CW: This article contains mentions of sexual violence
The uptick in true crime TV and films warms my cold, dead little heart as much as the next media consumer, but finding myself attracted to Zac Efron’s portrayal of the gruesome serial killer Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” (2019) made me feel a bit icky. It’s not just me being weird, however; it was a group effort with the film’s producers, who picked Efron because he “captures the charisma and image that enabled Bundy to be believed and even idolized,” according to The Irish Times. Herein lies the troubling tendency to romanticize real-life violent criminals with little respect for victims, and give a little too much sympathy for serial killers.
When shows and movies about real people glamorize criminals, particularly ones who have committed gruesome acts, the act of watching feels downright criminal in itself.
Though it was unfortunately true that many women found and continue to find the real Ted Bundy physically attractive, even as they know the details of his grisly serial killings, selecting Zac Efron to portray Bundy was a choice. The more charming Efron is as Bundy, the more disrespectful it feels to the memory of the victims who were raped, strangled and mutilated by his hands.
I liked the movie; I found Efron to be the pinnacle of charisma. But the decision to use an actor known for being a teen heartthrob to play up the enigmatic parts of a famous serial killer just feels wrong. It can only contribute to the desensitization of violence that is too commonly a result of today’s movies, shows and news — even the term “desensitizing violence” has been so overused as to dilute its meaning (read: semantic bleaching) — which in turn normalizes its occurrence in daily life. No, murder is not normal. The danger lies in perceiving it as normal, which could lead to material consequences (copycat murders, lack of compassion, lessened aversion to increases in crime) or an increase in the viewer’s paranoia (did that truck just slow down to abduct me off of Sixth Street?).
Similarly, “The Girl from Plainville” follows the story of Michelle Carter, who was convicted of manslaughter after urging her then-boyfriend to commit suicide via text. Carter is played by Elle Fanning, whose performance (and conventional attraction) works in favor of garnering sympathy for the criminal. That said, “The Girl from Plainville” was provokingly disturbing throughout, unlike the Bundy movie, where one could forget for almost the entirety of the film that Bundy was anything but charming.
“The Dropout” also focuses on a criminal, Elizabeth Holmes, co-founder of the now-defunct tech start-up Theranos. But where Bundy and Carter have blood on their hands (some argue that Holmes does as well, since the stress of Theranos’ lies has been speculated to lead to the suicide of one of its physicists), Holmes’ crime was defrauding mega-wealthy investors out of billions. This knowledge made “The Dropout” much easier to enjoy.
Additionally, I would like to point out that all the true crime media I have mentioned has portrayed exclusively white criminals. Can you think of one popular true crime show or movie featuring and glorifying people of color? This is not a coincidence, critics like Ezzine Ukoha say, but yet another glaring instance of the “disease of white privilege.” Not a great look for this already-on-thin-ice genre.
There is a point to be made in defense of true crime: If it should be limited on the basis of desensitization, shouldn’t all media depicting crime be censored? The answer is no, definitely not. While I would not by any means dare to suggest the limiting of other fictional crime shows, true crime is of a slightly trickier nature, since it deals with real people. Though other shows might contribute to the phenomenon of desensitization, at least one knows throughout that they are pure fantasy, unlike others with roots in reality. So, let’s not make violent true crime a glamorous thing, out of respect for victims and their families.
It’s good to be a conscious media consumer. At the very least, the next time you’re watching a true crime show and find yourself attracted to a serial killer, try to unpack that.
Rorye Jones PO ’23 finally got around to finishing “Titanic” and can now reasonably call herself TSL’s TV and film columnist. Yes, she did cry (mainly for the violinists).