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Netflix’s Conversations With a Killer willfully participates in Ted Bundy’s 3-ring circus

The new true crime documentary series demonstrates that even after his death, Ted Bundy runs his own show.

Ted Bundy
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

A high number of serial killers are malignant narcissists — often the kind who suffer from delusions of grandeur. One of the implications of Netflix’s new true crime documentary series, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, is that its subject — one of America’s most well-known serial killers — perpetually manipulated the media and his many interviewers into feeding his glorified narrative of himself. Ironically, that’s also what Conversations With a Killer seems to be doing now.

The documentary, which was released Thursday, is a dramatization of the 2000 book Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer by investigative reporters Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. It’s drawn from many hours of recorded interviews the pair conducted with Bundy during his imprisonment in the 1980s.

Using a mix of archival news footage of the investigations into Bundy’s crimes and his subsequent arrest and trials, stock footage of ’70s-era cultural detritus, and interviews, the four-part Netflix series recounts the story of the killer’s dozens of murders and assaults. In addition to incorporating Bundy’s prison interviews, the filmmakers talked to journalists, detectives, Bundy’s friends, attorneys, and even one of his survivors in an apparent effort to balance Bundy’s words about himself with broader context and insights.

Prior to his execution in 1989 at the age of 42, Bundy confessed to murdering between 30 and 37 women between 1974 and 1978; of these, 20 of his victims have been identified, along with five other survivors. The true number of his victims is unknown.

As a true crime fan, I feel decently up to speed on my Bundy knowledge. I’ve read Ann Rule’s classic memoir of her friendship with Bundy, A Stranger Beside Me. I know the basic chronology of Bundy’s crimes — his early assaults and murders beginning around 1974, his kidnapping arrest and conviction in 1976, repeated escapes from authorities, and the Chi Omega sorority murders he committed at Florida State University in 1978 that would turn him into a cultural fixture of evil.

I am familiar with the chilling physical similarities between his targets and his storied ex-girlfriend (echoes of which surfaced last year with news that the Golden State Killer had been similarly fixated on his former fiancée). I’ve even watched snippets of his jailhouse interviews over the years — enough to deduce that Bundy was the classic charming sociopath, milking the attention while ultimately revealing very little.

There are plenty of previously extant, easily accessible documentaries and footage of Ted Bundy’s recorded post-conviction interviews. So I was admittedly skeptical about what new value could be found within the new package from Netflix — even though it’s the work of true crime titan Joe Berlinger, co-director of the seminal West Memphis Three documentary trilogy Paradise Lost.

Berlinger is also directing an upcoming biopic starring Zac Efron as Bundy: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile makes its world premiere this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, with a wider release date yet to be announced. The film’s title is taken from the judge’s description of Bundy’s crimes when sentencing him, and if you feel like it’s overselling the point, then you probably won’t get much mileage out of Conversations With a Killer. The documentary comes across, to an extent, as homework you’re supposed to do before you see Berlinger’s other Ted Bundy movie.

But despite Bundy’s notoriety, inarguably drawing lots of prurient interest, the recounting of his life story in Conversations With a Killer is a bit of a slog — and one that left me wondering, in the end, if the series is too fixated on its villain.

If you’re familiar with the story of Ted Bundy, you’ve already heard this “conversation”

It was Bundy himself who helped create and embed within the cultural consciousness so many of the archetypes we associate with the serial killer: the idea of the double life, the secret “dark side” that comes as a total shock to family and friends who’ve known someone only as an upstanding pillar of their greater community.

The placid charm that masks layers of virulent narcissism and misogynistic rage. The cat-and-mouse skill with which he’s able to evade baffled law enforcement; the combination of personal charisma and a lethal antisocial personality that allows and emboldens him to snatch his victims, often in broad daylight. The subsequent media and cultural fixation on the killer at the expense of those victims.

Because so much of this lore is already so closely associated with Bundy himself, and because there’s so much information out there about Bundy already, Conversations has its work cut out for it. True crime fans who are familiar with Bundy’s story won’t learn much. But even if you aren’t familiar, one can only endure so much voiceover narration, intoning over a litany of stock photography that Bundy seemed just like you or me, before things start to feel circular and repetitive.

There’s an entire bingo card full of documentary tropes in the first episode alone: Detectives affirm that the concept of a “serial killer” didn’t exist before the ’70s, when the post-Charles Manson era signified a growing public awareness of the class of murderer that’s always been among us. (Famous pre-’70s serial killers include Albert Fish, H.H. Holmes, and, of course, Jack the Ripper.) Conversations With a Killer makes repeated assertions that “we didn’t have the technology” — with “the technology” being everything from advanced forensics to interstate criminal databases to fax machines to the internet.

A childhood friend from Bundy’s days growing up in Tacoma, Washington, recounts that while they had a lot of fun together, Bundy was something of a misfit and “he had a temper.” You don’t say. His days as an upstanding young Republican are canvassed. Bundy himself explains that he distrusted left-wing countercultural politics and “radical socialist types” because “I just wasn’t too fond of criminal conduct and using antiwar movements as a haven for delinquents who liked to feel that they were immune to the law.”

A friend recalls that “he was the kind of guy you’d want your sister to marry.” The irony is everywhere.

At one point, Bundy’s ramblings about politics and his own talents, his experiences with women, and his own psychology play over a shifting kaleidoscope of archival and stock images, interspersed with close-ups of his photograph. The ever-advancing zoom-in on his attractive face, his agreeable smile, his perfectly open eyes, is supposed to be chilling. But sandwiched between a 2018 podcast about Bundy and Berlinger’s upcoming biopic, it mostly just seems gratuitous — the kind of self-aggrandizing focus that Bundy would have loved.

One thing that is made abundantly clear throughout the doc is that even during the years in which he was a widely publicized suspect who was awaiting/escaping/evading trial, Bundy had endless opportunities to give interviews, declaim his innocence, and laugh and joke with the lineup of mystified reporters who entered his orbit. Conversations details how irresistible the case was to the media, with its lurid details juxtaposed against the unlikely figure of Bundy himself.

Again and again, the inherent twist of Bundy’s identity — he was hot! But also a killer! He was a hot upstanding necrophiliac serial killer! — is repeated, even though this is far from new or revealing information, even though it’s the first and most well-known detail anyone knows about Ted Bundy.

Much more impactful is the moment in episode two when Carol Daronch, who survived a 1974 kidnapping attempt by Bundy, describes fighting off Bundy and recalling his “flat, lifeless eyes.” (Bundy would murder another woman, Debra Jean Kent, just hours later.) It’s her story as a survivor that stands out amid what may feel to the true crime fan like largely repetitive observations on Bundy’s life and crimes.

The documentary pays little attention to its best and most valuable resource: Bundy’s victims

Unfortunately, Daronch’s story is also an outlier; as the narrative proceeds, Bundy’s victims receive little more than a few words and a photograph. Often, two or more are listed in the same breath, usually because either their abductions or the recoveries of their bodies happened in such close proximity that they were essentially paired as one victim.

I spend a huge amount of time listening to true crime podcasts, in which hosts like Steven Pacheco of Trace Evidence, Marissa Jones of The Vanished, Nina Innsted of Already Gone, the writers of Casefile, and several others I could name routinely go out of their way to memorialize and give biographies to victims. So it felt odd to watch Conversations With a Killer and realize that I’d built up an expectation, bestowed on me by the true crime community, that Bundy’s victims would receive as much attention as possible, even in a documentary so overtly focused on the killer.

Given that so much of the information covered in the series is already well-known, a deep-dive focus on Bundy’s victims — an effort to allow their voices, their lives as they were able to live them, to balance Bundy’s voice — would arguably have set Conversations apart from the glut of true crime docs. But without that layer of rarely seen context, Conversations With a Killer feels even more superfluous.

There’s enough here to please newcomers to the Ted Bundy story — but not much more

If you don’t know much about Bundy, there’s enough to Conversations to draw interest. Especially chilling is the documentary’s glimpse at Bundy’s “kill kit,” which includes the standard criminal’s balaclava and rope — but also pantyhose and an icepick. Also interesting is the accounting of Bundy’s faithful fellow members of the LDS church, who sent him a hand-drawn card and supported him in the courtroom during his 1976 trial for Daronch’s kidnapping.

These intriguing tidbits don’t get nearly as much attention as Bundy’s narrative about himself — which, to be fair, is what the documentary promised with its “conversations” framework. And if you’ve never before encountered Bundy’s jocular portrait of himself as he discusses his crimes in the abstract, it will certainly be eye-opening.

But where Conversations With a Killer perhaps finds its firmest footing is in episode four, which features extensive archival footage of Bundy’s 1979 trial for the Chi Omega murders. Amid a flustered showing by the defense team, featuring Bundy acting as his own temperamental co-counsel, Chi Omega member Nita Neary strides in, stone-faced vengeance personified, to identify Bundy as the man who attacked five of her sorority sisters. It’s one of the few moments in the documentary when the archival footage lingers on Bundy’s targets, and as such, it’s a stark reminder of how little we’re hearing from those on the receiving end of his mania.

What’s more, if you tune in hoping for an in-depth examination of the investigative process that led to Bundy’s arrest(s), you’ll more than likely come away disappointed. This is partly due to the fact that there was very little forensic evidence for many of the murders, and partly due to the fact that Bundy benefited from haphazard and befuddled policing. But Conversations With a Killer also prefers to skate over many of the procedural elements of the chase in favor of first-person recollections of Bundy himself.

This approach would be highly effective if Berlinger and his team did more to push back against the narrative that Bundy and others have created through their first-person reflections on his crimes. But despite the sheer number of collected interviews, if anything, they largely serve to amplify Bundy in what becomes a monologue — rather than a truly polyphonic dialogue. Again and again, interviewees describe him as “special.”

At several points during the Chi Omega trial, Bundy’s antics audibly crack up the courtroom. And at his sentencing, the judge compliments his intelligence and tells him he would have made a great lawyer. “You’ve got a sense of drama, Ted,” Michaud laughs nervously in one of the jailhouse tapes. The documentary is full of these moments — unsubtle reminders that even after his arrest, Bundy continued to run his own show.

Perhaps most notably, in 2019, there’s a layer of fatigue that comes with a documentary about Ted Bundy that treats Ted Bundy like he’s news. In the era of the glorified antihero, and an overt cultural fixation with real-life villains at the expense of victims, there’s very little to be gained from Conversations With a Killer’s straightforward, weirdly sympathetic presentation of Bundy as a uniquely special criminal.

If the intervening four decades since his final capture in 1978 have taught us anything, it’s that Bundy is the opposite of special. He’s just like any other rage-driven narcissist who channels resentment over a breakup, a failing marriage, or a lack of control over their lives into violence. Ted Bundy is John List, is Joseph James DeAngelo, is Elliot Rodger, is Chris Watts.

“I think it’s my turn [to talk] now,” Bundy insists at one point, after three episodes in which he’s talked incessantly. Just as the title promises, Conversations With a Killer lets him talk, and talk, and talk. But affording the killer this much sway over his own story, especially after all this time, feels like a cheap gambit that affirms his own inflated ego after the fact — as if years of cultural fixation, numerous film adaptations of his life, and countless biographies and profiles of him haven’t done that enough.

More interesting at this stage of the true crime game would have been an attempt to engage more deeply with some of the issues the documentary briefly raises — especially questions of how mentally competent Bundy, and other serial killers with extreme antisocial personality disorder, truly are, and how much control they really have over their actions.

Berlinger arguably could have kept much of the documentary’s archival source material, with its heavy emphasis on Bundy, while reframing the killer’s story as one about the women whose lives he cut short. Instead, he produced a perfectly serviceable Conversations that adds little to the conversation at all.

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