UW Graduate School

André Stephens discusses why we’re fascinated by Ted Bundy

Serial killers like Ted Bundy may operate in shadow, but they seem destined for a spotlight. In January, Netflix brought Bundy back into the public eye: releasing a documentary series on Ted Bundy and purchasing a movie, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, featuring Zac Efron. We asked André Stephens, Ph.D. student in Sociology, to help us understand this sensational trend. André has studied crime in the media (particularly focusing on political corruption), and has taught courses on murder and media.

First thing he wanted to set straight: There’s no relation between serial killers and the weather in Washington state. “There’s this myth that Seattle is kind of this gray, morose city where serial killers emerge,” he says. “But in terms of the statistics, Seattle and Washington state are no different from the rest of the country in terms of the number of serial killers.”

Why are we fascinated with serial killers? Why Bundy, in particular?

The first example of an infamous serial killer is Jack the Ripper, who emerged in London in the late 1880s. Jack the Ripper’s case lends itself to the theory that industrialization played a role in our fascination with serial killers. Imagine the transitions of people living in communal spaces in Europe, who, because of industrialization, are forced to move to urban spaces. They aren’t living in a small community anymore, so the community bonds and social regulation that used to exist are gone. People are strangers. Under these circumstances people are concentrated in an environment where there is urban pressure, urban decay and poverty leading to crime, and consequently there’s a lot of fear around space and around the other. It breeds this idea that anyone we run into could be hiding all kinds of secrets.

Another factor I believe has contributed to the cultural fascination with serial killers is the media. Loïc Wacquant, sociologist at UC-Berkeley, describes this fascination as “Law and Order pornographies,” and I think that’s such an apt description of it. In the U.S., there’s this fascination with CSI, Law and Order, and even Breaking Bad, and Netflix is capitalizing on that. I’m sure you saw Netflix had a tweet telling people not to sexualize Ted Bundy: the truth is that the sexualization of Ted Bundy makes a lot of money for Netflix and they’re seizing on it and amplifying it as a way to boost their business. The genre of “true crime” has really taken off, and it’s a feedback loop. I think content producers are really pushing the genre with shows like The Making of a Murderer, and then the audiences have bitten off a chunk of that, and then content creators make more of it.

How do cultural fascinations like this spread? How did they spread in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Ted Bundy was first making the news, versus now?

Social media has definitely had an impact on the public square. In the past, newspapers had a strong impact on how a killer was represented and in a sense, they were the gatekeepers to that narrative. There would be a particular reporter who was the go-to expert on the crime, and their representation of the killer was likely filtered through the agenda of the newspaper, their personal identities, etc. I think today we have a lot more control over the narrative, and that might give people more of a sense of having a stake in trying to figure out who Ted Bundy “really” was. There are even online discussions trying to piece together what he was like, where I suspect in the past people just read the newspapers and said this person is a horrible killer and left it at that.

That’s interesting from the perspective of the rise of true crime documentaries. These documentaries really focus on the minutiae of the crime, and the person who did it, and why it may have happened. Maybe they are tapping into this drive for people to piece together a portrait of the killer?

I think you’re right, you should put that in [the article]. I mean some of these documentaries are super long — they consist of 12, 13 hour-long episodes that go into very specific detail.

A viral tweet suggested focusing on the victims of the killer. What do you think about this approach in terms of the cultural fascination with serial killers?

I can see how morally people would want to take that position, but if we’re honest with ourselves, I don’t think this is as interesting as Ted Bundy. There’s a sociological perspective on this too: Emile Durkheim said crime was normal and that deviance was essential to social cohesion. What he meant by that was: the very fact that people are so fascinated by Ted Bundy and not the victims suggests that as a society we are shocked by his actions. The unhealthy society would be the one who says — “Oh, this guy had a trauma in his life and killed a bunch of people, that’s not super interesting” — while a healthy society would have an interest in talking about what went wrong with Bundy.

There’s the question of whether Netflix is helping in this process or just commercializing it; but, the tendency to stare at the abnormal is indicative of how ingrained the normal is in our society, and Durkheim saw that as a good thing.