The Cyclical Need to Be Reacquainted with Ted Bundy
Is there anything more to learn about ourselves by studying Bundy?
[WARNING: In addition to this article being about a creepy, violent guy, it's a bit of a lengthy "super article." Hopefully you like it, and I hope it provides food for thought.]
Is there anything new to learn about serial killer Ted Bundy? It seems people want there to be. He's been dead since 1989, but his twisted legacy will never completely leave, will it? That's a strange part about writing about serial killers: in a way, you almost keep them alive, even if you're glad they are gone. While some lament those who write about them, or make films about them, or tell sick serial killer jokes, outrage is sort of a lost cause. The fascination continues, even when their bones have seemingly been picked dry of fresh material.
While there are some weirdos who like serial killers' crimes too much (not me, I swear!), there are Bundy detractors who are almost equally silly, who insist we should focus more on his victims' lives (unrealistic, and probably not even what they'd want), or who laughably insist Bundy was not handsome. Let's be serious about that last part: I'm hetero, but even I can tell that he would qualify as "handsome," okay? In fact, he even makes the unibrow look good, which certainly not everyone manages (sorry!).
Others mention the sinister look in his eyes, and how they would be able to tell he was creepy had they met him. Fair enough, but hindsight is 20/20. Had he never been revealed as a serial killer and you in fact knew him as a regular guy, would you genuinely think your predictive powers would have totally activated? Probably not.
Much about Bundy's legacy is recycled talk, often stirred up by media. The most recent round was from Joe Berlinger's twin Netflix releases, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron. Tellingly, the docuseries (Conversations) did a little better on IMDb, as it looked more at the actual person, whereas the other vehicle was a bunch of actors simulating events.
To me this preference reveals an interesting duality: people prefer something that is a bit more real, but still want to project their own thoughts, feelings, and hangups onto it. It becomes an interesting pop cultural blend, prime for constant recycling and mutation of events, similar to playing god from one's living room couch. They get to craft the Ted Bundy reality as they see fit, adding and subtracting certain details to their liking, sometimes 'til it resembles the childhood game of "Telephone."
I'll even pick on myself a bit here. I've seen interviews with Ted's mom, “Louise,” but I really don't know much about her. My own brain is left filling in the gaps. Similarly, I'm familiar with his being a sadistic sociopath with a chameleon-like nature, who escaped from custody twice, but it's not enough to create a truly clear picture. It's a partial image. I've seen numerous films and interviews, but again, it's nowhere near the same as actually knowing him (as author and former police officer Ann Rule did).
It seems that, when it comes down to it, one is mostly left re-interpreting the information that's been available for years. The only thing that sets me apart from some is that, honestly, I've read Rule's Bundy book, The Stranger Beside Me, three times. I know she actually worked shifts with him at a suicide hotline in Seattle in 1971. In fact, she sometimes worked 100 percent alone with him, noting she found nothing disturbing about the man. To me, this is far more insightful than some random Youtube comment about how evil his eyes look.
Do We Truly Dislike Sadists, Sociopaths and Extremists, or are Some of Us Just Pretending?
The Library Journal said the following on the 1989 Michaud-Aynesworth book, Conversations with a Killer: "Without ever admitting that he performed any of these acts... Bundy offers a matter-of-fact, third-person account of how 'someone' performing kidnappings, rapes, and murders might go about it, and how that person might act under these circumstances. His frankness offers perhaps the most unfettered look into the mind of a serial killer."
Despite declarations of moral righteousness, do people not want that "unfettered" look sometimes? Do we always cower away from sadism and death, especially when it's at a safe distance from us? Of course not! In fact, if we're actually being honest, some of us no longer wince at atrocities all that much. Many have seen pictures of them, maybe with bodies stacked like cord wood. Life is sometimes a massive house of horrors.
We've learned about serial killers, mass murderers, cult suicides, and assorted crazed leaders with grand visions (although, miraculously, American leaders are typically immune to such labels). Not everyone feels comfortable about these things, sure, and arguably no one should. However, they are realities we must face from time to time, no matter how we resist. Or is that sometimes a bit of self-justification, so we can feel better at looking at the darker side, like seeking images of a mass train wreck?
Pairing True Crime with a Quest for Truth
There's also a less dark component to this stuff. We may look at dark things in our quest for truth, as opposed to simply being sadistic sociopaths. In fact, there's nothing particularly twisted about approaching Ted Bundy as a case study. It actually is historically relevant, too.
Actually, a lot of gross, bizarre aspects of history are worth examining. For example, Herodotus—often credited with inventing history as a field of study—wrote that ancient Egyptians discouraged necrophilia with dead women by leaving them to decay before giving them to embalmers (Aggrawal, Anil (2010). Necrophilia: Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects. CRC PRess. p. 6). Implied is that one needn't be a Bundy-esque “superpredator” to be a twisted pervert.
It's also true that many, if not even most, people can derive pleasure from another's pain. While Bundy famously allegedly called himself “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet,” it's also true we can sometimes meet cold-hearted people by staring straight into a mirror. Maybe you don't feel that way about yourself, which is fine. However, that may just be you comforting yourself.
In fact, part of the sickness of society may be those seeking punishment of others, even if they feel they deserve it. Even those who were disgusted by Bundy can be equally weirded out by the riled up fans of his execution, cashing in selling T-shirts and declaring, "Fry, Bundy, fry!" Or, how about the justification that we ought to just shoot murderers in the head, because it's immoral, and “just throwing money away" to keep them alive? While such views are understandable, there's something to be said of the expression, "Two wrongs don't make a right."
The point is, there's more than a flicker of the sadistic, death-happy feeling inside the revenge impulse. After all, some understandably think Bundy was himself partly animated by a sense of injustice, after being dumped by his first love (or whatever one wishes to call that relationship). Might Bundy have been normal had he not felt cheated by the world? It's not such an outlandish standpoint, though it's impossible to know for sure without glimpsing into parallel universes.
Mind Over Matter
Looking at Bundy, it seems there's also a need to stress the "mind over matter,” or thoughts over feelings. If people can create a personal philosophy that reduces sadistic impulses and alleviates their own pain, it's definitely a win-win for them, and for society at large. It's not enough to feel empathy for others. People who lack those feelings should be able to understand empathy intellectually. That is an application of philosophy.
In that regard, there are a lot of gross oversimplifications regarding views on crime. For example, some people think it's an article of faith that crime victims want the death penalty for those who have wronged them. However, there are organizations like Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, who have co-written articles like Voices from California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Some of these people are likely putting feelings aside for philosophy.
Think about that. Even if you are pro-death penalty, you should have some respect for the moral fortitude of someone who can essentially say, "No, I don't want this person who has gravely wronged me to be killed by the state." It reminds me of the powerful moment when Robert Rule, the father of one of Gary Ridgeway's victims, forgave the killer in court (watch the video clip here).
However, a simpler point is that revenge isn't a necessary component of justice, even in extreme cases like Ridgeway or Bundy. Sending Bundy to the death chamber was an easy enough decision. It seems like a harder one to not sink to his level.
More Pesky Philosophizing: Evil, Addiction or Unknown?
There's at least one Bundy article titled “The Very Definition Of Heartless Evil,” based on a quote about him from his own attorney. However, I'm one of those people who doesn't like the word "evil" all that much, especially for its almost Biblical connotations. It's just too easy to throw that label at anyone/anything we don't like.
Granted, it's understandable why we call murder, rape, enforced prostitution, etc. "evil." However, it's always debatable to what extent anyone truly has control over their behavior, even if we think they do, and even if the violent people themselves think they do. This is part of the conundrum of investigating true crime, motive, modus operandi and a violent deviant's "signature."
In fact, as awkward as it may sound, Ted Bundy himself was showing signs of being addicted to murder, like an alcoholic with the bottle. When he escaped to Florida, Bundy had every reason in the world to stop committing murder (In fact, Florida had the death penalty—a major incentive to quit in its own right). If I recall correctly, Ann Rule stated in The Stranger Beside Me that he originally intended to stop, to avoid getting caught and permanently imprisoned. If true, it's a sign that his appetite for violence was palpable.
Often a serial killer's violence itself seems to reveal impulse control issues. Sure, they may refrain from such acts when they most fear getting caught, and they may even lay dormant for some time. However, there's a hint of buried impulse problems if they still act whenever they feel it's "safe" to do so. When Bundy attacked the Chi Omega sorority, there were definitely signs of a unique form of mania, especially as even those attacks weren't enough for him. On that same night he also attacked another woman nearby, Cheryl Thomas!
This is above average risk-taking, possibly indicating conflicting psychological desires and states. He may have wanted to kill undetected, while taking excessive risks, and possibly while even expecting to get caught (which meant he could stop running). Did he even know what risks he was taking, or was he past the point of caring? It seems the murders themselves could have waken any of the other women up, or some may have already been still awake, for all he likely knew.
Again, the attack itself reflects sheer mania. Survivor Kathy Kleiner Rubin said of the attack: “He flung the firewood down so hard on my face that my jaw was broken in three places... My chin was so badly shattered that it was wired shut just to keep the bone together. My cheek was torn, so you could see the teeth inside my mouth. I also almost bit my tongue off.”
This is also the scene where Bundy left incriminating bite marks, indicating a literal vampire-like drive at this point. Was he more beast than man during these moments? Is it really enough to just say, "Oh, he was evil" and leave it at that? It seems like this murderous rampage demands a little more inquiry than that.
The Bundy Echo
Encyclopedia Britannica defines serial killing as “The unlawful homicide of at least two people carried out by the same person (or persons) in separate events occurring at different times." Technically, that's all a person requires to have that label (though the merits of "lawful homicide" ought to inspire debate, which precious few people are doing).
What's interesting about Ted is that he is still, all these years later, almost the pitch perfect definition of a serial killer. It's not that he was the first (he wasn't) but he still resonates as one of the worst. There's a Jekyll and Hyde component to his crime, and that he feigned injury to lure away victims shows just how twisted and heartless he was—he literally killed women for being kind to him. He also traveled around to commit his murders, making him harder to trace and tying investigator up along jurisdictional lines.
All of these elements make it plausible he had way more victims than are known. In fact, Blondie’s Debbie Harry claimed to have been a prospective victim of Bundy. She said, “I was trying to get across town to an after-hours club. A little white car pulls up, and the guy offers me a ride. So I just continued to try and flag a cab down. But he was very persistent, and he asked me where I was going. It was only a couple of blocks away, and he said, ‘well I’ll give you a ride.'" She says she narrowly escaped when she got in and noticed his car lacked door handles. She rolled down the window, opened the door from the outside and got away.
This story is interesting, both if it's true and if it's not. While some instantly dismiss it as publicity fodder, it's undeniable that Bundy regularly got around, especially as someone who didn't worry about problems the way normal people do. Most of us wouldn't travel on a whim, whereas Bundy apparently could with relative ease. In fact, that was likely another part of the thrill—go to new places, find new victims, then try to return to ordinary life. When Bundy arrived in Florida, his ordinary life was basically gone. There was nothing to keep him even slightly grounded, so he was even more unhinged (and even sloppier) than usual.
See, Bundy was never the master criminal he thought he was. In many ways, the times were on his side more than his supposed deviant brilliance. In fact, Bundy even made the mistake of publicly referring to himself as "Ted" during the infamous Lake Sammamish murders! It didn't singularly sink him, but it helped. In fact, a bunch of little things he did nudged him closer to the death chamber.
Intelligent or not at the time, he's not intelligent anymore. He is dead. While we may consider his legacy haunting, let's not forget he was a fool in addition to being a cold-blooded killer. His final known murder proved he was a child molester, too. Some legacy, right? This is nothing you'd want on your résumé.
Dark Statistical Realities of Homicide & The (Possible) Future of Police Functions
The case of Ted Bundy is easy to focus on for another, quite obvious reason: He was caught. However, as The Washington Post noted in 2018: "Out of 54,868 homicides in 55 [major US] cities over the past decade, 50 percent did not result in an arrest."
That's a rather startling figure, is it not? For one thing, 54,868 is a pretty high number of murders, making the United States a pretty violent place compared to certain other places in the world. Then, of course, you have the fact that so many murders went unsolved. That's a lot of victims and a lot of uncaught perpetrators. The question is, were these investigations botched? Were investigators looking for answers too often in the usual places? To this day, some claim the Bundy investigation was similarly too slow, and say similar things regarding other crimes (the Green River Killer case comes to mind).
In my opinion, part of the problem is that this sort of work has become too specialized. To me, people like Bundy justify encouraging more self-defense/police training for people, to reduce the perceived need for specialized police functions. Granted, there are some obvious dangers to generalizing police functions in society, but (based on that statistic) it's obvious that business as usual isn't necessarily cutting it. Plus, knowing how to escape a violent psychopath makes sense.
Police functions should not be so specialized. Maybe everyone shouldn't become a cop in the conventional sense, but should people have to depend on others? For that matter, why not encourage people to be more knowledgeable about forensic science? Personally, it helps that I know a few cops personally, enough to demystify the profession. They are not super human. Most people could do much of what they do on average.
In addition to increased self defense, people should be educated in a thorough, meaningful way to approach anti-social behavior in an intelligent manner—while simultaneously creating a more just society. It seems like the global violence rate would almost have to go down! In fact, if people are treated fairly, have a sense of a future and learn how to cope with psychological problems and trauma, they're probably less likely to lash out in psychopathic ways.
As stated earlier, sadistic traits exist in many people. It only makes sense to address this issue in regular people as much as within maniacs. As psychological scientist Erin Buckels of the University of British Columbia explained: “Some find it hard to reconcile sadism with the concept of ‘normal’ psychological functioning, but our findings show that sadistic tendencies among otherwise well-adjusted people must be acknowledged.” Indeed.