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How pop culture reinforced the dangerous myth of the charmer Ted Bundy

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy.
(Image credit: Netflix)

Few criminals of the past century have struck fear into the hearts of people quite like Ted Bundy. His very name has become synonymous with a certain kind of evil: brutal, merciless, concealed by irresistible charm. During the 1970s, Bundy kidnapped, raped, and murdered numerous girls and young women. He eventually confessed to no fewer than 30 homicides, committed across several states, but the true total of his victims remains unknown. Some investigators speculate it could be in the hundreds. After a years' long reign of terror, Bundy was eventually brought to justice. During his trial, the myth of Bundy as a handsome and charismatic figure who wooed everyone around him took root in the media and public consciousness. His showboating on the stand was reported on in agonizing detail, including a moment wherein he proposed to his girlfriend while she testified on his behalf.

After being found guilty and sentenced to death, Bundy was eventually executed by electrocution on January 24, 1989. Yet his image endured, in large part because Bundy found an audience willing to strengthen his own myth. True crime writer Ann Rule, author of The Stranger Beside Me, detailed the charisma he conveyed and how it tricked even her when they used to work together. Even as she described Bundy as "a sadistic sociopath who took pleasure from another human's pain and the control he had over his victims, to the point of death, and even after," what stuck in readers' minds was the idea of him as a guy too charming and handsome to be real, a man who outwitted everyone. Pop culture has spent the past three decades further reinforcing that lie.

This week, it was announced that former One Tree Hill star Chad Michael Murray would play Bundy in a new movie titled American Boogeyman. Social media reacted negatively, wondering why we needed yet another Ted Bundy film and how the choice of casting a guy primarily defined by his handsomeness as the serial killer left a bad taste in their mouths. Murray may not know it but he's following in a less-than-proud tradition in this regard. Film and TV portrayals of Ted Bundy love to use sex symbol heartthrob actors as a kind of cultural shorthand for his supposed charm.

In 1986, Mark Harmon, who you may know best these days for NCIS, played Bundy in the TV movie The Deliberate Stranger. This drew a lot of attention to the project because Harmon was a big star on St. Elsewhere and had been named Sexiest Man Alive by People that same year. When the two-part movie aired, Bundy was still alive, which brought a sense of urgency to proceedings for viewers who followed every detail of his trial. Bundy would later be played by Billy Campbell, Cary Elwes, James Marsters, and most recently, Zac Efron. Much of the press coverage of these various projects focused on the “transformation” of these beloved hunks into evil personified, all while playing up the myth of Bundy as the charmer of his time. The trailer for 2019's Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Efron, was heavily criticized for focusing on this aspect. Critics also took the movie itself to task for indulging in the glorification of Bundy while claiming to do the opposite. There were even Bundy fangirls online following the film’s release, although one has to believe that some of that was just ironic trolling.

It’s not just fiction either. Joe Berlinger, the director of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, also made the Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which featured archival footage and recorded interviews with Bundy during his time in jail. That too was criticized for focusing too much on the lurid aspects of the story over the victims, and for fuelling the myth of Bundy even further. Conversations with a Killer is sadly not unique in that aspect. True crime isn't exactly lauded for its tact or sensitivity, an issue Netflix has had to recently confront thanks to some seriously questionable shows like Don't F**k with Cats and Tiger King. Bundy true crime often falls into familiar traps that fiction only further emphasizes: Ted Bundy was too charming, too cunning, and too powerful to be taken on by mere police officers.

Ted Bundy got away with killing and raping women for years not because he was a genius criminal but because of police ineptitude and good old-fashioned misogyny. In 1975, police charged Bundy for the kidnapping of Carol DaRonch and he was eventually found guilty. Disorganized law enforcement meant that they various departments across seven states weren't able to share details or collaborate on keeping track of Bundy, who was already a suspect. Detectives ignored various tip-offs about Bundy. Some women’s disappearances simply weren’t taken seriously by the authorities. It was assumed that they would just find their way back home eventually. Add to that the lack of forensic tools available in the 1970s and it’s no wonder it took as long as it did for Bundy to finally be apprehended. Even then, it was basically a fluke.

There is no doubt that what Ted Bundy did was heinous. He violated dozens, potentially hundreds, of women. He committed acts of rape and necrophilia. He revelled in pure sadism and showed zero true regret for his crimes. To the very end, he manipulated the press, the authorities, and anyone who came close to him. For some, pop culture depictions of Bundy offer a cautionary tale of sorts, a reminder of the wolves in sheep's clothing that live among us. Mostly, however, these stories seem more interested in strengthening insidious myths that have only helped his image from beyond the grave. It's not limited to Bundy either. Consider how Charles Manson became known as the human reincarnation of Satan despite being an unwashed violent drug addict obsessed with fame at a time when that had a sliver of social capital. For decades, journalists lined up to interview Manson and spin his ramblings as a sign of his evil. He died a legend when he should have just been left to rot.

The public hunger for true crime is often troubling but one rooted in real concerns and questions. As with all forms of culture, what matters is how it’s presented and what lessons we want to learn from it. With the myth of the charmer Ted Bundy, the supposed lesson is a false one, yet it’s so tantalizing that people want more of it. Perhaps this is a myth that needs some busting.