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Ted Bundy, the law school dropout who confessed to killing 30 women, and sometimes raping their lifeless corpses, represented himself in court, at times acting simultaneously as the defense, a witness, and defendant.
He walked around unshackled during court proceedings, was loosely supervised in custody, escaped prison twice, and charmed the same judge who sentenced him to death.
But did Bundy get a pass — and so much leeway — while he was in custody and during court proceedings because he was white?
Joe Berlinger, the director of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” the biopic of the serial killer’s life starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins, thinks this might have been the case.
“People are fascinated with Bundy because he defies all of our expectations we want to think a serial killer is,” Berlinger said at the Tribeca Film Festival during the movie’s New York premiere on Thursday.
“[We] want to think it’s a misfit weird looking guy who is a social outcast because that gives us the comfort he is easily identifiable, and therefore, avoidable.”
“Extremely Wicked” premiered on Netflix Friday. Berlinger, who also directed the 2019 Netflix documentary, “Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” has largely revived the killer’s mythos in contemporary popular culture. But Berlinger’s biopic, starring a charismatic and chiseled Efron as Bundy, has been criticized for romanticizing and “sexualizing” a cold-blooded psychopath.
And now some critics are wondering: how much did Bundy’s whiteness play into how long it took for him to be arrested, his treatment during his trial and incarceration, and the way he’s perceived today?
Jane Caputi, a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the Florida Atlantic University thinks Bundy has been wrongly mythologized — largely due to his “white male privilege.”
“[Bundy] never got into the law school he wanted to,” Caputi told Oxygen.com. “He was a nose-picker, a nailbiter, not well liked as a child, he tortured frogs — his own opinion of himself preceded everything and the media did just buy that.”
Caputi doesn’t buy into the suave, sophisticated, charming “boy next door” portrait of Bundy that’s been constructed by the media she said — and which has captivated imaginations — for more than four decades.
Caputi, who has wrote about Bundy in her 1987 book “The Age of Sex Crime,” believes Bundy’s perceived suave demeanor was actually white privilege in disguise.
“He’s the very picture of — overtly of — innocence but on the underside of that he’s the very picture of the criminal enterprise,” she explained.
She specifically cited the unusual luxuries Bundy was afforded during his trial and incarceration, such as minimal prison library supervision, which led to two botched jailbreaks.
“[Bundy] escaped twice,” Caputi added. “He escaped the first time by jumping out the window because he was left unshackled and unsupervised. And at this point is suspected of killing how many women? So that’s white male privilege. But it’s also misogyny that the murders of women don’t matter so much, except for titillation.”
Bundy later escaped in 1977 through a light fixture in a his prison cell after reportedly losing 30 pounds to allow him to fit in the narrow enclosure.
Bundy wasn’t shackled during trial and he was allowed to roam freely around the courtroom, often presenting bizarre theories and muttering nonsense while winking at the cameras.
Judge Edward Cowart, who first sentenced Bundy to death in 1979, even appeared to be seduced by Bundy’s charismatic spell. Cowart, who described Bundy’s crimes as “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile,” which became the title for Berlinger’s film, also told the serial killer he was a “bright young man.”
“You’d have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner,” Cowart stated after handing Bundy the death penalty.
“Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Once again, take care of yourself."
The way Bundy paraded around the courtroom, and the overconfidence he exuded, shocks people watching footage from the trial today.
“[Bundy] was just allowed to walk around the courtroom winking, saying nonsensical things and then at his sentencing the judge [said he] would have loved to practice with you — are you kidding me?” said Ashley Alese Edwards, a New York-based journalist, who has written about gender and race relations in relation to Bundy’s legacy.
“The judge was like palling around with him, that was shocking to me,” the 28-year-old Google employee said.
She noted that Bundy was even allowed to switch prison cells “so he could read more.”
Like Caputi, Edwards doesn’t accept the mainstream portrayal of Bundy — and pop culture’s fascination with the killer irks her.
“You know Ted Bundy’s name and but you don’t know any of his victims,” Edwards told Oxygen.com.
“I think it’s disrespectful to his victims and to his family to make it seem like he was so alluring they couldn’t get away from him when that’s not the case. He snuck up on women and killed them. There’s nothing charming about that.”
Following the release of “The Bundy Tapes” documentary on Netflix, Edwards wrote an article titled, “Ted Bundy Wasn't Special Or Smart. He Was Just White.” Edwards said she can’t imagine a black or minority serial killer getting the same treatment as Bundy — then or now.
“I don’t think if you were a black man accused of viciously murdering a bunch of women, he would be allowed such freedom,” she explained. “It’s really a testament to his white privilege how even after death, even after being convicted of all these things, he’s still seen as someone otherworldly.”
Scott Bonn, a criminologist and author, who has studied Bundy extensively, concurred, but for different reasons.
[Bundy] wouldn’t have even been on the radar,” said Bonn. “If Ted Bundy was black we probably wouldn’t even know who he is because the odds are then, he would have been killing black women and the media and society in general does not focus as much on black victims as they do on young, white female victims.”
Berlinger, the filmmaker behind two Bundy projects, also acknowledged the racial aspect of Bundy’s chameleon-like magnetism.
“In my experience 25 years of true crime filmmaking, the people who do the worst evil are generally the people you least expect,” he told a New York audience. “Whether it’s the priest who commits pedophilia who holds mass the next day or someone like Bundy who eluded capture for so long because people couldn’t believe this charming, smart guy white guy, in patriarchal white world back in the 1970s was capable of doing evil.”
Bundy was executed in 1989 at the age of 42.
Gina Pace contributed to this report.
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