In the 1970s and early 1980s in America, a perfect storm of circumstances aided serial killers. The pervasive sense of caution around strangers we are accustomed to today had not yet established itself. Hitchhiking was popular and normal. The opportunities were rife, and in a time before DNA evidence, omnipresent security cameras and tightly controlled parole systems, when you did kill you had a good chance of getting away with it.
I first came across the serial killer Ted Bundy as a teenager in Ann Rule’s classic 1980 book The Stranger Beside Me. Stylistically, it reads pretty poorly now that I’m an adult. But the access and the resulting wealth of information that Rule had were unparalleled. She had recently left her career in law enforcement to write true crime books on a full-time basis when she met a charismatic and kind stranger volunteering at a helpline for those contemplating suicide. The serial killings she was commissioned to write a book about would 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 enable a mothering feeling. In 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 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 on his prison tape recordings was released. A film about Bundy starring Zac Efron, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, premiered at Sundance in late January, and has stirred debate on social media about the ethics of appearing to glamorise a murderer: especially in relation to women who find him attractive. Following the two releases a generation of girls and young women who’d never seen Bundy sprouted up on Twitter to remark how handsome he was, to be met with understandable 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 have sympathy more generally with the female compulsion to gorge on Bundy biographies.
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 that 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 following 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 consider my morbid fascination with killers such as 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 everyday male violence we’re more used to.
For instance, if men say in jest they want to rape you, to humiliate you, to defile your corpse – do they mean it? In an ongoing scandal at Warwick University, men were barred from campus for talking about doing such things to others – about wanting to gang rape an acquaintance, and then ejaculate over her body. For another, they proposed genital torture and mutilation.
We’re supposed to know 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 mean they bear no relationship to reality.
For it’s true, in the end, that men do such things. Rape is so common that some women don’t know they’re victims of it until years later. For that reason, much of the work around sexual violence is to educate us 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 there are men 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 such as Bundy, who was eventually 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 so crazy and feral that their very extremity is comic fodder among men we encounter in our everyday lives. So perhaps we women especially might be forgiven our fascination.
Megan Nolan writes a fortnightly piece for Newstatesman.com