The reason why so many women are attracted to Ted Bundy and serial killers in general
It’s been 40 years since Ted Bundy led his own defense in the case brought against him by the state of Florida for the brutal murder of two Tallahassee sorority sisters.
Clad in a neatly pressed gray suit, his short, dark hair slicked down so that the waves clung tightly to either side of his head, Bundy was confident in front of the jury. He had a degree in psychology and did a brief stint in law school before his studies were interrupted by his first trial, in which he was found guilty of attempting to kidnap Carol DaRonch. His limited judicial knowledge was buoyed by witty humor and a charming personality. Nonetheless, he was convicted on two counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder, and two counts of burglary. He was given the death penalty.
Following the sentencing, Justice Edward D. Cowart spoke to Bundy: “You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer. I’d have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t have any animosity towards you, I want you to know that.” Despite finding Bundy guilty of murder and ordering his execution, Justice Cowart still liked the guy. That was the power of Ted Bundy.
Bundy was one of the most prolific serial killers in American history, with 30 confirmed victims between 1973 and 1978, though the actual number is thought to be higher. He typically targeted women who were white, had the means to attend university, were well-liked and perceived as attractive. His killing spree began in the Pacific Northwest and California, continued in Utah and Colorado, and ended in Florida, where he was executed via the electric chair in 1989 at the Florida State Prison in Raiford.
While on death row, Bundy was interviewed by two journalists over a period of six months. He agreed to tell his version of events in exchange for a reexamination of all the cases against him. Netflix’s new docuseries, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, prominently features archival footage and recordings from these interviews.
After the series premiered on January 24, Twitter exploded with excitement. However, viewers weren’t raving about the quality of the series, nor were they expressing their horror at the crimes committed. Instead, they were freaking out over how hot Bundy was.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
Our Love of Serial Killers
What is the psychology behind being attracted to infamous killers like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson?
“Viewers of the Bundy series are stepping into a world they don’t have access to that gives them a sense of excitement,” said Dr. Sharna Striar, a licensed sex therapist and clinical psychotherapist with a practice in New York City. “Why do people rush to the scene of a crime and want to see the bloody body? People are drawn to that because it’s like a magnet. And because of the brain chemistry and the fantasies that go along with that, it becomes rather addictive.”
Dr. Striar explained that the dopamine rush some experience when confronted with risky situations can tap into an erotic preference that may have been formed at a young age. The fact that Bundy was a serial killer elicits the image of a strong, masculine man who knew how to take charge of a woman. “He took control of those women and that can set off an erotic fantasy,” she said. “There’s something very sexy about his power, even if he is evil.”
Those who fantasize about Bundy are, of course, doing so from the safety of their bedrooms, detached from the risk of actual harm. The visual narrative created by Hollywood and by streaming services like Netflix allows viewers to have a personal relationship with the individuals portrayed in those films, albeit, a one-way relationship that is in the viewer’s mind. “The power of media and the internet is that it allows you to project whatever story you want,” said Dr. Striar. “You’re looking at it from afar and therefore, you feel safe and you can eroticize about it.”
Dr. Scott Bonn, criminologist, TV news commentator and author has written extensively on our society’s obsession with serial killers in his book, Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers. He highlights that the intrigue of these mass criminals isn’t limited to those who are traditionally good looking.
“I think there is a general fascination with serial killers, whether they’re attractive or not,” he said. “I like to use the analogy that serial killers are like great white sharks. They’re rare, they’re exotic, and they’re deadly.”
Part of this interest stems from our desire to understand these killers on a deep level. If we can understand their motivations, then maybe we can protect ourselves from becoming victims. Even more captivating are those who seem to defy all stereotypes of how a mass murderer should look or should act. We expect monsters to be easily identifiable, to look like Frankenstein or like Dracula. But everyday monsters aren’t so easy to spot. And if they’re actually charming and attractive, it makes the idea that much more terrifying, said Dr. Bonn.
“[Bundy] did almost have, Hollywood good-looks. He was charming. He was intelligent. He was very personable. And, in fact, he used those qualities to lure women over to his car and pull them in,” Dr. Bonn elaborated. “He was well-aware that he was physically attractive and he used that to his advantage.”
Women and True Crime
Dr. Julie B. Wiest, an associate professor of sociology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania who focuses on culture and media, co-authored a study last year on the patterns behind the consumption of news about homicides. She found that subjects who expressed greater fear that they could become victims of some kind of public mass-murder were significantly more interested in those news stories.
Nielson reported that the Investigation Discovery channel, home to true crime stories like Jodi Arias: An American Murder Mystery, had the highest female viewership in all of cable TV for 2018. It’s no coincidence that women are the main consumers of true crime television. Several scholars have suggested it is an information-seeking phenomenon. Serial murder is one of the few kinds of violent crime where women are the most common victims, so it makes sense they are the demographic most interested in reading and watching those types of stories, said Dr. Wiest.
She said there seems to be a disconnect between the reality, which suggests that violent crime has decreased significantly since its peak in the mid-nineties, and people’s perception of crime rates. In 18 of 22 Gallup surveys conducted since 1993 that asked about national crime, at least 60% of respondents believed there was more crime in the U.S. compared to the year before.
“I have students now whose parents were probably toddlers when Bundy was actively killing, but they still know who he is,” said Dr. Wiest. “I’m kind of amazed at this enduring interest in serial killers at a time when the number of active killers is down substantially.”
Dr. Wiest and Dr. Bonn agree that this long-lasting allure almost certainly has to do with the portrayal of mass murderers in the news media and in Hollywood productions.
“The reporting for serial killers, in general, is to portray them as these larger than life super-predators,” Dr. Bonn said. “Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, was a cannibal. In the news reporting they would refer to him as a dracula-like character, drinking blood and so forth.” In sensationalizing these individuals, the media captures our fascination and triggers our innermost fears. They are turning them into ‘celebrity-monsters,’ explained Dr. Bonn, using a term he coined to describe the celebrity-status that mass killers achieve with the help of reporting and entertainment media.
“They treat them like they would any kind of celebrity,” added Dr. Wiest. “They put their pictures in the paper and their names all over.” She said that kind of coverage contributes to raising fears and anxieties by furthering the misconception that violent crime continues to rise. And so the cycle continues, catalyzed by fear-inducing cases of serial killers at large and exacerbated by overly-sensationalized reporting.
Netflix’s $9 Million Bundy Investment
Hollywood also plays an important role in the dissociation between the reality of the crimes committed by the likes of Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, and the public’s perception of these individuals.
In addition to the docuseries currently airing, Netflix paid $9 million for the rights to Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, in which Zac Efron plays Bundy. There has been a wave of backlash in response to Efron being cast as the killer, including from the mother of one of Bundy’s victims.
“They [cast him] to lure the audience in,” said Dr. Bonn, noting the parallels between the upcoming release and the 1968 film, Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. He said the movie, which was released five years before Bundy committed his first known murder, was similarly criticized for romanticizing, glorifying and sexualizing the crimes committed by Bonnie and Clyde.
In creating these docu-dramas, the basic facts become altered as major studios compete for the most buzz-worthy content. When all the audience sees is a charming character, it’s easy to lose sight of the horrific actuality of the crimes. “Ted Bundy on screen is very appealing and alluring until he shows up at your house and kills your sister.” Oof.
“Netflix has really done a Bundy investment here,” said Dr. Bonn. He emphasized the incongruity between the pay-out networks and studios get from exploiting these events and the lingering impact on those affected by the crimes. “The danger is that the real human toll tends to be lost in all of this,” he said. “We should focus on the victims and their families, on the people left behind. Even the families of the perpetrators suffered too.” Recently, the daughter of the BTK serial killer came forward to talk about the damage her father’s actions have had on her life. “[W]e should focus on the carnage that these individuals perpetrated rather than glorifying them,” Dr. Bonn concluded.
“Kill, Live on in Infamy”
Dr. Wiest highlighted that the media’s number one goal is to sell stories and make money. The news media consists largely of for-profit companies that do not purport to be public servants. And entertainment media, in particular, seeks out events that fire up our imagination and feed off of our fears and anxieties. Not only are there films and TV shows about true crime stories, there are also merchandise and collectibles, called ‘murderobelia.’ Through this kind of coverage and representation, mass killers are treated in a similar way to athletes, singers, and movie-stars. “It [creates] an environment in which this kind of crime can earn social rewards like fame,” said Dr. Weist. “People are still talking about Bundy when he’s been long dead. His murders were 45 years ago. Kill, live on in infamy… .”
It doesn’t seem likely that major studios such as Netflix will take Dr. Bonn’s advice to pivot away from notorious killers to focus instead on the victims. The benefits of becoming a more socially responsible company probably wouldn’t be enough to outweigh the potential ratings hit. “People want to make money and sexualization and sensationalism clearly work,” said Dr. Bonn. “The networks and the studios know that, and so they do it.”
Despite this awareness, Dr. Bonn himself has made a living from our obsession with serial killers. And we’re profiting from your interest right now.