Article Thumbnail

Why We Can’t Believe That Handsome People Can Be Murderers

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Ted Bundy Netflix docuseries ‘Conversations With a Killer’

He couldn’t possibly have done those terrible things — just look at him. It’s a mindset many of us are susceptible to: Because someone carries themselves a certain way, dresses a certain way or looks a certain way, we project on them assumptions about their decency. Never mind that the person could be a tax cheat, philanderer or serial killer. We consider ourselves good judges of character, so we allow a kind of moral blindness to overwhelm us. And we never learn from our mistakes.

Among the themes of Conversations With a Killer, the new Netflix docuseries about Ted Bundy, what’s most resonant is that people couldn’t accept Bundy’s wickedness because he didn’t fit some phantom profile of who a mass murderer should resemble. Some of the blame can be contributed to the era in which he wreaked havoc, a time before serial killers were so prominent. But Bundy’s greatest skills were his handsomeness, his intelligence — maybe even his whiteness. He couldn’t possibly have done such terrible things because he was us — and by “us,” I mean other good upstanding white people. The story of Ted Bundy is also the story of bias in America.

Conversations was directed by Joe Berlinger, who’s spent much of his career chronicling true crime. With his longtime creative partner Bruce Sinofsky, who died in 2015 at the age of 58, Berlinger has made documentaries like the Paradise List trilogy, which helped exonerate the West Memphis Three, a trio of teenagers accused of murders they didn’t commit.

With this new Netflix series, Berlinger isn’t after justice but, rather, illumination, using as his documentary’s narrative spine a collection of about 100 hours of interviews that journalist Stephen Michaud conducted with Bundy while he was on death row. (Bundy was executed in 1989 at the age of 42.) There aren’t a lot of revelations in these interviews — he never admitted to his crimes during these chats — but they help establish his personality as a smug, superior guy who was just as capable of lying about killing as he was at lying about how cool and accomplished he was as a kid. (In the documentary, we hear from a childhood friend who disputes Bundy’s rosy view of himself.)

Much of the series’ impact comes from Berlinger’s reconstruction of Bundy’s life, paying special attention to the years during the 1970s that he killed women from Washington to Florida. (Before his death, Bundy finally admitted to 30 murders, although the actual number could be in the triple digits.)

In some ways, Bundy’s violent acts aren’t all that shocking anymore. Between subsequent real-life serial killers, sensationalist cop shows and the #MeToo movement, we’ve perhaps become inured to human beings’ monstrousness. But while watching this four-hour series, what did keep surprising me was the ease with which Bundy fooled people. The man had longtime lovers. He had good friends. The people we see on camera who knew him don’t seem dumb. But they whiffed on judging Bundy’s character.

Perhaps it’s basic human nature: We get to know someone, we build a rapport and we come to trust our first impressions, even when they turn out wrong. Maybe the best example: Eleanor Louise Cowell in Conversations, who couldn’t imagine her son was a killer — until it was made plain that he was. We deny and deny and deny, afraid what it would mean if we got it that wrong in our assessment of someone.

Conversations shows us footage from Bundy’s trial in Florida, and to be fair, it’s easy to be sucked in by the guy. He’s “charming” — a worthless word we use to suggest that a person is objectively appealing. Bundy was a law student, smart and well-spoken. He was good-looking — another stupid expression that we pull out when we want to insist on the quality of a person’s character. Attractiveness has no bearing on moral decency, but you hear Bundy’s handsomeness mentioned as a reason why people couldn’t believe his evilness. He just didn’t look the type. Apparently, we assume only ugly people do terrible things.

In Conversations With a Killer then, we don’t learn a ton about Ted Bundy, but we learn some disturbing things about ourselves. Thirty years after his execution, Bundy is still part of our world, the star of this docuseries — and also being played by Zac Efron in a scripted biopic by Berlinger called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile that just premiered at Sundance. And whether then or now, Bundy makes it easy for us to indulge in our sick obsession with killers. He gives us a pretty face to look at.

Here are three other takeaways from Conversations With a Killer.

#1. Near the end of his life, Ted Bundy did his own version of ‘If I Did It.’

Perhaps you remember If I Did It. Published amidst enormous controversy in 2007, the book, supposedly written by O.J. Simpson (or maybe not), imagines how Simpson would have killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman — if, you know, he had actually done it. Not that he did, mind you. If I Did It remains one of the all-time most despicable releases in the history of publishing. Strangely, though, there’s actually a precedent for this kind of ghoulishness.

One of the interesting elements of Conversations With a Killer is its exploration of how journalist Stephen Michaud got Bundy to finally discuss his crimes. Michaud’s trick: He asked Bundy to walk him through the murders, offering his critique as an “expert” into the criminal mindset and explain how they could have been committed. Whereas before Bundy steadfastly denied he killed anyone, the opportunity to speak about the murders from an outside perspective loosened his lips — it was his version of If I Did It. As Michaud recently recalled, “He grabbed my tape recorder, nestled it in his lap, and off he went. I was more of a stenographer than a journalist through much of this. I just had to keep the tapes going and take notes.”  

It speaks to the phenomenon that criminals trip themselves up by later wanting to brag about their crimes, leading to their arrest. Turns out, though, that phenomenon is really a myth. While there are instances of dumb crooks going to jail because they flapped their gums, the notion that criminals on some level want to be caught simply isn’t true.

In a 2016 piece in Psychology Today, Stanton Samenow, an expert in criminal behavior, argued, “I have been conducting psychological evaluations of offenders for 46 years. Not once have I found that an offender in any way, shape or form desired to get caught.” Factors like over-optimism can lead to a criminal getting arrested, but in Samenow’s experience, the mistakes made aren’t borne out of guilt. If anything, he writes, “Their regrets are about getting caught, not about the harm they [inflicted] on others.”

It’s actually a chilling thought — and a reminder to those who’d like to believe that killers will eventually recognize the horribleness of their crimes that they’re probably only deluding themselves.

#2. What’s the most disturbing movie ever made about America’s obsession with killing?

Conversations makes the point that the era of the serial killer really only started with figures like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy — it’s a fairly recent phenomenon in American history. But this is far from the first film to wonder what it is about our country that inspires such rampant killers. I’d like to recommend an older documentary that’s deeply despairing and also a bit graphic. It’s not for all audiences, but it’s haunted me for years.

The Killing of America, which was made in 1980, grappled with rising crime statistics in the U.S. Narrated with grim urgency by acclaimed voiceover artist Chuck Riley, the film recounts several horrible American murders, including the 1966 Texas tower shooting, serving almost more as an official record of these tragedies. Director Sheldon Renan and writer Leonard Schrader (Paul Schrader’s brother) include interviews with the likes of murderer Edmund Kemper and upsetting imagery from morgues so that we feel the full impact of these deaths. Clearly, The Killing of America had its finger on the pulse of a national epidemic: As the filmmakers were completing the project, John Lennon was shot dead.

For years, The Killing of America was more of a rumor than a film you could see. It never received a major release in the U.S. — oddly, it was a hit in Japan — and the movie didn’t become available on DVD and Blu-ray until 2016. When I spoke to Renan at that time of the film’s digital release, he admitted that those who made The Killing of America were embarrassed about it for some time afterward. “Most of us who worked on it didn’t advertise that we worked on it, because people didn’t like it,” he told me. “There was such a reaction against it.” As for why the film still speaks to us, Renan’s comments are distressingly prescient:

“[Violence] is a discussion which is part of the American character — that’s how deep it is. We have done terrible things in building this country, and then we paper over it. We don’t think about it. We don’t think about the violence that we ourselves experience and grow up in. We don’t think about the fact that at least one in every four women is raped. It’s just astounding what we don’t think about.”

Sadly, you can probably watch The Killing of America any time in the next five years and it will still be just as relevant as when Renan made it.

#3. I still can’t believe ‘Some Kind of Monster’ exists.

Berlinger has made some excellent documentaries, but it’s possible that his most popular one remains Some Kind of Monster, the 2004 film about the near implosion of Metallica while they were making their not-very-good record St. Anger. Some Kind of Monster is a stunning insider view of a super-popular, seemingly badass metal band engaging in therapy sessions and petty bickering. No hard rock group has ever looked more pathetic in a film. I can’t believe Metallica let it see the light of day.

Co-directed by Sinofsky, the film caught the band at a delicate time in their history. Longtime leaders James Hetfield (vocalist/guitarist) and Lars Ulrich (drummer) were at each other’s throats. They had lost their bassist, Jason Newsted. The band was worried about their continued relevance. Hetfield had to walk away from the recording sessions because of alcoholism.

Obviously, this was not an ideal time to have cameras rolling, but roll they did, giving us intensely uncomfortable moments as the band hired a mediator to help them talk through their problems. Even more awkward, Ulrich reached out to Dave Mustaine to resolve their beef decades after Metallica kicked the Megadeth frontman out of the group. Despite all of Megadeth’s success, Mustaine still hadn’t forgiven Ulrich. Things got real.

Because Metallica is such a litigious band, always carefully protecting its brand, it’s mystifying why the group didn’t kill Some Kind of Monster. But no, it remains available for the world to see. I suppose you could argue that Metallica had the last laugh: The documentary may have been a bad look for them, but they survived, and they continue to be one of the biggest bands on the planet.

And, hey, Hetfield and Berlinger remain on good terms: The frontman has a small role in the forthcoming Extremely Wicked.