Why Our Fascination With Serial Killers Reflects The Problems Of Our Times
The producers of ‘Ted Bundy: Serial Monster’ elaborate
While there's no shortage of documentation of serial killer Ted Bundy's horrific crimes, the new REELZ documentary, Ted Bundy: Serial Monster, explores the chillingly unknown territory.
A two-part documentary series that clocks in at four hours, it's an unprecedented deep dive into the inner workings and private life of a man who terrorized women across America. Responsible for the murder of at least 30 young women in seven different states between 1974 and 1978, Bundy has become one of the most notorious serial killers of all time due to the number of victims, his elaborate attempts at evading law enforcement, and the details of his horrific crimes—some of which involved decapitation and necrophilia. He's also served as inspiration for pop culture icons like The Silence of Lambs' Buffalo Bill. And soon, you can see Zac Efron play Bundy in Joe Berlinger's Bundy biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile.
However, the people behind Ted Bundy: Serial Monster are quick to point out that as much as the public is fascinated by the spectacle of Bundy's case, tales of his crimes should be treated as a cautionary tale. As crime expert and script researcher Shirley Lynn Scott explained, serial killers "almost operate as cultural stress tests."
"They tell us who are we not protecting in our culture," Scott said, noting that many of these killers (Bundy included) target society's most vulnerable and marginalized people. Scott also notes that it's essential to study these cases in order to understand how these people work and, ultimately, how to prevent them from striking again. "I feel like it's important to look at who serial killers are killing, why they're killing, and what can be done about it," she continued. "And what do their acts say about us as a culture in general?"
Ahead of the release of the first half of Ted Bundy: Serial Monster, we spoke to Scott, alongside executive producers Michael Hoff and Ashley Adams, about the making of this series, as well as the potential implications of their in-depth study of Bundy's psyche. Read our Q&A to learn more, below.
What fascinated you about the Bundy case? Why tell this story now?Michael Hoff: We had done a series for REELZ previously called Behind the Screams, which was about real crimes that influenced movies. So one of them was an hour on Ted Bundy, and we started talking about a longer, deeper look at him. When you look at the history of his crimes and his actions, it is all very complicated. Not only are there two [people who] escaped, but he was behind bars and got away. You also have these women that he had these close relationships with—one he even marries and has a child with.
Shirley Lynn Scott: For me, I was fascinated by two things. One was why he got away with it and why he was so prolific. Two, [I suspected that his crimes had] something to do with the era. I think he was able to find victims because of women's rights and liberation, ironically. Women felt empowered, they didn't feel like they needed a man to make decisions for them, they felt free to explore the world, especially young women. And he took great advantage of that by picking up hitchhikers and luring women into situations where he was pretending to be injured.
I think I'm actually afraid in the current #MeToo climate. I'm afraid that maybe there are men who are feeling the same level of resentment and level of humiliation that Bundy felt in that era, and I'm hoping there's not another Ted Bundy in the making right now.
But also I think one of the reasons why he got away with a lot of it was because people thought he was good-looking. Back then, people said, "Well, he's good-looking, he doesn't need to kill women to have sex with them. So it can't be this guy." That’s just such a huge misconception though because it's never about sex. It's always about power with serial killers. And I think he exploited both of those loopholes.
Ashley Adams:What I found fascinating was his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer. Like, how can someone horribly murder one woman and then a few hours later take their girlfriend out to dinner as if nothing happened? I just found that really fascinating… to get inside his and her head.
There’s no shortage of Bundy documentaries. How'd you ensure that Serial Monster would be different from all the previous projects made about him? MH:No one had the time before to go this deep. Most of the previous work on him in this space would be one hour. So to have four hours allowed us to really [explore things like his relationship with his] three significant girlfriends—Diane Edwards, Liz Kloepfer, and Carole Anne Boone, who he married. In the past, those things were just touched on, but, [with all this time,] we were able to really unwind everything. You have these critical moments in his story—where he escapes, not once but twice. If you look at other serial killers, a lot of times, they're just killing, killing, killing, and then they get caught. That's the end of the story. Whereas, with Bundy, there were so many twists and turns. It was very easy to go long.
What was the most surprising thing you stumbled upon during the research and making of this project?STS:[Survivor] Rhonda Stapley, who we got the opportunity to interview. We know about Ted Bundy by what we found in the aftermath of his [killing spree], the bodies he left behind. But it's really, really rare to hear a firsthand witness account of how he went from charming to monster right before the poor woman's eyes. Before I heard her story, I honestly had doubts about whether it was true or not. But once I heard it, it just chilled my blood, and it made me have more compassion for what the other women went through.
AA: Yeah, I agree. Interviewing Rhonda and sitting there listening to her tell the story in such incredible detail [was a lot]. I mean, she walked us through every single moment of that night and how it changed every aspect of her life. She held onto the secret for 40 years, if you can imagine that.
Why do you think the public is so eager for stories like this? As noted in the series, Bundy's served as inspiration for movies like The Silence of the Lambs. Why do you think our culture wants to canonize people like him so badly?STS:I think we just want to see what our monsters really look like, and we want to know how they act. I think that's sort of at the basis for what people call "morbid fascination" with serial killers…
MH:Everybody always wonders why people are interested in crime stories in general. As you also probably know, women are the great consumers of crime television. The viewership is about 60 percent female versus male, and a lot of people will ask, "Why would women want to watch these horrible things?" But I think it's also the story. The stakes are very high—there's a killer on the loose, and then you have the procedural aspect of it, where you’ve got genuine heroes who are trying to find the murderer. These strong powerful, compelling story lines make for good entertainment. I mean, it's upsetting, but they're clear, strong story lines that make for good storytelling.
What about the critique that a lot of true crime films and documentaries have the potential to glamorize the legacy of really twisted individuals? MF: That's a fair criticism, but everything that's loud and noisy and attracts viewers usually has an undercurrent of something that is primal. A primal fascination. Sex, death, and weirdness are the common currency of most entertainment—and certainly of factual entertainment. Our job is to tap into what people find interesting, but add some value to it so that either they learn or they feel they're getting some insight into the human condition. It isn't just taking advantage of our base interests, but there's some takeaway. And then maybe there's something to be learned by exploring the character of evil. I mean, if you look at documentaries on Hitler, a lot of them are about our fascination with evil and the incredible, terrible things he did. Part of it is you also trying to figure it out, “What went wrong? What drives these people? What can be done the next time?”
STS: I feel like serial killers almost operate as cultural stress tests. They tell us who are we not protecting in our culture. I mean if you look at Dahmer, he killed gay men. I think some of the officers that came to investigate a young, drunk boy who was naked in the street, laughed it off as being a fight between gay lovers. They thought it was funny. And that’s a huge injustice. With Gacy, you had runaways, especially young boys. People just didn't care about protecting them. And then obviously with Bundy, he targeted young women who were hitchhikers, who took off on their own. [I think from that, women] learned very quickly that they need to be more mindful of who we get into cars with. Young women suddenly became more guarded about who they talked to.
I feel like it's important to look at who serial killers are killing, why they're killing, and what can be done about it. And what do their acts say about us as a culture in general?
Each culture has its own boogeyman, too, you know… I think that, right now, we might be returning to serial killers. I'm not quite sure. I hate to say it, but I think immigrants might be the next victims of serial killers—just given everything going on currently.
That’s dark.STS: That happens when you spend six months reading about Ted Bundy.
This is obviously a pretty emotionally taxing project to work on for an extended period of time. You're watching all this archival footage, looking for photo evidence, and doing interviews with these victims who experienced this terror firsthand. How do you compartmentalize your feelings amongst all that?AA: It was difficult shooting the recreations in the middle of the night, in particular. Rhonda Stapley's recreation, for example, was disturbing. I'd go back to my hotel at night, and it was hard to sleep. It's really dark material.
I noticed a lot of the interviewees cited [his ex-girlfriend] Diane as the big reason Bundy became who he is. But that also made me wonder why we’re so eager to blame women for the sins of the men. So many of the people you talked to attributed his break to his spurred romances... but why can't this all just be Bundy's burden?MF:That's interesting. I think, obviously, it's both nurture and nature. He was a vulnerable guy, whether that was the biggest trigger I don't know. When we tell a story, we have to sift through a huge number of facts and try to come up with theories and possible explanations for cause and effect, and [Diane seemed like] a good one. But whether it's the only one, [who knows]? This guy also had some severe childhood events that aren't that well-documented, but clearly there was bad stuff going on early on, and he was a troublesome person from a few years of age. The guy was bent, to begin with, and certainly powerful relationships with people like mothers, fathers, boyfriends, and girlfriends can push people over the edge.
STS:He did have this really sort of evil grandfather when he was growing up—up until about the age of four. But then after that, his mother—she was a church-goer, a kind woman—married a nice man who was a cook, but for Bundy, the thing that really scarred him was the idea that he was illegitimate. He didn't know who his father was. It's sort of like this Freddy Krueger narrative of the mysterious father. Like, was he a child himself? Was he a married man? We don't know who he was.
The fact that he was illegitimate was something he really took that to heart. All he wanted was to sort of be seen as powerful and successful, but he was unable to do those things through his own nature. He couldn't commit to going to school, working hard, becoming a lawyer, or a powerful political presence. So, I think, the way he dealt with his [insecurity] inside him was to take it out on women. To humiliate them, because he had been so humiliated by this girlfriend, Diane Edwards, who dumped him. So he kind of created this core around him that was really hard, but he was so fragile inside. I think people see serial killers as these evil, dark, powerful presences, but if we could see inside their soul, I imagine this little, fragile, white worm that's squirming and needs so much protection. He's really just being preemptive and hurting others before he gets hurt.
Are you worried about humanizing people like Bundy?SLS: I don't think we humanize them enough. I think we should humanize them because they are humans; they're not monsters, and we need to recognize the fact that they walk among us. Calling them monsters is a disservice. They are human beings. They are like us. We never know who is the next person that we might meet might have this tendency within them.
But the word "monster" was used a lot in the documentary—the title is literally Ted Bundy: Serial Monster.SLS: I think there's a fear that, if we don't use it, we will be perceived as humanizing him, and I think that would get a lot of backlash. But I personally think that they should be more humanized, [so we can] know what went wrong, how this happened.
Ted Bundy: Serial Monster, Part I airs August 5 on REELZ.