Does the new Bundy film miss the true psychology of this serial killer?
Posted May 07, 2019
Netflix released Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile to present a supposedly full portrait of serial killer Ted Bundy in this 40th anniversary year of his trial and 30th of his execution. Both neglected key aspects of his persona that come through on video- and audio-taped interviews. Viewers got the sense that he was so confident, articulate and handsome that he simply overwhelmed female intellect and common sense.
This is certainly what his former girlfriend Liz Kendall says in The Phantom Prince, on which the film is based: “I knew when I first looked at him…that he was a cut above the rest of the crowd. The way he moved projected confidence. He seemed to be in control of his world.”
That was 1969. By 1978, Bundy had killed at least 30 women in seven states, from the Pacific Northwest to Florida. He would become the nation’s poster boy for serial murder.
I’ll admit that Zac Efron, who plays Bundy, offers a solid performance and gets the look and mannerisms right, especially in the courtroom scenes. Still, he never drew me into the illusion that I was watching Bundy. That’s because something was missing. I’ve heard Bundy on tape, read transcripts of his interviews, talked with people who interviewed him, read books by people who knew him, and watched him on several videos. Bundy just wasn’t as self-possessed as the film or documentary portrayed… except perhaps to those he managed to exploit.
I called on Kevin M. Sullivan, author of 4 Bundy books, including The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History, to learn what he thought. He’d spotted the same problem.
“Having studied and written about Ted Bundy for many years now,” he said, “I don’t believe this latest film captures the essence of the man. The movie portrayed a mostly confident Bundy, who was a smooth talker and one who could turn on the charm at any time, but this was not that case. Indeed, the insecurities embedded within the man were always just under the surface, and Bundy would occasionally open up and reveal to female friends just how inadequate he believed himself to be. And when stress was thrown into the mix, his conversations at times could almost reach the point of incoherence.”
You can see this in The Only Living Witness by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. Bundy had asked Michaud to write a book (with his help) that would prove his innocence. Yet Michaud found Bundy to be elusive and dishonest. “He turned the interviews into a game of chutes and ladders, with disingenuous pleas of faulty memory and long silences preventing me from pinning him down.” Michaud thought that Bundy seemed like “a severe case of arrested development… he might as well have been a 12-year-old, and a precocious and bratty one at that.”
In a book about Bundy’s death penalty appeals, defense attorney Polly Nelson recalled that when Bundy first called her, he sounded insecure. She expected him to be grateful for her help but was surprised by his many self-centered demands. He seemed to want to appear suave and knowledgeable, but he mostly stuttered and stammered. As they talked, Nelson searched for a sign that she would have spotted danger. “But I saw nothing… This dangerous man was not detectable by sight or sound. But not for the reasons people usually suggest. It was not because Ted exuded charm – he was too obviously disingenuous to be truly charming. It was not because Ted was such a ‘diabolical genius’ that he could fool you – believe me, he was not that smart.”
Dr. Al Carlisle, a psychologist at the Utah State Prison, evaluated Bundy after his first arrest in 1975. He found Bundy to be friendly but evasive. I reviewed Carlisle's Violent Mind here. Talking to people who knew him, Carlisle discovered that Bundy lied easily, broke rules, committed thefts, and shifted his personality like a chameleon. Bundy had cheated on Liz with other women, playing each one for what he could get. One of them who’d worked with him at a clinic said, “In therapy, he was harsh and cold, and people were dismayed. He showed anger toward women… He lacked an understanding of the clients.”
Bundy's first girlfriend from college told Carlisle why she’d ended their relationship: “He seemed to have a great deal of insecurity and lack of finesse… He had an oddity that I thought went with this lack of confidence.” She eventually grew impatient. “He kowtowed to me. He wasn’t strong… He wouldn’t stand up for himself.”
Carlisle found that, despite initial good impressions, many people saw through Bundy's lies and manipulations. He couldn’t maintain the façade of confidence.
Michaud put it more bluntly. Reacting to press accounts that had exaggerated Bundy’s intellect, charm, attractiveness and normalcy, he said, “…these stories failed to report that Bundy was a compulsive nail biter and nose picker, that he was only middling bright (IQ 124), that he was at best a fair student in college and a failure in law school, that he was essentially untraveled and poorly read, that he stuttered when nervous and had acquired only a surface sophistication.”
So when people accuse the filmmakers of making Efron's Bundy sexy to lure female viewers, I kind of agree. I think they skirted the real Bundy because they knew it wouldn’t play. Besides Liz, who was in love, others who got close to him discovered an arrogant insecure man with mostly superficial intelligence who was anything but suave and self-assured. I think a deeper exploration would have provided a more fascinating look at how this malicious man managed to cast a spell. I realize that the film is based on Kendall’s book (sort of), but the documentary made similar errors.
Both Netflix offerings, while good, fell short. Maybe some viewers will take the time to look at other sources and learn more.
Sullivan. K. M. (2009). The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History. McFarland.
Carlisle, A. (2017). Violent Mind: The 1976 Psychological Assessment of Ted Bundy. Genius Books.