So you’ve decided to spend four hours with Ted Bundy. Which requires, of course, spending four hours with his victims, 30-odd young women (that is an estimate) whose photos—all school-yearbook glamour shots in funereal black and white—flit across the screen as a tangle of grim voices intone the grimmest possible words. “Beaten and strangled.” “Abduction, nude body.” “We found the parts of four skulls.” “Bludgeoned, raped.” “Sexually mutilated, by mouth, by teeth.”
It is 90 seconds into Netflix’s four-part Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which premiered on Thursday and is certainly not, to its credit, trying to trick you with a cutesy tone or a galaxy-brained alternate theory as to who killed all those women. “The truth is terrible, terrible,” a talking-head prosecutor intones late in the game, shortly after an FBI agent has described Bundy as “the Jack the Ripper of the United States.” No, to the show’s detriment, there is nothing much to do here but wallow, and wince, and withstand.
Nor will The Ted Bundy Tapes offer much in the way of insight. “To understand how he thought, you have to be able to project yourself into a sociopath’s brain,” journalist and author Stephen Michaud tells us near the show’s midpoint. “If you can do that, I’m—more power to you.” He laughs. “It’s a point of pride with me that I can’t.”
Unfortunately, Michaud’s the guy with the tapes. The full scale is unknown, but Bundy’s murder spree likely started in Washington state in the mid-’70s, spread to Utah and Colorado (and possibly California and Idaho), and culminated in Florida, where he was apprehended for the third time and sentenced to death in two separate murder trials. On death row, he agreed to speak extensively with a journalist in exchange for his cases being reopened. Bundy, ever the deluded narcissist, figured he’d somehow prove his innocence. And the journalist, a young and green Michaud plucked more or less at random, figured he’d get a hell of a story either way. Which is how he came to record more than 100 hours of audio of Bundy being an evasive, soliloquizing blowhard.
The tapes themselves are worthless. Which does not make The Ted Bundy Tapes worthless, exactly. But even under the direction of Joe Berlinger—an enormously respected documentarian thanks to his Paradise Lost trilogy with Bruce Sinofsky—it doesn’t have much to offer beyond titillation and revulsion, horror-movie prurience dressed up in true-crime pompousness. Ted Bundy was, we are constantly reminded, a handsome and awkwardly charming guy who also happened to be “a piece of garbage in the shape of a human being,” in the words of prosecutor George Dekle, who got Bundy convicted for the abduction and murder of a 12-year-old girl. This show humbly aims to remind us that pure evil sometimes wears a pretty face, or as Bundy himself puts it, “People don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin.”
Perversely, Berlinger’s second 2019 Ted Bundy project—a feature film called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, with Zac Efron in the starring role—shook up the internet Friday with a campy trailer full of cock-rock riffs and stunt casting and a great deal of implied chin saliva. (John Malkovich plays a judge; just be grateful Greta Van Fleet are not involved.) Early reviews from Sundance are hesitant but, y’know, titillated. Polygon: “The life story of a mass murderer is ... kind of fun?”
That title, by the way, is a quote from the appalled judge in Bundy’s first Florida trial, as relayed in detail in The Ted Bundy Tapes: “The court finds that both of these killings were indeed heinous, atrocious, and cruel, and that they were extremely wicked, shockingly evil, vile, and the product of a design to inflict a high degree of pain, and utter indifference to human life.” This show, to be crystal clear, is not kind of fun.
The true-crime tales that have gone truly viral in this decade, from the blockbuster 2014 debut of the Serial podcast to Netflix’s own 2015 phenomenon Making a Murderer, are presented as mysteries, as potential travesties of injustice, as catnip for Reddit sleuths, as elegant campfire tales of prestige ambiguity. This approach, to put it mildly, comes with its own set of problems. Making a Murderer took a great deal of fire for stacking the deck and inflating its own importance at its human subjects’ expense. (A self-referential second season debuted in October.) And the first season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial, which clearly aimed to exonerate Adnan Syed in the 1999 killing of his Baltimore high school ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, spun a thoughtful tale but ended in a fog of confusion: “I nurse doubt,” Koenig concluded wanly. The show did play a profound role in getting Syed a retrial, scheduled for 2018 but since delayed. But Serial also turned a very human tragedy into an uneasy pop culture frenzy mired in jokes about vocal fry, a Best Buy parking lot, “the Nisha call,” and fucking Mailchimp.
It should be a relief that The Ted Bundy Tapes doesn’t toy with any of that extravagant uncertainty; it’s not trying to get you to rethink anything or telling you something you don’t already know. But dead certainty, it turns out, is equally poisonous to the true-crime documentary. It’s debilitating to any sense of dramatic tension, sure. But it’s just as debilitating to the soul.
Ted Bundy had an idyllic, all-American childhood, according to Ted Bundy. His early chats with Michaud are painfully, desperately bland. “I was somewhat of a frog man.” “I was one of the boys.” “Not a social outcast in any way.” But by the time Bundy gets around to insisting there’s “nothing in my background to lead one to believe I was capable of committing murder,” the dark-techno soundtrack has swelled, the swirl of idyllic-childhood imagery quickening, darkening, intensifying. Flashes of pornography sneak into the mix later. Berlinger can put on a queasy but effective show, even if neither voice on the tapes can.
There is some pocket sociology here, though not much: The ’70s are described as “an angry era” that birthed such all-American monsters as the Son of Sam, the Hillside Stranglers, and John Wayne Gacy. But the term “serial killer” did not yet exist, and the cops—or for that matter, the feds—had nowhere near the technology or the wherewithal to catch anyone who might earn that term. When a disillusioned and socially inept Bundy gets to law school at the University of Puget Sound and young Washington coeds first start to go missing, the standard blow-by-blow of those various investigations is enlivened somewhat by how hapless the investigators are. Bundy drives a brown VW bug, introduces himself as “Ted” to one victim within earshot of a huge crowd at a state park, and looks more or less exactly like the resulting police sketch no matter how chameleonic everyone insists his handsomeness was. But the police can’t put it all together, and he functionally ices the case simply by fleeing the state.
Part 1 of The Ted Bundy Tapes ends with Stephen Michaud’s big breakthrough, according to Stephen Michaud. Chatting with Bundy on death row in 1980, and flustered by all this inane childhood prattle, he hits on the idea to get the famous serial killer talking in the third person about a hypothetical great-man serial killer, to get Bundy musing on “what kind of person could’ve done this,” to trick him into serving as his own expert witness. There is a pause, and then Bundy grabs the tape recorder, cradles it like a baby, and starts gassing on about a river flowing into the sea, or something. He spends the rest of the show’s runtime either mired in vapid metaphor or mumbling pointless bullshit like “We are dealing with an individual whose primary concern is not to be detected” or “We can make a reasonable guess that this individual was clearly trying to cover up his crimes.”
The usual crime-doc talking heads—the detectives, the lawyers, the media gawkers, the scandalized childhood friends—hit their marks whether they’re aware of their marks or not. Carol DaRonch, who in the fall of 1974 was a bubbly Utah teenager with a Camaro and a boyfriend who also drove a Camaro, gives a harrowing account of how Bundy abducted her at the mall and how she escaped, his handcuffs dangling from her wrist. Its flair for speed-edited melodrama aside, The Ted Bundy Tapes is never trashy or outright insensitive to this story’s many, many victims, but aside from a few brutal glimpses of grieving mothers, it can’t replicate DaRonch’s immediacy or fundamental humanity. You are left grateful for this emotional remove, but a vacuum that’s better left unfilled is still a vacuum.
In a huge improvement, law-enforcement-wise, Bundy is actually arrested for DaRonch’s kidnapping, and here the story takes a quick and startling turn toward outright farce. He escapes custody twice, first by jumping out a second-floor courthouse window during a preliminary hearing and fleeing to an abandoned cabin in the woods for nearly a week, until the cold and hunger overtake him. Recaptured, he escapes again, by shimmying through a hole in the ceiling of his jail cell and sauntering out the front door in a spare set of clothes from a guard’s locker. This time, Bundy remains at large for a month and a half; he’s finally caught in Florida with 21 stolen credit cards, having committed the murders that will land him on death row, including a mortifying rampage with an oak-tree limb through a Florida State sorority. As he initially refuses to give his real name, it takes the police several days to realize who he is, or that he’s on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Bundy’s 1979 trial for the FSU murders was an old-fashioned media circus that at the time was a disquieting new invention, including the packs of young women outside the courtroom, drawn in by, yes, his handsomeness and animal magnetism. “I’m not afraid,” one girl tells a TV news reporter. “He just doesn’t look like the type to kill somebody.” This echoes, grimly, this month’s Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, and the indignant R. Kelly fans who flocked to the R&B star’s 2008 child-pornography trial, convinced of his innocence. But by and large, Bundy’s admirers weren’t kidding themselves. “Scares me to be in the same room with him, but I know there’s other people in there,” says one, excitedly; “Every time he turns around, I kinda get that feeling, Oh no, you know?” says another with a laugh. “Gonna get me next.”
Both his trials, in fact—first for the double murder of Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy at an FSU sorority house, and then for the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach in nearby Lake City, Florida—were, from a legal perspective, completely absurd. During the Leach trial, he proposes to Carole Ann Boone, one of his character witnesses, while she’s on the stand. (Boone accepts, and gives birth to their daughter, Rosa, after Bundy is imprisoned.)
He is sentenced to death both times, which, after three-plus hours of buildup, should be a relief, but isn’t quite. The fourth episode of The Ted Bundy Tapes is singularly unpleasant, moving swiftly from these trials to his grueling death row endgame, in which his lawyers try and fail to argue his incompetence over his protestations, their appeals and delays finally grinding to a halt in January 1989. The FBI shows up, briefly, to interview him and glean some invaluable intel on how to track other serial killers—echoing Netflix’s fictional and frequently equally unpleasant Mindhunter—and Bundy is apparently gregarious and not unhelpful. But what lingers is his 11th-hour decision to finally confess, yet another cynical delay tactic that finds him on audiotape, whispering about severing a young woman’s head and carrying it up the road to bury it.
Michaud, who got the minor 1989 book Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer out of all this, had long since bailed out by this point, mentally if not physically. “I was interested in putting Ted in my rearview mirror,” he tells us in the documentary, not specifying whether Bundy was by then larger or smaller than he appeared. But The Ted Bundy Tapes carries on until the bitter end, to the early-morning scene on Tuesday, January 24, 1989, when he was executed, via electric chair, at Florida State Prison. We are spared no detail, from the T-shirts available for sale amid the raucous roadside crowd outside the prison (slogans ranged from “This buzz is for you” to “The shocking truth is it’s Toasty Teddy Time”) to an eyewitness account of how Bundy’s fists balled up as the electricity coursed through his body.
I don’t quite know what you, the hypothetical willing viewer of this television program, could possibly want out of this experience, but I’m quite certain you’ll get it. The trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile triggered a little blowback from those who found it a little too lurid, too cute, too disrespectful. Early reviewers insist the movie itself has at least a bit more nuance. But The Ted Bundy Tapes has inspired less debate: It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, serial-killer-documentary-wise, which is both the good news and the bad news. I, too, am proud of Michaud for not getting much out of the experience. “I was heartily sick of what I was hearing,” he tells us. “I was sick of Ted. I walked out of that prison with an enormous sense of relief.” Survive all four hours and that emotion, at least, you are guaranteed to feel.