Monday 17 June 2019

Ted Bundy gets the Netflix treatment – how watching real-life monsters makes audiences feel safer

As Ted Bundy becomes the latest serial killer to attract the attention of TV producers, John Meagher explores how watching real-life monsters makes audiences feel safer

Chilling: Bundy refuses to admit any wrongdoing on tape, but talks about the actions of ‘the individual’
Chilling: Bundy refuses to admit any wrongdoing on tape, but talks about the actions of ‘the individual’
Denise Naslund
Janice Ott
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was July 14, 1974, and thousands of people were enjoying the glorious sunshine at Lake Sammamish State Park in Washington state. Many of them were sunbathing on the beach, including young local women Janice Ott and Denise Naslund.

They didn't know each other but their names would be forever inextricably linked. In the space of a couple of hours that Sunday, both were approached by a handsome young man. His arm was in a sling. He said something to each and both got up and walked away with him, as if to help him with something. Neither was seen alive again. Skeletal remains were discovered months later near Issaquah, the town nearest the park.

Janice and Denise were two of the victims of one of the most notorious serial killers the US has ever known. Ted Bundy murdered 30 women - young, Caucasian, and "attractive" to use the killer's own description - but he may have been responsible for a far higher death toll.

And gruesome as that litany of murders was, it was the sheer brutality of the attacks that shocked the world. Bundy subjected his victims to the most horrific ordeal. He may have used his debonair charm to lure them away, but once he felt safe and alone with them, he unleashed his hate with the most ferocious power.

Denise Naslund
Denise Naslund

Bundy's life was extinguished by electric chair in Florida State Prison in 1989, but his name and notoriety hasn't faded in the 30 years since. And his reign of terror in the Pacific Northwest, Utah and Colorado will become known to a whole new generation with Netflix set to air a new four-part documentary starting on the 30th anniversary of his execution, January 24.

Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes takes an unflinching look at his life and crimes and differs from the slew of other documentary films that have tackled this notorious murderer in that we get to hear Bundy himself discussing the killings.

It is scarily compelling and all the more so when one considers that the series eschews sensationalism and sticks to cold, hard facts. There are interviews with many of those who came in contact with Bundy, including Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth who conducted more than 100 hours of taped interviews in his cell on death row. Although Bundy protested his innocence right up to the end, there was never a doubt that he was the one who had inflicted so much carnage. He refused to admit any wrongdoing on tape but bizarrely consented to describing in the third person why the killer might have been motivated to kill and what he was going through when he was carrying out the attacks. It is chilling to hear him causally talking about the actions of "the individual".

The documentary will likely attract a large audience and Netflix has become something of a must-have for true crime aficionados thanks to such popular series as Making a Murderer and The Keepers.

And it's part of a wider craze for true crime as espoused by podcasts like Serial and West Cork (which examines the infamous murder of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier), and by bestselling books such as the late Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark, which looked at the destruction waged by the rapist-murderer she dubbed the 'Golden State Killer'. Two months after the book's release last year, the killer - 72-year-old former policeman Joseph James DeAngelo - was finally apprehended.

It's clear that there is a huge appetite among many of us for violent true crime. The director of Conversation With a Killer, Joe Berlinger, is so taken with the Bundy story that he is also making a feature film on the man, starring Zac Efron as the killer.

Janice Ott
Janice Ott

But why are we so interested in true crime, especially the ones featuring serial killers? "Public fascination with murder relates, I suppose at a very basic level, to the fact that murder is a rare occurrence," says criminologist Lynsey Black, in an email to Review. "From the research on media and crime, it's clear that the most commonly committed crimes don't receive significant news and media coverage because, by their nature, they're mundane. In contrast, murders attract considerably more attention."

Black, who lectures at Maynooth University, says certain types of murders attract more attention and interest than others. "Irish research from Michael O'Connell of UCD has shown that there are certain perpetrator/victim dyads that the media prefer, particularly stories of vulnerable victims such as women, children and the elderly, and invulnerable offenders, typically younger and middle-aged men. This preference - identified in Irish newspaper reporting of crime - speaks to an innate appeal about stories with 'ideal' victims and certain types of offenders."

She believes random killings and serial killing - "which are rare even within the category of murder itself" - can enforce a sense of insecurity. "Cases where the assailant and victim are unknown to each other, for instance, represent a common-sense view that danger is unknown and 'out there', the idea of 'stranger danger'. This perception of danger, and a focus on rare and unusual cases, obscures patterns where they exist. So, in the extreme cases where women are victims, gendered patterns of offending and violence are erased.

"Cases such as that of Ted Bundy, for example, are presented as aberrant and grounded in pathology and mental abnormality, rather than existing on a spectrum of violence and sexual violence towards women. 'Stranger danger' is a more newsworthy concept, but it hides structural inequality and patterns of violent victimisation."

And it's these sort of crimes that have ensured that serial killers like Bundy and those other American murderers who were at large in the 1970s, such as John Wayne Gacy and David 'Son of Sam' Berkowitz, remain household names, especially among those with a penchant for true crime books, podcasts and TV series.

"Equally, there are certain very high-profile cases of women who kill that have attracted lasting notoriety," Black adds. "Again, the rarity of female-perpetrated killings makes the story instantly attractive to the media, and seems to call for more soul-searching as it is so far beyond expected gender behaviour."

It's a sentiment echoed by Irish criminologist Colette Barry, who lectures at Sheffield Hallam University. She notes that there seems to be a greater supply of true-crime information than ever before. "It's all around us," she says. "TV shows, books whether fiction or non-fiction, true-crime podcasting, Reddit threads.

"An awful lot of it is related to murder and within that, serial killers are an inescapable point of reference. Much of the info and content and opinion that we form about this comes to us from the different types of media we consume. Learning about serial murderers through these media provide us with a safe insight into a really morbid topic. We can explore really scary things without having to put ourselves in danger."

But why do we choose to immerse ourselves in such deranged worlds, like that of Ted Bundy? "It can give us a way of thinking into something that is completely alien to us," she says. "One of the tropes about serial murderers is that they're highly intelligent and you might be aghast about how lacking in morals they are. And thinking about that and trying to understand that can also be a draw for people."

A fear of being victimised

It's why she believes fictionalised representations of a serial killer - such as the 'anti-hero' portrayed in the Dexter series - is so compelling. "And maybe the reason why somebody like Ted Bundy continues to fascinate is that many saw him as quite normal on the outside and it plays into those dark fears that the friendly stranger may not be all they seem."

Barry notes that women are especially avid consumers of true-crime shows and podcasts, according to audience research. "It's an interesting phenomenon," she says, "and engaging with these programmes, or with true-crime books and crime novels can shore up a fear of crime in women, particularly a fear of being victimised in a violent way, and we know that from crime victimisation surveys done in Ireland and elsewhere that women are more afraid of crime, but they're not most likely to be victims of crime."

The statistics bear out that fact time and again, but there are occasions where it seems as though the opposite is true, not least when one considers the brutal axe-killing and decapitation of a Polish woman in Co Louth this week.

And then there's Ted Bundy and his litany of hate towards the opposite sex. Conversations With a Killer is stomach-churning in places but for many viewers it will be impossible to switch over. In its own chilling way, the series will be as alluring to many as the charming arm-in-a-sling stranger was on the beach at Lake Sammamish State Park all those years ago.

'Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes' starts on Netflix on January 24

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