He was good looking. He was educated. He was normal. You'll hear multiple takes on those three statements throughout Joe Berlinger's new documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Netflix's new four-hour documentary attempts to let Bundy explain himself through the hours of tapes he recorded himself. Or, more accurately, explain away and outright deny everything he did. Over the weekend the Sundance Film Festival premiered Berlinger's own narrative take on the Bundy story, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile which tells the same story through the lens of Bundy's former girlfriend.
What is it about Ted Bundy in 2019? What does this convicted and executed murderer, and the legion of women who still opine about him, say about masculinity in the new year?
The availability of Berlinger's doc gives audiences the main introduction to the Bundy-aissance that is taking place. Using Bundy's own recorded discussions, as well as the requisite talking heads, we get a picture of how America at large treated him and his crimes throughout the late '60s into the 1980s when he was placed on trial and sentenced.
Almost immediately there's a "different time" mentality positioned on things. The strides of second-wave feminism starting in the early '70s left women with an increased independence they'd never felt before. Hitchhiking was frequent and the term "serial killer" was unknown to most people. America's common definition of a mass murderer was still the scraggly-haired Charles Manson, a man anyone could seemingly look at and say "lock him up. He's bound to do something." So when women started disappearing throughout Washington and, soon, Utah, the police were actively stumped. Clues were few and far between, but women were living in fear.
Bundy shaped how women ended up living their lives. It's almost impossible to imagine a world today where women don't travel in groups or, if alone, holding their keys between their fingers, ready to attack. Bundy didn't just cause women to fear the unknown assailant but, when he was eventually arrested, he caused them to fear the men they knew. It's not hyperbole to say that Berlinger's documentary chronically reminds the audience of how seemingly attractive and charismatic Bundy was. He didn't "look" like a serial killer. He was educated, a college man, he spoke eloquently. Are we talking about Ted Bundy or Brock Turner (the California rapist whose jail sentence was barely three months)? As one of the cops says at the height of Bundy's crimes, women everywhere were calling in to the police, fearing their boyfriends were the killer. If countless women thought there was enough evidence to make them believe their boyfriends were serial killers, what does that say about masculinity in general?
Really, the resurgence of Bundy's crimes, popularity, and supposed sex appeal shows how little has changed since the killer went on trial. Despite the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in Hollywood, we're still facing issues regarding what makes a man bad. Hearing Bundy be talked up as a master manipulator with a godlike appearance ⏤ though numerous photos and video clips of him quickly bring the audience down to Earth ⏤ is to rely on the idea that average citizens know how to spot a killer, and Bundy was just too good. Maybe Bundy is coming back in 2019 because we're finally ready to say he was just another basic white dude and our own ingrained biases toward that allowed him to be made into something more than he was.
But are we not continuing to glorify Bundy by focusing on his crimes in the first place? Berlinger's documentary puts the onus on the murderer to explain himself (or not). Large swaths of the documentary are told from Bundy's perspective in the third person. Since Bundy refused to give reporters compelling copy, they allowed Bundy to explore his crimes by being a mock "expert witness." Thus, Bundy elaborates on what a man "like this" would do and why. Once again, his crimes are diminished and presented through the lens of a man who's confessing... but not really.
Are we once again enabling him to negate responsibility? (Bundy would eventually confess to his crimes, and actually held out additional confessions to prevent his execution for several months.) Like many documentaries about serial killers, Berlinger avoids giving the audience any insight into the numerous women killed by Bundy or the two women he dated for significant periods of time. We hear about how Bundy felt about the women he claimed to "love," but it's all passed through the veneer of a ladies' man who was unable to "open himself" up.
If anything, the newfound interest in Bundy and his crimes forces us to confront our own complicity with shows and documentaries around murder culture. Watching Conversations With a Killer should leave the audience wanting to know more about the victims, not their murderer. More importantly, it should compel us to look at the way the average male is presented onscreen and in reality.