Emily Schone critiques the glorification of mass murderer Ted Bundy in Netflix’s upcoming film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
I have a confession to make. I love true crime documentaries – you know, the type with the questionable font on the Netflix thumbnail, or the ones you stumble across way, way down the channel list. I don’t think I’m alone, either. A crime documentary is, in my humble opinion, the perfect procrastination tool; horrifying enough to keep you interested, factual enough to kid you into thinking it’s a valid alternative to the outstanding essay you have due in on Monday. I suppose you could call it a morbid fascination (a generous way of describing that part of my brain that secretly wants to be appalled), so I’m no stranger to the names of some of the more notorious criminals out there: John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ian Brady, Myra Hindley – and of course, Ted Bundy. His reputation has definitely sparked a Wikipedia spiral or two, and to call his crimes ‘heinous’ would be a dramatic understatement. For this reason, you can imagine my surprise when I stumble across the trailer for a film on Bundy’s biography, featuring Zac Efron as the Vermont-born killer.
The film is called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. No, that’s not a particularly damning review. That’s the official title. I know. ‘Extremely Wicked’ was directed by Joe Berlinger, who has recently been the topic of some praise and discussion regarding his latest documentary series on Netflix, Conversation with a Killer. That aside, I still couldn’t quite believe that Zac Efron, sneaker-wearing superstar of my pre-adolescence, was playing the man convicted of the rape and murder of over thirty women – if this was bait, it certainly worked on me. I watched the trailer. I watched it again. It was unsettling for all the wrong reasons: from the Fight Club soundtrack to the smouldering mugshots, the trailer seemed more an homage to the rock-and-roll antihero of 90’s cinema, rather than an accurate presentation of a prolific serial killer. It was disturbingly sexy – not a word I’d like to include in my vernacular when describing Ted Bundy – with shirtless snapshots and smirks and winks at the camera. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole thing was pandering to the edgy teen stereotype, in that it was trying to portray Bundy’s ‘human side’ for controversy’s sake.
I can see a potential explanation for the idiosyncrasy of the trailer: Ted Bundy was undeniably charming, and shamelessly exploited his looks and charisma to lure the women he then killed. He also split public opinion at the time – his court cases were displays, with heavy media coverage and vast numbers of demonstrators (mostly women, ironically enough) protesting his innocence; he was popular with prosecutors and even received love letters in jail. Bundy made shows of his tribunals, which appears to feature heavily in the film. It could be argued that Berlinger approached the content from this angle, and that ‘Extremely Wicked’ is an attempt to showcase Bundy’s psychological manipulation of an entire nation. The trailer also features Bundy’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer (played by Lily Collins), which could provide insight into a much-overlooked aspect of true crime: the lives of those deeply invested in and connected to the perpetrator. Kathy Kleiner Rubin – one of Bundy’s few surviving victims – responded to the accusations. In her words: “…when they [the characters featured in the film] say positive and wonderful things about him, that’s what they saw, that’s what Bundy wanted them to see. It was picked up as that. The movie does glorify him more than I think he should be, but like I said, I think everyone should see it and understand him as what he was, even when he was the perfect son.” Perhaps this is what Berlinger was going for when he decided Zac Efron should play Troy Bol– sorry –Ted Bundy, in what appears a morally dubious approach to the killer’s life.
Or, perhaps the film really is going for a rendition of Bundy as some sort of brooding bad-boy with an ultimately ‘human’ core. If so, then I think the online backlash to the trailer is absolutely justified. It falls into the all-too-common trope of glorifying an individual at the expense of his victims. If we glorify our criminals, we continue to keep the spotlight fixed on them rather than give space to those who lost their lives. The narrative remains firmly centred on the people who, in my opinion, forfeited their voices when they made the decision to permanently silence others. I can’t put words into the mouths of the relations of thirty murdered women, but I think it would be safe to assume that seeing Bundy portrayed as a source of darkly misunderstood intrigue would be hugely unsettling and distressing. I feel like it’s important we ask ourselves the question: at what point does a person lose the privilege of being seen as human? Personally, I think murdering dozens of women meets that criteria. I understand the film has yet to come out – and who knows, maybe it’ll defy all expectation – but that said, I’m not sure how contributing to the notoriety Bundy so evidently adored benefits anyone, save for those looking to make a neat bit of box office revenue.