True Crime Tuesdays: Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer
Helen Archer | On 28, Jul 2020
On Tuesdays, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
Sometimes it feels as though we’re saturated with Ted Bundy content. The man was a media sensation even before he finally confessed to killing at least 30 women over seven years in the 1970s, yet public fascination seems only to have grown in popular culture. Recently, a spate of documentaries and films have hit the airwaves, from last year’s Conversations with a Killer to the recent Zac Efron feature film, Extremely Wicked and Shockingly Vile. And yet, as is pointed out in this five-part documentary, while much is known about Bundy, many of us would be hard-pressed to name his victims. In tales of violence against women, the man traditionally takes centre stage.
This series, directed by Trish Wood, seeks to redress the balance, putting women front and centre – through the lens of Bundy’s relationship with his long-term girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall. Inspired by her 1981 memoir The Phantom Prince – which was updated and rereleased earlier this year – the programme marks the first time she and her daughter Molly have given TV interviews. They are joined by friends and families of some of the victims, as well as members of law enforcement, the media, feminist activists and Bundy’s younger brother, Richard.
Elizabeth has clearly been emboldened to talk by the #MeToo movement, finding her voice has a space within the public discourse. But you get the feeling that, even now, she is processing her relationship with Bundy, and the lasting effect it had on her life. Along with Molly – for whom Bundy was something of an enchanted father figure – she talks us through her first few years with him, sharing letters he sent to her from prison and personal photos which show a couple who seemed very much in love, and planning a future together, before the dawning realisation that he was not who he seemed to be.
Beginning in Seattle in 1969, five years before the murders began, the series makes efforts to place them within a historical context, in much the same way that The Yorkshire Ripper Files, Liza Williams’ 2019 documentary on the Yorkshire Ripper did. Archive footage punctuates each episode. This was at a time in history when women felt as though they were on the cusp of independence and liberation, with many seeing futures for themselves outside of traditional roles of wives and secretaries. The college campuses (Bundy’s favoured hunting grounds, and where Elizabeth was employed) were full of young women taking part in protests and demanding equality. Yet – again reminiscent of what happened in Yorkshire – when the disappearances and murders began, many young women, scared for their lives, gave up their places at University to head to the security of home.
As with the Ripper investigation in Britain, an ill-concealed contempt for women bubbled under the surface of public discussions about their safety. In some remarkable footage shown here, men are interviewed about what women should do if they are subject to attacks, warning that they risk death should they fight back or resist. The message is clear – submit to men’s will or die.
Other pertinent background is fleetingly examined. The police didn’t immediately band the murders together, and there was a lack of communication between forces – in much the same way as we’ve seen in the Netflix series Unbelievable, and also recognisable to those familiar with the modus operandi of the Golden State Killer, the perpetrators used this lack of communication to evade justice. The effect of the new interstate highways is also mentioned, making it easier for Bundy to travel long distances, and to do so anonymously, allowing him to pick off his victims almost completely unnoticed.
While Elizabeth was the first to recognise that her boyfriend was behind the murders, her concerns were shrugged off not only by the police, but also by her own father, who asked her to consider the effect it would have on Bundy’s life should such allegations be taken seriously. Bundy’s superficially unthreatening and charming demeanour was what made him so dangerous, yet there was also a culture of disbelief and denial that affected everyone unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Often, women who fall for murderers are viewed as stupid, or culpable, or both. But Bundy pulled the wool over the eyes even of those who were best placed to recognise him for what he was. Famously, even when sentencing him to death, Judge Edward Coward took pains to tell him how happy he would have been to have Bundy practising law in front of him, saying: “It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity, I think, as I’ve experienced in this courtroom.”
The judge wasn’t talking about the waste of humanity in the young women whose lives Bundy extinguished. He was talking about the fact that a man should throw his life away by committing acts which were “extremely wicked, shockingly evil”. Yet what is examined in this series is the lives he stole, and the bright futures he obliterated. While perhaps the programme doesn’t go into the same incredible detail of The Yorkshire Ripper Files, it does offer something of an corrective to the way in which Bundy is mythologised, and exposes the lifelong, ongoing ripple effect of grief and sorrow so palpable it’s almost painful to witness.
Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.