OPINION: Ted Bundy biopics romanticize violence against women

Graphic by Chloe Frelinghuysen

Ted Bundy, a serial killer from the 1970s, has an IMDb page.

On it, one can find quotes and trivia, and even track Bundy’s popularity with the STARmeter function. While IMDb has pages for many “historical figures,”  Bundy’s page especially underscores the way our culture glorifies horrific events and the people who perpetrate them.

But this move by the movie industry isn’t out of the ordinary.

Hollywood habitually handles sexual assault, rape and murder in a corrupt manner, exploiting trauma for capital gain. This repeated action stems from the perception of trauma-based plotlines as “entertaining” and “thrilling.”

I’m not arguing that these topics should be censored from television and film. However, directors need to be more cognizant of what dialogues their art creates, whose stories they put in the spotlight and which voices they amplify.

The rhetoric surrounding Bundy has always been just as focused on his “looks,” “intelligence” and “charisma” as the horrific nature of his crimes. During one of his murder trials in the 1970s, The New York Times ran a story on Bundy with the headline “All-American Boy on Trial.”

Now, with well-known actor Zac Efron starring as Bundy in the upcoming film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” that rhetoric will continue. There seems to be a fine line — or perhaps no line at all — between the “psychopathic seduction” director Joe Berlinger set out to portray and stark romanticization.

In an interview with the film’s cast at the Sundance Film Festival a few weeks ago, interviewer Kevin Smith exclaimed, “[Efron is] the most fuckable Ted Bundy on the planet!” The entire cast laughed in response.

It’s worth noting that the Bundy biopic does attempt to “retell” the story from the perspective of Bundy’s former girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, who’s played by Lily Collins. But the power of this choice is weakened by the simultaneous release of Berlinger’s other Bundy-based project; “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” also directed by Berlinger, was released in early January, two days before the release of “Extremely Wicked.”

In an article for Forbes, journalist Merrill Barr writes of “Conversations with a Killer”: “It’s a fresh retelling of the story of Ted Bundy and his crimes with the added twist of being, at times, told from his own perspective through never heard before tapes recorded before his death in January 1989.”

The docuseries promotes a “retelling” of the story from Bundy’s perspective — the exact opposite of what “Extremely Wicked” sets out to do.

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In the midst of the #MeToo movement, Berlinger’s choice to center the docuseries around Bundy’s audio tapes is unproductive and tone-deaf. To give Bundy’s voice a platform, to allow him the opportunity to tell his story his way, silences survivors. The focus on Bundy’s voice perpetuates a culture in which the voices of white, male perpetrators are listened to and trusted more than the voices of survivors.

Given this past January marked 30 years since his execution, the resurgence of Bundy-based media begets a pressing question: Why now? There is something strangely commemorative about releasing two Bundy projects on the 30-year anniversary of his death.

It is important to engage in discussions surrounding taboo topics, and TV and film are absolutely valid vehicles for these conversations. However, media-makers must ensure their projects — especially when approaching real events — do not do so in sensationalistic and voyeuristic ways that exploit the trauma of the people involved.

Lily Borak PZ ’21 is a neuroscience major from Newton, Massachusetts. She is always open to conversing about whether or not Tonya was involved in the 1994 Nancy Kerrigan scandal.

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