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Are we getting the right message from ‘The Ted Bundy Tapes?’

Do these new projects portray Bundy as a killer or a romantic anti-hero?

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Are we getting the right message from ‘The Ted Bundy Tapes?’

Photo by Daily Collegian

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Photo by Daily Collegian

By Courtney Song, Collegian Correspondent

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True crime, while certainly a new trend in Netflix’s algorithm, is far from anything novel within pop culture. There has always been a human fascination with the gruesome and terrifying nature of murder. That being said, there is something unique about the streaming service’s latest true crime venture: “Confessions of a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.”

Between 1974 and 1978, Ted Bundy murdered at least 30 women, with the real number remaining unknown at the end of his life. Bundy was, as the documentary highlights again and again, not the average serial killer. He looked like a typical, unassuming man, and was regarded by his victims as attractive and trustworthy. He had a distinct charm he would use to manipulate not only the women he attacked, but the media and the public as well. Bundy was a megalomaniac, and would have been thrilled at the attention he is still receiving 30 years after his death.

“The Ted Bundy Tapes,” created by Joe Berlinger, is different from Netflix’s usual crime docuseries, as it is based on the posthumously revealed rambling monologues of its subject.

Toward the end of his life, Bundy met with journalists who recorded his “confessions.” The tapes sound like an impression of a wise, experienced man recounting the tales of his long and rich life for the benefit of future generations. In reality, they are the words of a narcissistic murderer whose self-image muffles the voices of his already silenced victims.

In the beginning of the tapes, Bundy gives a delusional recounting of his childhood as an idyllic nirvana. If the sound had been ripped from its subject, the voice could easily be mistaken as that of a celebrity recalling their rise to glory.

Then the tapes move on to the murders. Bundy famously denied all connection to his crimes until the very end of his life, just before his execution. His interviewers explain their angle to approach Bundy as the psychologist he believed he was. Bundy describes the motives and thought processes of the killer in excruciating detail, doing everything possible to identify himself without using the word “I.”

The second episode focuses on the murders, but not necessarily the murdered. There are a few cursory interviews with family members of the victims, both recent and dated, but at the end of the documentary I beseech anyone to remember just one of those women’s names. It’s a harder task than you’d think. There are so many that are covered in such a short amount of time, it feels as though the docuseries treats their deaths as a bridge to the real meat of the series: episodes three and four.

The second half of the docuseries is far more interesting than the first. The focus shifts to Bundy’s trials and his escapes from police custody. Bundy used his unconventional charm to wriggle out of confinement while awaiting trial not once, but twice.

After being captured, he decided to make a last-ditch effort to live out his fantasy of becoming a lawyer by representing himself in court. His public tantrums, total misunderstanding of the law and sickening pleasure in having his own crimes recounted back to him in full detail ultimately earned him three death sentences.

This is the real intrigue of Bundy. If he had just been a murderer who somewhat resembled Zac Efron, he would have been a fun fact rather than a cultural icon. Bundy certainly did the work to stay relevant. Had he not turned to murder, he would have found a worthwhile career in public relations.

Berlinger’s docuseries is technically very well done. As much as I loathe to admit it, it is endlessly fascinating to hear Bundy speak. His language is professorial and needlessly pretentious, as if he wishes to intellectualize his brutal and animalistic urges to desecrate the human body.

While this focus runs the risk of glorifying Bundy, Berlinger does the work to contextualize his speech and show his true deluded nature. No sane person will walk out of this documentary thinking Bundy was a genius or a hero.

That being said, the structure of the docuseries pushes his victims into the footnotes. It comes dangerously close to labeling Bundy an extraordinary man, rather than a pathetic, sadistic individual with an ego problem.

Part of that problem is a failure to acknowledge Bundy as a human being. For instance, the series seems to work upon the theory that there is no known motive for Bundy’s crimes. In fact, a popular theory is that the murders were part of a revenge plan upon a former girlfriend of his.

The series glosses over this briefly without ever comprehensively acknowledging it. Perhaps it’s easier to label Bundy as simply unhinged, but that seems counterproductive to a series that is searching to excavate the inner workings of a notorious serial killer.

This treatment is further complicated by the first official trailer for Berlinger’s other Bundy project, which dropped just a day after the release of his docuseries. “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Vile and Evil”is Berlinger’s poorly-named, feature-length narrative film about Bundy’s murder spree and capture from the perspective of his girlfriend at the time. The trailer received criticism for its romantic portrayal of Bundy.

While I’m not in the habit of reviewing trailers, there was something deeply sickening to me about this one. The music cues and fast-paced editing make the film out to be a romantic thriller. It’s easy to understand the widespread feeling of uneasiness viewers had twisted in their gut upon watching it.

At the same time, a trailer is not necessarily indicative of a film. Most often, the marketing team that puts together a trailer is not the same team that shot the film itself. While it’s understandable to be upset over a trailer, it shouldn’t be enough to boycott the movie altogether. If anything, Berlinger’s “Ted Bundy Tapes” is a good indication that “Extremely Wicked” will be just as interesting (as long as it is done respectfully).

After all, Berlinger is just scratching an itch none of us wants to admit we have.

 

Courtney Song can be reached at [email protected]

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