True Crime, Voyeurism, and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes

by thethreepennyguignol

“Don’t watch “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” alone. Trust me on this one,” Netflix US tweeted out at the start of the weekend, when their latest true crime documentary hit screens. Directed by Joe Berlinger, and based around the interviews conducted by Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth with Bundy before his execution in 1989. Promoted like a lurid horror film and breathlessly trailed as a fascinating look into the mind of a brilliant, sadistic murderer, I already had my doubts about it before I so much as sat down in front of the first episode.

Yes, of course, there is something inherently intriguing about staring into the void that is Ted Bundy, or any person who has committed acts as atrocious as him. That he was happy to indulge the media circus around him just means that this void is inviting us to take a closer look, and it’s hard to say no to that. I get it, I do – I’m someone with a likely unhealthy interest in true crime, and for all that we can claim that it’s the mystery that engages us, there is something compelling about someone who is, by all generally accepted standards of the word, evil.

But I think my biggest problem with this is that Bundy is given free reign, even from the grave, to direct the narrative of this story. Berlinger double-bluffs the audience into thinking that they aren’t allowing him to control the way this story unfolds – famously shifting the story from Bundy’s all-but-fictional first person account of his life to soliciting him into discussing in third person the crimes as a supposed “expert witness” – but that’s not what this documentary actually delivers. Bundy’s bloviating about his past, his struggles, his intelligence, his success, his politics, is cut by spackled montages of women with their boobs out and Nixon flashing the peace sign. Occasionally, the documentary makes some noise about exploring other aspects of contemporary society and politics, such as the rise of second-wave feminism, but it’s really a no-holds-barred glare into what Bundy wants the public to know about him.

Plenty of other people appear in the series – victims, prosecutors, psychologists – but their function is narrative, while Bundy is the only one allowed any real analysis.  In the final episode, it offers some veiled criticism on the way that the media helped create and sustain Bundy’s charming public profile, but it’s hard to take that seriously when all this documentary cares about is pushing the classic notion of Bundy: charming, handsome (did they mention handsome? They’ve very into how handsome he apparently is), incredibly intelligent. A notion that Bundy himself would have no doubt been delighted with.

The series shows numerous clips of Bundy mugging for the contemporary cameras, and it’s hard to understand what differentiates those indulgences to this one. It feels hollow, another chance for Bundy to talk himself up to an enthralled audience while nothing of  value is gained or learned in the process. It watches like a campfire scary story, recounted and passed down through generations, and it’s hard to justify turning Ted Bundy’s crimes into something Netflix can tweet about not watching alone like it’s the latest  instalment of a nasty horror franchise. There’s little analysis here, little attempt to engage beyond “look at these horrible things that this man did. Gross, right? You scared yet? Let’s listen to him talk some more about law school and how pretty Utah is.”

There is value to the true crime documentary, and I’m in no way trying to say that the whole genre is a write-off. But this particular release is just a reminder, for me, at least, that there’s little to be gained in just a voyeuristic recounting  of the horrifying acts committed by a violent misogynist. Great documentaries explore more than just the what: they look into issues like how society was poised to allow these kind of things to happen (like the excellent You Must Remember This series on Charles Manson), or the aftereffects on the victims of such crimes (such as the devastating Tower, also on Netflix).  Without satisfying context, this is just a four-hour traipse through Bundy’s life, as told to us by Bundy and as interrogated by nobody in any meaningful way. Allowing Bundy free reign to navigate his own story provides, to me, nothing of value other than pure, grim voyeurism, and I want my true crime productions to mean a little more than that.

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(header image via Haven of Horror)