Preserving the tired narrative of the smart, good-looking serial killer seems to be the primary concern of Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, directed by Joe Berlinger, which somehow manages to be almost as cruel as it is boring. I lost count of how many times serial killer Ted Bundy was described as “charming,” “handsome,” or “clean cut, good looking, articulate [and] very intelligent,” sometime around the middle of the second episode of Netflix’s four-part documentary.
For four deeply misguided hours, the documentary zips back and forth between Bundy’s crimes, which included the abduction, torture, rape, and murder of at least 30 women and girls in the mid-to-late 1970s, and the extensive interviews he gave to journalist Stephen Michaud while sitting on Florida’s death row in 1980. Though the documentary relentlessly insists that Michaud’s taped interviews are a profound insight into the mind of a notorious serial killer—a serial killer who, in case anyone forgets, is impressively smart and handsome—they are little more than musings of an average man who, given the opportunity to talk about “what it was really like for me,” spins idyllic stories about his childhood, complains about being a victim, and discusses his crimes in the third person.
Michaud suggested that Bundy psychoanalyze a genius serial killer who, hypothetically, committed the crimes that Bundy had been suspected (but not convicted) of, is supposed to be the documentary’s big reveal, and yet even more proof of Bundy’s intelligence. (Michaud solemnly notes that Bundy’s revelations in the third person make the tapes unusable in a court. A genius move from a man already on death row.) But the interviews reveals little of Bundy’s supposed charm and intelligence; instead, he comes across a little more than a vain bore whose revelations include things like: “We are dealing with an individual whose primary concern is not to be detected.”
Though there is a deep disconnect between the cliched aggrieved man on the tapes and the charming Bundy that the obligatory talking heads of the crime documentary insist upon, Berlinger forges ahead. Short of having a subject worthy of four hours, Berlinger offers up a timeline of Bundy’s crimes, interspersed with Michaud’s tapes, as well as montages of the swinging ’70s, bell-bottomed coeds, American childhood, porn, crime scene photographs, photographs of Bundy, and most ridiculously, close-ups of blue eyes that are meant to be Bundy’s. I guess eyes are the windows to the soul. For good measure, we’re also given montages of radical feminists and old television clips of women walking down the street, unaware that the camera is recording them. The effect is supposed to be haunting and overwhelming, to bring the viewer closer to Bundy’s rapidly firing mind or mental state, but the result is a documentary that visually repeats its unconvincing narrative insistence that its subject is important.
But if The Ted Bundy Tapes demand on what one commentator describes as Bundy’s “aura,” then it is deeply uninterested in the women that Bundy killed—the very women whose tortuously slow, cruel, and lonely deaths made Bundy infamous and, ostensibly, even worth a documentary (let alone the forthcoming feature film Berlinger also directed, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile). Berlinger gives a fleeting moment of hope in the first episode, pausing to consider victims Lynda Healy and Georgann Hawkins outside the narrow context of their murders. But the moment is short lived. Soon, Healy and Hawkins, as well as the six other women Bundy murdered in Washington state are subsumed to the narrative importance of Bundy himself, little more than photographs in montages. Instead of interviewing friends or families of the women, Berlinger relies on contemporary news reports. They’re laden with vintage sexism and offer little more than assurances that the women who disappeared were good girls, the kind of reliable girls who wouldn’t just run off.
In one clip, Susan Rancourt’s father assures a reporter that “she’s a straight A student.” The footage is striking only because it’s a persistent reminder that the investigations of Bundy were deeply affected by sexism, but The Ted Bundy Tapes hardly notices, spending instead an inordinate amount of noting that the phrase “serial killer” was new and unknown to the police, almost grotesquely treating Bundy as an innovator of sorts. Instead, more than four decades after their blameless death at the hands of a serial killer, the documentary only seems interested in reassuring the viewer that Healy, Hawkins, Rancourt, as well as three other women, didn’t deserve their fate.
If Berlinger’s decision here is curiously cruel, then it typifies his treatment of all of Bundy’s victims. Bundy’s “terrible” crimes are luridly described and descriptions like “beaten and strangled,” “sexually mutilated,” and “bludgeoned and raped,” uncritically exist alongside the “charming” and “intelligent” depiction of Bundy. I suppose that the contrast here is meant to be profound, a revelation that the devil doesn’t actually have horns. As one commentator observes, “[Bundy] didn’t look like anybody’s notion of someone who would tear apart young girls.” But then what do cruelty, violence, and base misogyny look like? The Ted Bundy Tapes never bothers to answer, it simply insists that it neither looks or behaves like Bundy. Perhaps I’m cynical from years of writing about violence against women, but in my experience, cruelty, even the extreme cruelty of a serial killer, looks exactly as average as Bundy.
After the first episode, The Ted Bundy Tapes moves through the rest of Bundy’s victims at a breakneck pace. It pauses long enough to interview Carol DaRonch, one of the five women who survived Bundy’s attacks. DaRonch, who in 1974 as a teenager in Utah, was attacked by Bundy outside of a shopping mall. She fought him off and reported the attack to the police. It was DaRonch who later identified Bundy, landing him in jail for her attempted abduction even though the Church of Latter-day Saints supported Bundy and shamed DaRonch. She is the most interesting interview in the documentary; as she recounts the fear she felt in the time leading to Bundy’s arrest, there’s an immediacy and vulnerability that shatters the notion that Bundy was charming or that such a man could have an “aura.” And yet, DaRonch is treated almost as an aside, a moment on which to impatiently pause, until the documentary can move on to more captivating stories of Bundy reading law books and planning his escape from the Colorado jail cell where he was extradited to stand trial for the murder of Caryn Campbell.
But if DaRonch is treated as an aside, then Bundy’s three murders in Florida are squeezed into the space of half of the third episode. In Tallahassee, he killed Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman, two sisters in Florida State’s Chi Omega sorority, and injured two others. From there, he murdered Kimberly Leach, one of his youngest victims, in nearby Lake City. But The Ted Bundy Tapes is more interested in the thrill of the chase, more interested in the police who searched Colorado after his first and second escape, more invested in the tactics that Bundy used to evade detection and frustrate authorities even after he was caught. The murders of Levy and Bowman are reduced to the now questionable use of forensic evidence, specifically bite marks, and the three women that survived in Tallahassee are hardly mentioned (you can, and should, read Tori Tefler’s interview with Chi Omega survivor Kathy Kleiner in Rolling Stone).
Instead, the survivors, along with Bundy’s victims, are transformed into objects, red pins on a map that’s used as a visual device throughout The Ted Bundy Tapes to mark the scenes of crimes. Living women are conflated with dead women, but nearly all are silent, little more than flesh-colored tabula rasas on which to inscribe the “charming” “intelligent” narrative of Bundy and the relentless pursuit of the men who would ultimately capture and prosecute him. What’s perhaps most upsetting is that, with the exception of the prosecutor Bob Dekle who convicted Bundy for Leach’s murder, is how enthralled so many of the documentary’s interviewees are by Bundy, and how impressed they are with themselves. The interview with former Tallahassee police chief Ken Katsaris is particularly repulsive, as Katsaris smiles with satisfaction reminiscing about his decision to deliver a grand jury’s indictment to Bundy on live television. One journalist described the scene as “part political theater, part crime drama.”
The fourth and final episode is grotesquely depressing. It’s deeply invested in the media circus of Bundy’s trial, obsessed with archival video of Bundy laughing or smiling, more evidence, I suppose, of his charm. (That Bundy married and later had a daughter with Carole Ann Boone is offered as evidence of his universal charm among women).
The Ted Bundy Tapes is a testament to trenchant narratives about serial killers and repeats them with virtually no self-awareness. It is particularly in awe to men like Bundy who cannot simply be average, but must instead have been unusually attractive or exceedingly charming to have exposed women to such violence and eluded capture. It’s a narrative that cannot allow dead girls to exist as anything other than a rhetorical fetish, subservient to the master story of a great man destined for history, no matter how violent his entry into history was. It invests in spectacular violence against women, pretending that it must be enacted by spectacular men—men who are in reality, Ashley Alese Edwards noted, nothing more than a “myth” constructed in “America’s consciousness.”
The Ted Bundy Tapes desperately wants its subject to be unusual—to be charming and smart and interesting—and it’s eager to disregard any evidence to the contrary. It’s telling that the vast majority of those who insist on Bundy’s “aura” are men; what’s even more telling is that DeRonch thought Bundy was creepy or that a Sandi Holt, a childhood acquaintance, described him as a slightly odd “blowhard.” But perhaps the most obvious undermining of the documentary’s thesis, to the very notion that Bundy and his violence was unusual, was buried in The Ted Bundy Tapes itself. During the second episode, the one woman detective in Washington who was part of the investigative unit noted that, after the police put out a call for tips on men named Ted who drove a Volkswagen Beetle, “a lot of women called in” thinking that the Ted who was suspected of murdering eight women was their boyfriend. It’s a reminder of just how familiar Bundy’s violence was (and is), that “a lot” of women suspected that they slept with Ted Bundy every night. The Ted Bundy Tapes hardly bothers to notice.