In the 1970s and 1980s in America, a perfect storm of circumstances coincided to create an ideal environment for serial killers. The pervasive sense of caution around strangers we are accustomed to today had not yet established itself. Hitchhiking was popular and normalised. Opportunity was rife, and in a time before DNA, before the proliferation of security cameras on every street, and before the parole system was tightly controlled, when you did kill you were in with a good shot of getting away with it.
Men still kill women now, of course, and with the same sadism and debauchery which made serial killers of earlier eras infamous, but they are far more likely to be caught at an early stage in their “careers”. When the Golden State Killer was arrested last year after evading identification for decades, it was partly the anachronism (An honest-to-God old fashioned serial killer! In 2018!) which made it so compelling.
I first came across the serial killer Ted Bundy as a teenager in Ann Rule’s classic book The Stranger Beside Me. Stylistically, the book reads pretty poorly now that I’m an adult. It’s laden with a mawkish need to summarise the unsummarisable, an impossible need to learn lessons. But the access, and resulting wealth of information, Rule had was unparalleled. She had recently left her career in law enforcement to write crime full-time when she met a charismatic and kind stranger volunteering at a suicide helpline. The serial killings she was commissioned to write a book about would eventually transpire to have been committed by that friend, Ted Bundy.
One of the more striking aspects of The Stranger Beside Me is how undeniably attractive Bundy was to the women in his life, how they gravitated towards him right up until his death. He had an intuitive grasp of what they desired, deciphering in an instant whether he was required to give romantic attention, or friendship, or perhaps to enable a mothering feeling. In one way, the most fundamental way, he did not understand women at all — did not understand them to be human. But in another, he understood them all too terribly well, and was able to observe, no matter how superficially, what they needed to feel safe.
This month, Bundy has returned to popular discourse, after a four part Netflix documentary based around his prison tape recordings was released. A fictionalised feature film starring Zac Efron, Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil and Vile, (a knowing, tongue-in-cheek title which seems to wink at the viewer as it appears over scenes of a domesticated, pleasant Bundy) screened at Sundance in late January and has stirred debate on social media about the ethics of appearing to glamorise a murderer. The advert is edited with sassy graphics and a buzzy soundtrack: its excitable declaration that “Zac Efron IS Ted Bundy” certainly appears to frame Bundy as an American icon.
The ethics of true crime are almost always compromised and murky. If our genuine priority was the wellbeing of the families of victims, surely we would agree to abstain from any exciting films, salacious podcasts and tell-all books. But I find it difficult to wholly condemn myself and others for being unable to look away from these stories. Serial killers behave in a way which is so removed from our understanding of ourselves that it seems entirely inevitable that we feel the need to learn about them.
In Bundy’s case, the question of ethical representation has been posed specifically in relation to women who find him attractive. After the Netflix documentary, a generation of girls and young women who’d never seen him before sprouted up on Twitter remarking on how handsome he was, understandably facing widespread scorn.
But women have always eroticised Bundy. They dressed up to go and make doe-eyes at him in court, they sent distraught letters to Ann Rule about their love for him, even after he had confessed and been executed. Those women seem deluded, ridiculous and offensive, to me, but I confess that I have sympathy more generally with the female compulsion to gorge on Bundy biographies and trivia.
After I was a victim of rape, I developed the curious and unexpected side effect of habitually viewing sadistic pornography. Whatever was most awful was what I needed to see: anything which contested the idea that a woman was a person. It seemed to me that if a woman was not a person, if her body wasn’t a thing of meaning, then whatever had taken place in my own couldn’t have mattered after all. I wanted to plumb the depths of what was possible, to have this simple fact confirmed: that a woman’s body could be pushed and rearranged and broken all because a man decided that it might.
I spoke recently with a friend who has a similar history, about a period of concentrated promiscuity after her own episode of sexual violence. She told me, “If you always say yes, you can’t be made to say no.”
A woman can eroticise sexual violence not because she wants it deep down, but as a way to make it safe for herself.
I think of these things when I think about us condemning women who find killers titillating. I think of them when I think about my morbid fascination with killers like Bundy, men who’ve done the absolute worst things one could imagine to a woman’s body. If I know it all, see it all, imagine it all, then I can never be surprised again by the sheer scope of things a man can do to a woman.
I think, too, that part of my interest is born of a need to investigate whether their crazed, extravagant acts of violence exist on a continuum with the absolutely normal, everyday masculine violence we are more used to.
When men say in jest they want to rape you, to humiliate you, to defile your corpse — do they mean it? In the ongoing scandal at Warwick University, men who were initially barred from campus, but have now successfully appealed to return, had been saying such things to each other. They discussed wanting to gang rape an acquaintance, and then ejaculate over her discarded body. For another, they proposed genital torture and mutilation.
We’re supposed to take it as read that such things are a joke, and indeed nobody is suggesting that the group were truly conspiring to plan gang rapes. But that the threats and fantasies were not intended to be carried out does not make them jokes. It does not mean that they bear no relationship to reality.
For it’s true, in the end, that men do such things. The crime of rape is so common that some women don’t know they’re victims of it until years later, and for that reason much of the work around sexual violence is to educate everyone about the banality of rape: that it happens in relationships and doesn’t have to leave one bloody and screaming to be legitimate.
But then there is the other truth; that the most violent attacks, too, exist in the world. That men do exist who appear from the shadows in an alley, men who will make the decision to end your life in the space of a single moment, with a devastatingly random sleight of hand. Men like Bundy who, by the end of his career, was so possessed with animal hatred that he tore through a sorority house biting body parts off sleeping women.
Yes, it’s true that men do such things as these, things which are so crazy and feral that their very extremity is the basis for comic fodder amongst the men we encounter in our everyday lives. So perhaps we women especially might be forgiven our fascination.