By Masha Johansen
Earlier this year, the trailer for “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” ignited yet another conversation about the portrayal of serial killers and other disreputable figures in our present-day media. The film centers on notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy, who was responsible for the killings of up to a hundred women in the 1970s. Popular media since then has been hooked on talking about Bundy and the horrific crimes he committed, which is consistent with pop culture’s peculiar fixation on serial killers and criminals. Fascination with killers isn’t a new phenomenon; news and other media make access to stories of gruesome events incredibly easy, and we’re all hooked on them.
We seem to have an appetite for the macabre, thus projects such as Extremely Wicked gain huge traction, which sparks debate from two sides; first, enjoyment of a dark but very real reality, and second, outrage over the way this reality is presented to the public. Such anger isn’t necessarily irrational or misplaced; for instance, many critics have criticized the film on Bundy’s life, which tells the story of his crimes from the perspective of his long-term girlfriend, arguing that it glorifies his persona beyond how he deserves to be represented. One of the main talking points was the casting of ever-so charismatic Zac Efron in the role of Bundy. The trailer for the movie overflowed with cinematic shots of Efron in the shoes of the man who terrorized the ‘70s, and left people confused as to whether it should be considered okay for a human monster like Bundy to be portrayed by someone as objectively attractive and well-liked as Efron.
Comments poured in under the trailer on YouTube and have circulated platforms like Twitter, saying that Bundy had been romanticized to the point where the audience dissociates the actor on screen from the very real murderer who once terrorized the country. Is it okay that the major talking point from the trailer has been how hot Zac Efron looks and not the topic of Bundy and his crimes hitting the silver screen? Some say the film makes entertainment out of what was and continues to be great tragedy for many people. One tweet said: “I feel so bad for the families of the victims that have to sit there and see their terrors revived as a witty romantic thriller”. This all raises the question: How far should Hollywood be able to go when it comes to embellishing real-life tragedy?
It should be considered that this goes beyond the issue of Hollywood and Extremely Wicked itself, as well as the genre of true yet dramatized crime the film presents. Earlier in 2019, Netflix released “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”, a docuseries using archival and present day footage and interviews to tell Bundy’s story. No script, glamorized shirtless shots, or Efron. Yet, people continued to express an attraction towards Bundy, to the point where Netflix had to hit Twitter to ask people to not express attraction towards him.
The intentions behind criticism for the film may be well placed, but have people missed the point? Director Joe Berlinger responded to the angry comments, saying in a statement to Bustle: “I think the idea of this particular story, making a movie about Bundy, equals glorification of him is a very naive and knee-jerk reaction. If you actually watch the movie, the last thing we’re doing is glorifying him. He gets his due at the end, but we’re portraying the experience of how one becomes a victim to that kind of psychopathic seduction.”
People argue that Bundy being charismatic and physically attractive in the film is vital to addressing the fact that this was exactly how Bundy managed to get away with these crimes in the first place, how evil cannot be declared on a surface level. Police had consistently ruled him out as a suspect based on his seemingly upstanding character and clean-cut appearance, and even once captured, the judge claimed to hold no animosity against him, and many people (especially women) said they felt an attraction towards him. Kathy Kleiner Rubin, a survivor of one of his attacks, spoke out saying that “when [people] do say positive and wonderful things about him...That's what they saw, that's what Bundy wanted you to see."
Is it ultimately problematic for us to enjoy media on serial killers? I don’t think so. Most creators really try to portray the reality of these monsters with their motivations and the way they got away with the things they did. While writers have to be careful to not seem apologist or romantic about people like Bundy, it’s also up to us as viewers to use what we learn to be more cautious and careful.