August 18, 2019

The Enduring Fascination of Ted Bundy

“There is a rich abundance of nonfiction entertainment about Ted Bundy, America’s most notorious serial killer. In each instance, the author or television producer tells the story of Bundy’s heinous crimes, juxtaposing Bundy’s handsome face, in whatever disguise he favored that day, with the beautiful young women with long center-parted hair whom he murdered. These are the bare facts of the case, and they have been enough to generate a frisson in the American audience that has buzzed, undimmed, to the present day.

This year is the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution in an electric chair, and the buzz is rising to a screech. This week the biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, starring Zac Efron as Bundy, premiered at Sundance. And the latest television contribution to Bundy canon is Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a four-part Netflix docuseries. It is based on 150 hours of audiotape belonging to journalist Stephen Michaud, who interviewed Bundy for his book, Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy, while Bundy was on death row in Florida. In the tapes, Bundy describes his own actions in horrible detail, and we get to listen in. Lucky us.

The show is put together chronologically, with archival footage cut between talking-head testimonials from cops, friends, and survivors. Its organizing motif is an animated reel of tape, meant to invoke the analogue origins of the show and connect it to other recent serial killer offerings set in the 1970s, like Mindhunter. Michaud’s tapes are pretty remarkable. He describes how resistant Bundy was to his queries at first, but how he then opened up like a flower once Michaud asked him to speak about himself in the third person.”

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