Born with the safety off: The Ted Bundy Tapes (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 26, 2019)

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“Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself, please. It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity as I’ve experienced in this courtroom. You’re a bright young man. You would have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I just want you to know that. Once again, take care of yourself.”

— Judge Edward Cowart to Ted Bundy after sentencing him to the electric chair for the Chi Omega murders.

“For everything he did to the girls–the bludgeoning, the strangulation, humiliating their bodies, torturing them–I feel that the electric chair is too good for him.”

— Eleanor Rose, mother of victim Denise Naslund.

I have avoided pasting a photo of serial killer Theodore “Ted” Bundy at the top of my review of the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes for a couple of reasons. Foremost, in such sensationalized killing sprees there’s a tendency to bury the victims in a figurative sense; i.e. regardless how many they number (Bundy confessed to snuffing out the lives of 36 young women), they are lumped together and enshrined as “the victims”, which is dehumanizing (no one aspires to be a “victim”). The women he murdered had names. They had people who cared about them. They had lives.

Secondly, the late Mr. Bundy requires no help from me to assure that his cult of celebrity remain steadfast. I admit being a “true crime” buff, but I wouldn’t call myself a “fan” of his. Or Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgway, David Berkowitz, or Richard Ramirez for that matter. The fact remains that many such monsters do have a fan base—for reasons yet to be adequately explained to me via logic or science.

This likely explains the interest surrounding Joe Berlinger’s 4-hour documentary (which premiered on Netflix this past Thursday) as well as festival buzz regarding Berlinger’s upcoming companion piece, the narrative film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (starring Zac Efron as Bundy). 2019 also marks the 30th anniversary of his execution.

The fitful sleep I suffered after binge-watching all 4 episodes the other night confirmed my suspicions going in that Mr. Bundy’s grave will never be cold enough for those of us “of a certain age” who couldn’t escape ubiquitous media coverage of his 1978 Miami murder trial (which holds distinction as the first nationally televised court proceedings).

His 1978 arrest (initially on a completely unrelated charge) signaled the end to a horrific orgy of violence that began in Seattle in 1974 (possibly earlier) and ended with the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach in Lake City, Florida.

Bundy had already been on the radar of investigators in Washington State, Utah, and Colorado for a few years but was so wily and slippery that no single law enforcement agency had enough evidence to directly connect him with any specific missing person or murder case (it wasn’t as common then for police departments in different states to share information).

Berlinger had a trove of archival interview footage at his disposal; Bundy (a classic narcissist) not only loved to parade in front of cameras at every opportunity afforded him but also left behind 100 hours of audio interviews, granted exclusively by the condemned killer to journalists Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth as he sat on Death Row.

In Bundy’s twisted, egocentric view, the interviews were for his “biography”, but what co-authors Michaud and Aynesworth were after was a peek inside the psyche of a serial killer. Keep in mind that Bundy had only been legally proven responsible for the deaths of two Florida coeds and Kimberly Leach; at the time he’d yet to confess to any criminal acts, period (and he still held firm to his “not guilty” plea regarding the Florida murders).

It didn’t take long for it to dawn on the journalists that they were being played by Bundy, who was doing a lot of talking about sunny childhood memories and such but really saying nothing regarding culpability in any of the crimes he had been convicted and/or suspected of committing. Confronting him directly that this obfuscation nullified their original deal only made Bundy dig his heels in deeper, threatening to clam up altogether.

The impasse was broken by a brainstorm. What if they stroked Bundy’s ego, asking him to lend his third person “insight” on helping them build a psychological profile of this “person” who did commit all these heinous crimes (they knew Bundy had taken psychology courses in college and fancied himself quite the expert). It worked like a charm-Bundy was more than happy to put his two cents in (and a couple of extra nickels).

Berlinger’s strategic interjections of Bundy’s “observations” adds an extra degree of creepiness to the proceedings. While this is a clever device, it does beg a question: was it necessary to double down on the already creepy nature of Bundy’s deeds (which are of a particularly repellent and diabolical nature, even when judged by serial killer standards)?

The overall vibe is more horror show than historical documentation. Otherwise, it’s engrossing enough to hold the interest of true crime aficionados, although it doesn’t offer any new insights or revelations that haven’t already been parsed through the decades. As for the Big Questions like “Why?” or “Nature or Nurture”? don’t hold your breath. Perhaps it’s as one interviewee says; some humans are simply “born with the safety off.”  

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