Ted Bundy, the serial killer convicted of murdering more than 30 women in the 1970s who probably killed upwards of 100 whose names receive little attention, once mused, in interviews on death row, that he hoped his story would sell. Thirty-two years after his death by electric chair, Bundy seems to have been prescient about a curiosity with the mild-looking sociopath. The past couple years has seen a veritable “Bundy binge” in true crime content: a two-hour Oxygen special, too many podcasts to list, the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and the biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron as a suave Bundy.
Despite significant pushback to the glamorization of Bundy as an object of fascination that distracts from his victims, the train keeps rolling; over the weekend, the trailer dropped for American Boogeyman, directed by Daniel Farrands and starring One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray as Bundy. The film will premiere this August – the same month as Amber Sealey’s No Man of God, starring The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s Luke Kirby as Bundy and Elijah Wood as the deeply religious FBI agent who interviewed him on death row.
Both films are two more projects to cast handsome Hollywood actors (albeit, in Murray’s case, one a decade-plus removed from peak teen soap fame) as Facetuned versions of the real killer, whose fascination derived in part from a ravenous, terrified press cycle focused on his “attractiveness” (for a serial killer; Bundy is by no means Hollywood handsome). And American Boogeyman specifically presents another queasy example of feeding into the allure that prompts people to make “Ted Bundy is hot” the worst incantation of the internet boyfriend (which, in turn, draws more attention to Netflix’s projects). Who is asking for more Bundy content?
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, directed by Joe Berlinger (who also helmed Conversations with a Killer, featuring extensive audio of Bundy’s death row interviews) was nominally told through the eyes of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), whose book provided the basis of the film. Likewise, American Boogeyman is allegedly about the “untold” story of the FBI agent and manhunt to capture Bundy. But judging by American Boogeyman’s trailer – Murray as Bundy luring a woman in his car, Murray beside with a knife above his head – the film appears to appeal to the most base interest in Bundy: his monstrosity, embodied as a handsome, abstract character rather than a real person who took real lives.
Online backlash to American Boogeyman’s trailer, however contained to the Twitter bubble, may suggest a growing distaste in projects which appeal to this curdled strain of true crime, the worst kind of voyeurism. Reaction to the trailer has been almost uniformly negative, with a predominant sentiment of deja vu. Haven’t we been through this before? Yes, in 2019 with Netflix’s two Bundy projects; yes, every time an attractive Hollywood actor takes on the role of a real-life killer. Yes, to a point, earlier this year, when Evan Peters, of American Horror Story and Mare of Easttown fame, was announced as the pick to play notorious killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer in Ryan Murphy’s upcoming Netflix limited series Monster.
There are examples of nuanced true crime entries which redirect voyeurism and the inherent pull of mystery onto systemic flaws that are just as shocking, if not as lurid, from the prevalence of wrongful conviction in Netflix’s The Innocence Files to the fallibility of drug evidence labs in How to Fix a Drug Scandal. Serial, the podcast that arguably turbocharged the true crime boom, moved in later seasons from the singular case of Hae Min Lee’s murder and Adnan Syed’s controversial conviction to the legal system itself – its third season embedded in the justice center in Cleveland, Ohio for a year. Mindhunter, the Netflix psychological crime series based on a 1995 book about the FBI’s serial crime unit, demonstrated that gripping true crime television could plumb the psychological mysteries of sadism without fixating solely on the killers.
It’s yet to be seen how Murphy’s Monster handles Dahmer; the series promises to focus largely on systemic issues – investigators slow off the mark to suspect an affable seeming white guy, with Niecy Nash in the role of the suspicious neighbor dismissed by police – that allowed Dahmer to prey for so long. The same is true for No Man of God, whose director drew a rebuke from Berlinger for criticizing past Bundy projects which “glorify” the killer.
“They make him out to be a male model – so smart, so charismatic, a master of disguise,” Sealey told Refinery29. “I don’t see that. When I look at him and I watch interviews and I listen to the tapes, I see a deeply insecure, needy – almost like an incel – kind of guy who just wants accolades and wants people to tell him how great he is.”
Intent aside, Bundy remains the main character. The “Bundy binge” seems to, at best, hold to the belief that re-laundering the lurid details of his predation through entertainment might somehow wring out some explanation for unfathomable human evil. In an interview with Variety, Wood spoke to that fascination directly. “Bundy, more than any other mass murderer, serial killer or disturbed individual, managed to live a relatively successful double life,” he said. “For many of us, it’s easy to separate ourselves from the monsters because we can’t relate to them. But we’re more fascinated by the killer who is seemingly more like us.”
While there does appear to be an escalating backlash to projects which figure the killer over anyone else, it’s unlikely that our obsession with serial killers will fully evaporate. Black holes of explanation will continue to draw an audience seeking meaning, a foray into the forbidden. And there will be film and television, with handsome leads glossing up a horrific story, dressing voyeurism as depth.