Kimberly Leach was 12. She was shy. She had just been elected first runner-up for Valentine Queen at her junior high school. She was in class the morning of Feb. 9, 1978, and when she wasn't around later that afternoon, her friends thought something must be wrong. It wasn't like her to miss class — she was usually responsible.
Lynette Culver wasn't actually the same age as Kimberly, she was born three years earlier, but because she was also murdered by Ted Bundy when she was 12, it's easy to think of them in similar terms. Kimberly lived in Florida and Lynette in Idaho — they probably never would have met, but are now linked in the grisliest of ways, both part of an unspoken, bloody sorority. They're among the 20 girls and women Bundy killed who have been identified. (There are more: he confessed to at least 30 murders.) Many of them were raped, or hurt or degraded in other ways, both before and after they were killed.
Over the weekend, Netflix premiered "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile," a movie about Bundy that they paid $12 million for in an extended bidding war. It's based on a now out-of-print book written under a pseudonym by his former girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer.
The project, starring Zac Efron as Bundy and Lily Collins as Kloepfer, has long been a controversial one. Its director had to clarify his intentions after some pushback to the movie's trailer, which looked more like a fun caper than an examination of violence and devastation. (It features a rollicking, high-energy soundtrack and shots of Efron winking at the camera and revealing his sculpted abs.)
Director Joe Berlinger assured the public that his aim wasn't to glamorize a serial killer. "Our film in no way glorifies Bundy or his atrocious acts, nor was the trailer intended to give that impression," he told Buzzfeed News. Rather, he called the movie "a serious portrait of how Bundy deceived the people closest to him and his manipulation of the American media allowed him to flourish and evade detection and capture for so long."
That focus on media attention is a big part of this story. Bundy loved attention. In prison, he sent out a call for "celebrity biographers" to come tell his story. Journalist Stephen Michaud recorded hours and hours of Bundy pontificating about his own life and crimes, tapes that were released in a four-part Netflix documentary called "Conversations With a Killer," also directed by Joe Berlinger.
In those episodes — which, regrettably, I did watch — Bundy keeps a pathological distance from the murders he committed, instead offering eyeroll-inducing "insight" into how the murderer "might" have been thinking. (It's O.J. Simpson's "If I Did It" narrated by an egotistical former law student with philosophical aspirations.) Many of the claims he makes about himself in the interviews have since been disputed, but that isn't a part of the documentary.
Watching "Conversations With a Killer" left me feeling dirty. Why had I played right into Ted Bundy's hands? I had fulfilled an egotistical killer's desire to be memorialized — maybe not as a genius or a sage, as he intended, but as someone whose points of view deserved to be broadcast worldwide. It didn't give me insight into why people commit these kinds of crimes, or how to spot a sociopath in the real world. It just made me feel sad.
The stated goal of "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile" is to tell Kloepfer's story. For that reason, it doesn't contain scenes where Bundy kills people. On one hand, it's nice not to see women get killed onscreen. But when your subject is Ted Bundy, is leaving his crimes offscreen a fair way to tell his story? If you want to examine his charisma, his good looks, his courtroom marriage to someone who was essentially a fan, is it reasonable to do that without also examining how he killed women?
But the film's reviews say it gives far more latitude to Bundy's point of view, and his supposed mystique. In Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson points out that while Bundy was more handsome and charming than your run-of-the-mill murderer, he wasn't a pin-up with perfect abs. The choice to cast Efron in the role "lends the proceedings an extra otherworldliness, heightening the insidious appeal of American serial-killer lore to something almost pornographic," he writes. The Atlantic agrees, writing that the movie "succumbs to the same easy stereotypes that the press did during his trial, marvelling at how a well-spoken, decent-looking man could possibly do such heinous things." Even if it doesn't explicitly aim to make the audience sympathize with Bundy, "in making him the star, it can't avoid doing so to an extent."
And it would be easy enough to assume, from the kind of breathless press coverage that the movie's been getting, that it's about some complicated male antihero rather than a real-life killer and rapist. It's been anticipated online like it's a new One Direction song, with people praising Efron's looks and Collins telling the Guardian that the ghosts of Bundy's victims thanked her for "telling the story." Yes, dozens of women were killed, but at least they have Phil Collins' daughter to speak for them!
As a culture, we're having more and more conversations about what stories we should tell and how we should tell them. There are so many kinds of people and experiences we still haven't seen reflected in our media. If we're going to re-tell a story that's so familiar — a powerful man victimizing women — and that's been told repeatedly already, there should be a good reason. And frankly, this movie doesn't seem to have one.
It can be easy to forget about the impact our online actions have, especially when they seem so inconsequential as what we choose to binge-watch over a boring weekend. But in our algorithm-driven culture, choosing to watch a movie — or click on a link, or stream a song — sends a message to the companies about what we like, and what they should invest in next. The reason they spent so much money to buy this movie was doubtless connected to the success of the earlier documentary. If Netflix makes money off of gratuitous serial killer entertainment, they're going to give us more gratuitous serial killer entertainment.
While the spectacle of Bundy's murder trial is a big part of the movie, none of his victims seem to appear in the movie at all.
In a rare interview with "20/20," friends of Kimberly Leach said they wish she would be remembered in the public imagination, rather than Bundy.
"In all the TV shows, all the movies, very little has been said about the murder of Kim Leach, the murder of a 12-year-old," added Bob Dekle, the lead prosecutor at the trial.
"You can't have a glamorous serial killer if you look at that last killing."
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