“Only in America!” were the words of George Washington Duke from Rocky V, which came back to me while viewing the documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes by Joe Berlinger, particularly during the sequences that showed how well each missing girl’s case was covered by the media in the ’70s (and how easily they bring to life the era), how the sensational ‘Chi Omega House’ trial was completely televised and became almost a ‘reality show’-type event and finally how the taped conversations between Ted Bundy and journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth in 1980s help us in understanding him. The presence of information in such a detailed fashion makes it easier for documentary makers to go about their job.
For a second, one might be willing to forget that Ted Bundy refuses to accept at any of the above moments that he is the perpetrator of over thirty murders, and appreciate the manner in which the documentary goes about presenting ‘the life and times of Ted Bundy’.
The ’70s, with their free spirit, new intent and rising fears, are right before the eyes of the viewer. It is shown how the ’70s saw a further boost in the emancipation of women with the rise of the ‘working girl’ phenomenon. On the darker side, the ’70s were also to become the preying grounds for the serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Son of Sam, etc.
The very ‘actors’ in the case – those very closely involved with Ted Bundy – his friends, acquaintances, law enforcement officers, journalists, lawyers etc., give a close account of him, his lifestyle, aspirations, dreams, mood swings and deviant tendencies. The working of police and legal system has also been analysed closely, documenting the challenges they faced and what lessons were learnt through those years of ordeal. Finally, the ‘celebrity’ of Ted Bundy is dissected, showing what made him an attraction to the world and how he relished the attention showered on him.
The documentary initially follows a format of telling Ted Bundy’s story in his own words interspersed with the crimes he committed. The two journalists show the difficulty of dealing with a narcissistic personality like Ted, who initially is more interested in speaking about himself than the crimes. The fact that he denies involvement in any of these murders makes their jobs tougher.
The first episode seems to be heading nowhere with Ted discussing his life, and the crimes being discussed separately, till the journalists strike upon an innovative idea. They decide to make Ted the analyst and tell him to analyse the motivations of ‘this person’ who supposedly carried out the crazed killings. It is remarked how Ted seemingly found an outlet and let his thoughts out on the murders carried out by him (albeit not once even giving a hint that he might be involved).
He develops a profile of ‘this person’: how dejection, failures in life and lack of self-worth made him project his hatred on young women who could satisfy his sexual and violent urges. It is quite unsettling to hear him discuss how the first possible crime might have taken place. Needless to say, the documentary is at its best when one is able to get into the mind of Ted Bundy and the creators are able to relate his real-life crimes to particular ‘down turns’ in his private life.
The ’70s provided a perfect time for Ted Bundy to blend into the college crowds and endear himself to young people. He had all the right characteristics: he was good-looking, a psychology undergraduate, a law student with an involvement in politics. But behind this façade was a life of untruths: he had a troubled childhood, had violent tendencies, was average at best in things he did and was suffering from serious mental issues.
This persona that he builds around himself is uncovered by several individuals in law enforcement, journalists and people he got closely involved with. His crime spree, which is spread across states, involves a host of individuals including a survivor Carol DeRonch, who gives a chilling account of her attempted abduction. All these events are brought to life by a detailed reconstruction of the geography (aerial surveys, maps, photographs and footage of buildings, forests, etc.) and news reports.
Through all this, the contradictions in his life are brought out and the real Ted Bundy is understood. The tapes sadly stop adding much information beyond a point because Ted Bundy simply refuses to acknowledge any of his actions and continues to paint himself as a helpless victim. (If the depths of his deception and absolute lack of remorse makes you feel sick, then you are not alone. The journalists who interviewed him state pretty much the same in the final episode.)
But the documentary does well to show how Ted behaved at times, and what persona he wanted to portray in front of the people versus who he really was: a calm, calculating and diabolical individual. Each of his actions, from his crimes to his behaviour after arrest, are done with a plan; he has a need to be in control of things to the extent that he often leads his own defence in the court of law, and is always up and working out ways to get sympathy and get out of his situation. (He escapes twice from the prison; even his confession shown towards the very end is an attempt to delay the carrying out of his death sentence.)
The documentary is an indictment of the working of law enforcement in the ’70s: Ted Bundy’s arrest was merely a fluke, there were no inter-state agencies working towards solving the case and there was hardly any real-time data-sharing, which might have helped him evade the authorities. But the police officers are able to point out how the words ‘serial killer’ in themselves were not in use in the ’70s; one interviewee even remarks that the Ted Bundy case became the ‘Jack the Ripper case’ for United States law enforcement authorities because it helped them study the workings of a diabolical individual, who kills to satisfy a perverse need, who might live very much among us but still commit heinous crimes.
From his first arrest to his death, Bundy remained a public spectacle for the American audiences. His court cases were attended by many and reached the television sets of millions. He enjoyed being the centre of attention, a person willing to put a show by rebuking his lawyers openly, refusing to attend trial for some time, proposing marriage on the day his sentencing was supposed to take place. (He wasn’t alone alone at it though: he calls out the Leon Sheriff Ken Katsaris for calling a press conference to read out his indictment, claiming it was done to benefit the sheriff’s upcoming election.) And the favour is returned, as the day of his execution resembles a scene of an American carnival (a macabre one, if you like), with people selling food, shirts and getting drunk in revelry as his sentence is being carried out.
The documentary’s title suggests that there might be a lot to come out of the conversations with Ted Bundy, but apart from his insight on the actions of ‘this person’ there is not much substance to it. The only time he confessed was right before his execution sentence was to be carried out. It highlights well the spectacle around Bundy but feels inadequate when it comes to covering the last few years of his life, especially his confession.
The documentary is not easy viewing, given that it covers ghastly crimes whose graphic details are discussed at times (once, at the behest of Ted Bundy in a court of law, in front of television cameras), but it does its job well enough in introducing the landscape of Ted Bundy’s crimes to the viewers. For people who are already aware of the case, there are still enough details from news clippings and taped conversations with the killer to bring the case to life on their TV screens and tablets. It unwittingly also becomes a portrayal of the American society of the ’70s and ’80s, where the commodification of every small act seems to be the order of the day.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.