“Serial killers were becoming a source of entertainment for millions of people who munched popcorn as they watched Silence of the Lambs…It was an interest that would appeal to those who had never lived with anguish these monsters cause.”
—Seattle Sheriff David Reichert
Chasing the Devil: My Twenty-Year Quest to
Capture the Green River Killer (2004)
“But gruesome horror is vivid and exciting.”
—Philosophers Eric Dietrich & Tara Fox Hall,
“The Allure of the Serial Killer” (2010)
I assume Sheriff Reichert was referring to audiences’ fascination with the fictional Dr. Hannibal Lector rather than his murderous former patient, Buffalo Bill. Even if Lector was always the star of the show, it might “interest” the reader to know the character of Buffalo Bill was based on the so-called “Butcher of Plainfield” and real-life serial killer, Ed Gein.
Gein murdered two women in rural Wisconsin before police caught up with him in 1957. He made furniture out of body parts harvested from the local cemetery and revered his dearly departed mother. Sound familiar? It should: Gein was the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leather Face and Psycho’s Norman Bates.
The Hollywood myth of the serial killer fills theatres because men like Gein defy popular expectations about what a serial killer is supposed to look like. 51 at the time of his arrest, the outwardly docile Gein was a bit of an oddball, but he seemed harmless. In fact, his eccentricities had masked his untreated schizophrenia. Gein was also intellectually disabled, and the man who was found mentally unfit to stand trial would have to be made either more sophisticated (Bates), or utterly barbaric (Leatherface) before these characters would grip American audiences. If only folks in Plainfield had known the real Ed…
Nevermind Lector or Gein now that movie-goers can look forward to munching popcorn watching Ted Bundy on the silver screen. Bundy abducted, raped, and murdered at least 36 women across the United States between 1974 and his final arrest in 1977. He maintained his innocence until 1989 when he confessed to his crimes on his way to Florida’s electric chair.
Now he’s the subject of countless books, a Netflix docu-series, and a major motion picture biopic. Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes takes the viewer on a guided tour of ‘the killer’s’ prison interviews with American journalist Stephen Michaud. Aside from a few grisly post-mortem photos of Bundy’s victims, I thought it was well done. Film-director Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile hasn’t been released yet, but it stars heart-throb Zac Efron as Bundy. Whether it’s vintage Bundy or a ‘sexy’ Efron-as-Bundy on the screen, anyone curious enough to watch is likely to realize these were released in time for the thirtieth anniversary of his execution. We’re commemorating a man who described murdering young women as “the ultimate possession.”
What is it about Bundy that keeps us coming back for more? And, what sets these Bundy narratives apart from true crime stories about other serial killers?
I’ll admit it: There’s something about the ultimate taboo society places on killing I find exhilarating. I don’t like murder, but I fall asleep listening to true crime podcasts just about every night.I’ve been wanting to write about my own fascination with the genre for some time, as much because I think its success calls for explanation as because I want to make sense of my own murder fetish.
I read US historian Roger Lane’s Murder in America (Ohio State University Press, 1997) to understand the societal factors behind the rising murder-rate in 1970s’ America, on the one hand, and the parallel increase in serial killing, on the other. Next, philosophers’ Dietrich’s and Tara Fox Hall’s “The Allure of the Serial Killer” (see above) shed valuable light on true crime’s often insidious emotional payoff, while retired FBI- profiler John Douglas’s The Cases that Haunt Us (Scribner, 2000) and literary scholar Jean Murley’s The Rise of True Crime (Praeger, 2008) explain its underlying cultural appeal.
“Psycho-killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?”
The term ‘serial killer’ hadn’t resonated with North American audiences when The Talking Heads released their hit single Psycho Killer in 1975, but the idea wasn’t far in the offing. The American postwar boom had peaked a generation earlier, with Roger Lane suggesting in Murder in America that US society had grown more violent amidst a burgeoning gulf between the country’s ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ To this point, FBI statistics show the per capita murder-rate doubled over the 1960s, reaching a highpoint in 1974 that’s remained more or less constant ever since.
Even as movies based on serial killers were taking over Hollywood, Lane’s analysis amply demonstrates that Americans have always been more likely to be killed by someone they know than by a stranger. Mass killings and drug violence account for growing numbers of murder victims every year, but the basic parameters haven’t fundamentally shifted since the mid-70s: It’s still typically young men who murder, and chiefly their loved ones and family (especially women) who are killed. I’m willing to bet as much is true of other societies, from when a jealous Cain killed his brother Abel in Genesis unto now. But as Lane reminds us, “[w]hatever the statistics show about domestic danger, it is strangers…who scare us, and murder as mystery.”
Seems harmless enough. Humans are drawn to the unknown because we’re hardwired to solve puzzles and neutralize danger. Serial killers bring both, in spades. Is it plain old morbid curiosity driving my true crime fetish? Or, did I watch The Ted Bundy Tapes believing I’d be safer crawling into Bundy’s head? Either way, clinical research points to what psychologists call “co-activation.”
Murder Most Fun
Co-activation happens when we experience things that stimulate our brains’ fear and pleasure centres at the same time. Our hearts beat faster, our pupils dilate, and we stare down the adrenaline rush. Fittingly, Dietrich and Fox Hall liken true crime narratives to rollercoasters, where the ‘allure’ lies in the “the idea” we’re in danger. Just as we ‘know’ we won’t come to any harm from the simulated freefall we enjoy barreling down a rollercoaster, Dietrich and Hall note that true crime narratives tuck murder safely behind a “protective frame” reassuring fans they’re only taking in a story. As Jean Murley writes in The Rise of True Crime, “the [fan] feels the disparity of closeness to the [killer] and distance from the horror of his acts.”
Few seem to have understood this better than the late true crime author, Ann Rule. Rule met Bundy in 1971, when he was a University of Washington intern counseling vulnerable Seattle women at the city’s Crisis Clinic. Writing of her friendship with the man who became the most prolific sexual predator of his generation, Rule honed the genre’s conventions of ‘the serial killer as villain’ to an engrossing tee in The Stranger Beside Me (1980). And what made Bundy a hot-seller is what true crime fans are still looking for in stories about murder—a monster hiding behind a lily-white façade.
Rule went on to write a string of other successful true crime books following essentially the same recipe. Asked by reporters how she chose her subjects, she explained:
I’m looking for an ‘antihero’ whose eventual arrest shocks those who knew him (or her): attractive, brilliant, charming, popular, wealthy, talented, and much admired in their communities — but really hiding behind masks.”
Meanwhile, Rule wasn’t the only one taken in by Bundy’s wiles. The guy even weaseled his way into Washington State’s Republican Party, with one of his friends telling the camera in The Bundy Tapes, “He was the kind of guy you wanted your sister to marry.”
If I’m totally honest, Bundy suckered me, too. I’ve spent more time watching documentaries and reading books about him in the last month than I’ve spent with my own girlfriend. There’s a sort of “co-activation” in the admission of it, except that it makes me sad and angry rather than scared and thrilled. What makes it all the more difficult to accept is that, unlike Rule and the GOP, I knew going into this that Bundy was the kind of guy who got off murdering young women.
I suppose he’s a bit like Ed Gein in the way he upsets society’s basic assumptions about violent criminality. But where Gein’s unimpressive mug and backstory needed so much artistic license before he could thrill movie-goers as the curiously oedipal Norman Bates or the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, the handsome Bundy lived the part played by Efron in Wicked and Vile.
Do I understand all the Bundy mania after having written this? Sure. He’s what Jean Murley calls “crime porn:” His crimes reek of sexualized violence, his twisted mind calling out for armchair psychiatry that make us feel smart when he gets fried at the end of the story. But I’m left wincing at Stephen Michaud’s revelation in The Bundy Tapes that his subject bragged, “I don’t care what you write about me—so long as it sells.”
Evidently, it’s still selling.