February 20, 2019

The glamour of evil

I don’t know how I managed to remain unaware of this phenomenon for so long, but according to this story at The Ringer, a substantial number of female television viewers apparently think Ted Bundy is hot.

Just to be clear here, we're not talking about one of the Bundys from Married ... With Children. No, this is the Ted Bundy who confessed to killing 30 women (the final number could be higher) between 1974 and 1978, the Ted Bundy who was called "the very definition of heartless evil" by one of his own attorneys. Yeah, that Ted Bundy.

In truth, there's nothing new about this. There's a long history of glamorizing criminals, dating back to Robin Hood. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, Al Capone. Television's done its part, never hesitating to cast brooding antiheroes in dark roles. Clu Gullager played Billy the Kid in The Tall Man, Christopher Jones was Jesse in The Legend of Jesse James, and in Star Trek our heroes became the Clantons, et al taking on the Earps and Doc Holliday.* Of course, I'm guilty of this myself; how many times have I said that the writers of The Untouchables always gave Bruce Gordon's Frank Nitti the best lines? I love the way Gordon plays Nitti—he always steals the show out from under Robert Stack—but at the same time I don't think I'm mistaking Gordon for the real Frank Nitti, who was a pretty nasty customer, and not nearly as interesting as the fictional version.

*And those are just the real criminals; don't forget Tony Soprano and Walter White. 

I bring this up because of Bundy's reemergence in the cultural limelight, through the current Netflix series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and the upcoming movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, with Zac Efron as Bundy. Now, it's one thing if all these squealing females were conflating Efron with Bundy—that I could comprehend (although he doesn't do a thing for me), but look at the Twitter comments: he was hot, Ted Bundy was hot. Past tense. They know who they're talking about.

Much of Bundy’s appeal, the argument goes, is his ability to blend in with the rest of us; his so-called “hotness” derives from the fact that he looks exceptionally average. And that is where the unavoidable truth regarding the horror of his crimes come in. If you ask this debased pocket of the internet, Bundy’s acts do not negate his appeal—they enhance it.

Amelia Wedemeyer, the author of the Ringer article, makes the point that "his so-called 'hotness' derives from the fact that he looks exceptionally average. And that is where the unavoidable truth regarding the horror of his crimes come in. If you ask this debased pocket of the internet, Bundy’s acts do not negate his appeal—they enhance it." As one of her interviews put it, people love the forbidden. “Also, they understand Ted Bundy as an abstract fictional character, much like the lead of any other Netflix drama.”

This is where it all becomes problematic. Again, television has a long history of absconding with the truth of actual events and replacing them with the TV version; The Untouchables used to drive J. Edgar Hoover crazy, the way writers would credit Eliot Ness and his men with arrests that had actually been made by FBI agents. So this isn't anything new. That doesn't mean it's good, though. "Ted Bundy" may be an abstract fictional killer, but Serial Killer Ted Bundy was the real thing, and all of his victims, lest we forget, were female. Even Netflix purports to be concerned that viewers continue to bring up his hotness.

To the extent that this is cultural illiteracy, I'm not surprised; I recall reading something about a student who didn't know who President Eisenhower was; when he was told that, among other things, he was president of the United States in the '50s, he understood. We didn't get through World War II, he said. So maybe there are some people out there who really don't know who Ted Bundy was, and I'd like to think that these projects will educate people on a sordid part of history.

On the other hand, there's also a long record of people—mostly women, but not exclusively—who fall in love with imprisoned murderers, even when they know they're guilty. Bundy himself had a relationship with a female member of his last legal team. In that case, maybe the truth doesn't matter. And so we're left right back where we started.

In the end, what are you going to do? This kind of glamorizing predates television, and it'll probably keep going after our next means of mass entertainment appears. People are people, after all; who can predict what's going to push someone's buttons? I'd like to think, though, that it's not the kind of thing you'd boast about, especially on social media. Try explaining it in twenty years, when you're running for governor or something. These things never go away, you know. TV  

1 comment:

  1. We have a similar thing here in the *huge* gangland funerals for people like the Kray twins. But don't you think the really evil ones do manage to cast almost a spell over some people as part of the facade? As a Catholic you may be interested in the Confessions of a Sceptic blog, predominantly about Ealing Abbey


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!