investigative work led to any of Bundy’s arrests. His killing spree only ended because the police stopped him for poor driving. Seattle police initially refused to consider Lynda Healey’s disappearance as an abduction, saying the blood on her pillow merely indicated she’d had a nosebleed. Authorities investigating the death of Laura Aime in Utah wrongly insisted she’d been a runaway, and not a possible Bundy victim.
Nor, apparently, has our experience with killers taught us how to spot one in their developing stages. “People don’t realize there are potential killers among them,” Bundy says in the series. “We want to be able to say we can identify these dangerous people. The really scary thing is you can’t identify them.” That still holds true today.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile
The title Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile comes from a phrase used by Judge Edward D. Cowart when he sentenced Bundy to death for the 1978 murders of sorority sisters Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy. Berlinger says the fact that he’s the director of both Conversations with a Killer and Extremely Wicked is simply coincidence. In early 2017, he was already working on the documentary when his agent sent him the Extremely Wicked script. He agreed to take on the project (“It feels like the universe is tapping me on the shoulder, saying I’m the guy to tell the Bundy story,” he told Vulture), but felt its development would take some time. To his surprise, within six weeks Zac Efron signed on to star in the film. Principal shooting began the following January.
Wicked views Bundy from the perspective of his Seattle girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, who’s oddly only mentioned a few times in the Netflix documentary. Kloeper’s growing suspicions about her boyfriend led her to report Bundy to the police in both Seattle and Salt Lake City. This resulted in him becoming a suspect in the attempted kidnapping of Carol DaRonch in Utah, following his arrest for “evading an officer” in his car and running two stop signs.
“The film, at the end of the day, is about deception and betrayal, about how one becomes a victim to this type of psychopath,” Berlinger told Vulture, somewhat echoing the cover blurb of Kloepfer’s memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy: “This is not a book about murders. This is a book about love and women’s vulnerability” (Phantom, published in 1981 under the pen name “Elizabeth Kendall,” has long been out of print, though there are rumors it may be republished). Though not directly based on Kloepfer’s book, the filmmaker and actress Lily Collins, who plays Liz in the film, met with her and spent an afternoon flipping through her photo albums and reading Bundy’s prison letters.
Bundy: Then And Now
This is far from the first time a feature film has immortalized Ted Bundy. His first depiction came in the 1986 TV movie The Deliberate Stranger, based on the book of the same name by Seattle Times journalist Richard Larsen. Mark Harmon played him. Michael Reilly Burke took on the mantle in the 2002 film Bundy, followed by Billy Campbell in 2003 TV movie The Stranger Beside Me, based on crime writer Ann Rule’s book of the same name. Cary Elwes played Bundy in the 2004 TV movie The Riverman based on Robert Keppel’s book The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer. The straight-to-video 2008 film Bundy: An American Icon, starring Corin Nemac, and the 2015 TV series Serial Thriller: Angel of Decay starring Ryan Gage bring up the rear.
As the first out of the gate, Deliberate Stranger got most of the media attention. With fortuitous timing, part one aired the same day the Supreme Court denied one of Bundy’s appeals. Ann Rule, who described Harmon’s portrayal as “so charming and sexy that he sometimes seemed almost heroic” was alarmed to receive letters from besotted young women after it aired, who wanted to “rush to Florida and ‘save Ted Bundy.” She sternly wrote back to them, “You are not in love with Ted Bundy. You are in love with Mark Harmon”.
‘Extremely Wicked’ has also been accused of glamorizing its subject. Typical is a review in Vox, where Alissa Wilkinson writes, “The story arc tells us that Bundy is bad, but the way the movie is crafted clearly admires its clever central figure, played by a good-looking A-lister.” Even the film’s trailer has come in for scrutiny, derided by one critic for being “too sexy,” given Efron’s “smoldering winks” and the “jaunty and fun” music. In response, Berlinger has insisted, “The last thing we’re doing is glorifying him. He gets his due at the end, but we’re portraying the experience of how one becomes a victim to that kind of psychopathic seduction.”
One could argue that any “glamorization” began during Bundy’s first Florida trial in 1979. This trial helped weave the myth of Bundy as a handsome, intelligent killer whose inherent genius allowed him to get away with murder for so long. Bundy was the first mass killer to go mass media. Never before had a trial been televised on so large a scale.
Bundy (ironically, given his love of the spotlight) moved that cameras be banned from the courtroom. But Judge Cowart denied his request, and thus a serial-killer star was born. The nation sat transfixed on a nightly basis by the antics of this seemingly unlikely criminal: a former law student, neatly attired in suit and tie, who’d worked for the Republican party, was a Mormon convert, and served as his own lawyer. It helped set a precedent for today’s world, where our thirst for true crime stories can now be sated in a variety of media, 24/7.
Theodore: The Shadow Man
But Bundy’s authors have also taken pains to point out that Bundy’s well-crafted image was just that, an image. Rule wrote that the women who sent her sorrowful letters after Bundy’s execution were “grieving for a shadow man who never existed.” Michaud and Aynesworth describe Bundy as someone who was “only middling bright (I.Q. 124),” had dropped out of law school, and “acquired only a surface sophistication.” As for being his own attorney, those who worked with him say he bungled that job, not least turning down a plea bargain that would’ve saved him from the death penalty in exchange for life in prison. “Ted had real deficits in judgment, awareness, and deeper thinking,” Polly Nelson notes in her book. “He could talk and write, but he couldn’t comprehend or respond…He was incapable of independent thought or elaboration.”
In Theodore, Celene Beth Calderon plans to give Bundy’s story “more of a female touch and a female voice.” While Kathy Kleiner, who survived the sorority attack that took the lives of Bowman and Levy, will describe her memories of the night, the rest of the series will avoid detailing the murders. “I think it’s a little grotesque,” Calderon explains. “It’s overdone, and it doesn’t need to be stated again.”
Instead, the series will focus on “more of the personal side,” with interviews from several friends (including Kloepfer’s best friend), as well as the usual lawyers and law enforcement figures. Having access to some of Bundy’s never-before-seen personal effects should bring additional insight. Calderon also hopes the series will serve as something of a cautionary tale, in an era where the internet brings even more anonymity to our interactions than in Bundy’s day; “I’m not trying to instill fear. It’s just, let’s be a little more cautious who give information to, who we trust.”
“I don’t care what you write just so you get it right and just so it sells,” Bundy wrote Michaud and Aynesworth when they were putting together the book deal for Witness. Bundy played up to the interest in him. “In some ways, he was his most avid fan,” Michaud wrote, adding that Bundy hoped Witness would turn out to be “an exciting, gossipy book with naughty details such as are found in best-selling biographies of celebrities.”
He’d undoubtedly enjoy the renewed interest in his life and crimes, and the debate that interest still provokes. “He keeps coming back, like a bad cold,” Michaud observes of his subject in the Netflix series. “There’s a kind of a taint you can’t get rid of.” Yet despite—or maybe because of—the controversy that’s inextricably linked with his name, people continue to retell Bundy’s story, time and again. He’s been gone for thirty years. But we haven’t heard the last of him yet.