The Ted Bundy Tapes: Why we need to talk about appearance

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It’s frankly disturbing how attracted I am to Zac Efron playing one of the world’s most notorious serial killers. I’m questioning my sanity a little bit, but also applauding that casting director because the likeness is incredible. There were times when I was watching Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes when I had to remind myself I wasn’t watching Efron.

Anyway, my pals and I watched the new Netflix documentary simultaneously, texting each other the entire way through (a surprisingly fun method especially for long distance friendships). Although we joked a lot about how handsome Bundy was, there were also a lot of expletives and anger over his horrendous crimes and the parallels we could see between the treatment of women then and now.

https://youtu.be/-lW6Z38HHJw

Watching The Ted Bundy Tapes, and the reactions all my murderino friends are having to the release of the Efron movie trailer, has again reminded me of the strange mix of fascination and revulsion underlying my obsession with true crime.

As I’ve previously discussed, true crime is trending and there’s a certain amount of caution we need to exercise when consuming and creating this content.

But Bundy is in some ways even more complex, because he’s the perfect example of how dangerous it can be when we equate physical appearance with character. Perhaps that’s also why we’re still so obsessed with him, 30 years after his execution.

Extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile

Look, I’m not going to bother going into an explanation of who Ted Bundy was because if you’ve read this far I’m sure you know. This latest documentary was released on the anniversary of his death and is a companion to the upcoming Efron biopic, both directed by Joe Berlinger.

The limited documentary series is based on conversations between Bundy and journalists Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. However, it draws back from this premise to examine Bundy’s crimes with snapshots of his own audio in the broader context of ‘70s America.

Bundy murdered over 30 women, but it’s likely there are many more we’re not aware of. He was a psychopath and, as will be quite clear to anyone who watches The Ted Bundy Tapes, was deeply narcissistic and deluded.

Ted Bundy mugshot front and profile views side by side.

Psychopaths are manipulative and can appear charismatic or charming, learning to mimic normal emotions to further manipulate those around them. Although psychopaths don’t form emotional attachments, Psychology Today explains they can perform these manipulations to such a high standard that they create long-term relationships (as Bundy was able to do).

Before watching this I didn’t know Bundy was a Republican party staffer or that he studied law school, but it’s clear to me that his psychopathy would have allowed him to flourish in a political or legal career had he, you know, not been a rapist and murderer.

In fact, his suitability for life at the bar was even mentioned by the same judge who uttered those now famous words about is “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile” crimes.

Ted Bundy, 'the halo effect' and why beauty is power

Alongside the ability to cultivate a charming personality, Bundy was handsome. You might even say damn good looking. I mean, that Efron really is the perfect fit to play Bundy says it all. Yes, the monobrow was distracting but manscaping wasn’t really a thing in the ‘70s, was it?

In episode four, there was footage of women speaking out on behalf of Bundy. They weren’t defending him because they knew him and could attest to his character. I’m sure they believed they were doing the right thing and that perhaps he wasn’t guilty. But I wonder just how many young women in particular would be willing to make those statements if Bundy wasn’t so physically attractive.

Apparently, our bias is scientific. A 1992 Yale University study found physically attractive people were perceived as “more sociable, dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, and socially skilled”. But they weren’t necessarily seen as being of greater character.

Studies have also found young children are more drawn to attractive teachers, who they believe will teach them the most. The study also showed unattractive photos represented teachers more likely to punish students harshly, confirming a natural bias towards beautiful people.

Ted Bundy in a prison jumpsuit leaning with one arm against a wall as a man reads from a piece of paper.
Ted Bundy being read his indictments for murder. Photo source: AP.

This phenomenon, where we assume one characteristic is indicative of another, is called ‘the halo effect’.

The correlation between appearance and character is clearly ingrained in our society, but it’s one of the reasons I get so upset when people fat-shame Donald Trump or Clive Palmer. Equating their physical appearance with their shitty behaviour is not constructive, and feeds the myth that attractive equals good.

Disability activists have raised similar arguments. Fictional villains are often given physical differences as a signal of their evil and it’s become a trope that’s played out again and again on screen.

Now, all this may seem a little off topic but surely these tropes highlighting so-called ‘bad’ characteristics also show how easily we as a society can be manipulated into believing a strong jawline makes someone a wholesome and trustworthy person.

Given these cognitive biases are cultivated from childhood, I wonder if one of the reasons we’re still so obsessed with Bundy in particular is the way he so thoroughly shatters the image of a monster.

You can look at John Wayne Gacy dressed as a clown and think ‘holy shit, he’s creepy af’. Clearly, you won’t be surprised to find out he’s a depraved serial killer. But Bundy? Even I found myself objectifying his appearance and feeling a total disconnect between his appearance and horrendous crimes.

Uncovering the real horror of the psychopath

So three decades on from Bundy’s execution, are we still trying to come to grips with that fact we could be so charmed and manipulated by someone simply because they’re attractive? Are we still trying to understand how an intelligent person who clearly could have been a high achiever, could commit such vile and heinous acts?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1UJgrNRcvI

Of course, there’s another more general fascination with true crime. It’s something I’ve touched on before when I explored the ethical responsibilities we face in both creating and consuming true crime.

Production wise, The Ted Bundy Tapes is high quality and doesn’t feel like it’s glorifying him. There’s really very little detail of the crimes themselves until his Florida killing spree (after his second escape from prison, I mean COME ON). This storytelling decision is one of the reasons I believe this documentary was saved from feeling voyeuristic.

Of course the series is focused squarely on Bundy and there is little reflection on the lives of the victims, but in a case where so many people were killed it is incredibly hard to eulogise everyone in a limited timeframe without over-complicating the narrative.

I think focusing on the more ‘normal’ aspects of Bundy’s demeanour serves an important purpose in highlighting the fact that some monsters are able to hide in plain sight. In his case, because of his looks, intelligence, and mirroring of ‘normal’ behaviour. But when you see that mask slip (like when Bundy’s listening to his indictments being read out) it is a terrifying glimpse at the control he has to exert to maintain those social skills.

This ability to charm is something Berlinger himself has spoken about exploring in the documentary and movie, telling Vulture it was a failing to think of people, including killers, as two-dimensional.

We want to think they’re easily identifiable in society. But Bundy himself says, 'Killers don’t come out of the shadows with long fangs and blood dripping off their chin. They’re people you know that you like, that you admire.' That, to me, fits in with all of my work, wanting to understand what it’s like to be human.

I believe some of our desire to ‘understand’ the unfathomable psychopathic mind is a protective mechanism, a feeling that knowing will somehow make us immune or at least prepared. Knowledge helps reduce our anxiety and gives us a sense of some control over the uncontrollable, however delusional that may ultimately be.

Have you watched The Ted Bundy Tapes? What did you think?

Related reads

Melissa Mason (co-host of All Aussie Mystery Hour) wrote her take on why we need to talk about Bundy's appearance

Refinery29 discusses how white privilege allowed Bundy to convince the media he was 'special'

Ted Bundy survivor Kathy Kleiner speaks to Rolling Stone about the man who almost killed her

Photos sourced from Netflix.