It’s been noted, more than once, that Ted Bundy would surely enjoy all the attention we’re lavishing on his legacy of late. This year seemed to begin with everyone talking about him, commemorating the 30th anniversary of his execution, digging up their archives while the topic is still trending, continuing to insert him into memes, etc.
If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to brush off the Bundy buzz as problematic stanning, but I think such a dismissive simplification overlooks the obvious. Underneath all of the “should we or shouldn’t we” conversations, there’s a compelling explanation for why we’re so fascinated with Ted, and it absolutely stems from the fact that he is perceived to be handsome.
Personally I think the term “handsome” is a little generous for Bundy, but if he hit on me at a bar it might take me a full five minutes to decide if I wanted to disengage. With his inoffensive looks, Ted represents the scariest boogeyman of our era: The secret psychopath who seems normal, nice and even cute, all the way past the third date. You could match with him on Tinder, bump into him at an office happy hour, or walk past him in your neighborhood. He’s not someone you’d cross the street to avoid. He also wouldn’t look out of place in any of the settings where he was able to meet and abduct women – and that’s a pivotal part of why he could kill so many women before he was caught.
My point is, it’s highly unlikely that a homely Ted Bundy would’ve been such a prolific killer, because his victims might’ve done a very different threat assessment. But he used his appearance to deceive them and bypassed their defenses.
We lump killers into two categories: The charming psychopath and the brutish beast. Since both types are wont to horribly harm other humans, I think we can be honest with ourselves and admit the only real distinction we make is whether they look more like Patrick Bateman or the Beast of Jersey.
This is why we talked about Zac Efron’s casting as Ted in the upcoming film Extremely Wicked, Shocking and Vile, because even if the story is tapped out, movie executives know the people want a leading man with looks to kill. The film tells Ted’s story through the eyes of his former live-in girlfriend, which is probably why director Joe Berlinger doesn’t show much violence on screen, because she never saw that side of him.
The absence of the murders might be unsatisfying for those who know the case well, but it makes an interesting point about how we miss the red flags when we choose to see the best in people. Even when someone isn’t a killer, if they look like someone we want to trust, we’re inclined to believe them still after their stories stop adding up.
That was also the point of You, right? Or at least I hope that’s why we’re all talking about a Lifetime series that would’ve never made waves if not for the benevolence of Netflix. (Although, to its credit, it’s delightful in a pulpy Riverdale way that I couldn’t shake.) In this contemporary love story the meet-cute of a rom-com quickly sours into postmodern horror, not unlike the fate that seems to have befallen modern dating.
At this point a series doesn’t have to be Peak TV or high art to spark meaningful conversations. Maybe it’s rare or just poorly done, but we need more stories that dissect the possessive and boundary-violating behaviors often mistaken for romantic infatuation: looking through a partner’s phone, sabotaging their friendships, tracking their location or monitoring them without their knowledge.
It’s easy to joke about loving someone just a little too much, but witnessing the manipulation from Joe’s perspective forces us to question seemingly nice behaviors from a seemingly nice person. (To the show’s credit, I liked that You explores how covert coercion can look different when it’s coming from a friend instead of a partner, or a woman instead of a man.)
Like with Ted’s Conversations, Joe’s first-person narration in You muddies the distinction that we as the audience love to make between someone who might be a psycho killer and someone who just seems a little mysterious. By hearing Joe’s thoughts we’re asked to sympathize with him, but because of his actions, we’re rooting against him. He’s our protagonist villain, if you will, and we’re forced to reconcile that someone can be a person and a predator at the same time.
Historically speaking, we have never done this well. To put it in perspective, let me remind you that we needed a few years to digest the Twilight movies before deciding that stalker boyfriends aren’t romantic. Dating a narcissist may not be as dramatic as dating a sociopathic serial killer, but avoiding dating either is probably best.
The hardest and ugliest lesson we still can’t seem to learn is that the worst monsters in our world do not outwardly look like monsters. Clearly we’re not there yet, because we’re still struggling to hold this truth as salient without glamorizing or fawning over a killer. I think we’re allowed to explore different facets of this inexplicable human condition. There is room for advocacy and victim-centered storytelling, and there is room to delve into the minds of killers without ignoring their victims. We can hold both of these values at the same time, and we can find value in (most) of these stories.
At the end of the day, as long as people like Ted and Joe are still out there hunting for victims, the rest of us can probably still benefit from yet another warning story about the sneakiest of predators: the one who seemed like such a nice guy.