He's been called charming, handsome, confident, clever. He's also one of the most notorious serial killers in American history.
On Thursday, the 30th anniversary of Ted Bundy's death via electric chair, Netflix debuted the riveting yet horrifying five-part documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. The series explains how the convicted mass murderer and rapist managed to elude authorities as he committed 30 homicides in seven states -- including Colorado, where I grew up -- between 1974 and 1978.
The details of the murders themselves are terrifying enough, but what makes this docuseries even creepier are the never-before-heard snippets from chilling real audio of Bundy talking with journalist Stephen Michaud. Michaud convinced Bundy to tap his college degree in psychology to address his crimes in the third person as if he were an expert on the murderous persona. Speaking in a calm, collected voice, Bundy sounds like he could be a pundit describing his own behavior.
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is fascinating true-crime fanatics all over social media, but the new docuseries makes me want to look over my shoulder like I did during Bundy's reign of terror.
Growing up in Colorado, I remember adults gasping about the serial killer who managed to not only murder young women, but escape jail twice. Bundy had me so terrified that even when I knew he was in custody, I barely slept (even with the lights on), made sure to walk in crowds of people at the mall and had friends walk me home from school.
Tales of Bundy outsmarting the state police and the FBI made him more of a mystery to me. How could he kill so many women, get caught and still manage to flee so easily?
In junior high school, I read every book I could find about Bundy to reassure myself he was a mere man. Bundy was lucky enough to live in an era where DNA, police computer databases and serial killer profiling weren't yet common, and I sometimes imagined him like some sort of mythical-level super-villain.
What alarmed me most -- and what the Netflix special highlights so well -- is how easily Bundy tricked intelligent young women into thinking he was harmless merely because he didn't look like Charles Manson.
The Netflix series includes interviews with Bundy's friends, past girlfriends, minister and classmates, all of whom repeatedly mention he was a clean-cut, charismatic, good-looking guy who attended church. Bundy's own mother even referred to him as "the best son in the world."
Yet Michaud, psychologists in contact with Bundy and the police who caught him all say Bundy was a narcissistic sociopath who resented women and thought of them as possessions.
As a kid, I wasn't fascinated by Bundy's desire for fame or enthralled by his cult of personality. I also wasn't mad for murderers like some of my classmates who were obsessed with serial killers like Bundy, Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy and the Zodiac Killer. I just wanted to reassure myself Bundy wasn't going to escape death row.
In 1986, when the TV movie The Deliberate Stranger debuted, I wouldn't feel calm again until Bundy finally died three years later.
That movie -- based on the 1980 book of the same name -- starred actor Mark Harmon long before he became known for his lead role in the TV series NCIS. The film showed how easily Bundy managed to make his victims feel at ease. He would wander around a crowded park with his arm in a sling and pretend to be hurt so women wouldn't find him threatening. He would lure them to his car, then attack.
While his murders of young women were shocking, it was the graphic portrayal of his attack on the Chi Omega sorority house that still makes me tremble in terror.
Bundy had escaped jail for a second time, and made his way from Colorado to Florida. In the TV movie, I distinctly remember seeing how Harmon as Bundy snuck into a sorority house when everyone was asleep and brutally killed two college girls, then raped and beat two more, leaving them for dead. Bundy then left the sorority house and then killed another girl nearby.
In the new Netflix special, we learn Bundy evaded authorities and lived just a few blocks from the sorority house after committing the murders. Bundy was so confident that he could outsmart the police he didn't even bother leaving the ZIP code.
Even the police didn't seem to take Bundy seriously from the start. No one bothered to handcuff him before his first escape when he jumped unnoticed from a two-story courthouse window. And no one guarded Bundy as he fled a second time through a hole he made in the ceiling of his jail cell.
Unlike The Deliberate Stranger, which romanticizes the captivating personality that helped Bundy attract his victims, the new Netflix series thankfully doesn't try to glorify him when mentioning his good looks and charms.
In fact, the series does its best to show that Bundy's own ego may have been his demise. Even during his last murder trial, Bundy decided to act as his own defense lawyer, which in the end did him zero favors with witnesses, court spectators, the press and the judge.
Many of those who appear in the series are journalists who covered Bundy's crimes and the police who finally tracked him down. But one real hero of the docuseries is one of Bundy's targets who got away before he could kill her -- Carol Daronch. She was only 18 when Bundy (impersonating a police officer) abducted her from a mall. But she used her smarts and fought back, running away and ending up becoming a crucial witness for the prosecution.
Even though the new Netflix series brought back a lot of the fear I felt as a kid, I also was reminded of the first good night's sleep I had in ages on Jan. 24, 1989 -- when, at 17, I knew for sure Bundy wouldn't escape the electric chair.
But while it may be three decades after his death, the Netflix special is just the start.
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