Romanticizing Ted Bundy: Immoral or Instinct?

If you asked anyone who knew him, Ted Bundy was a bright, charismatic young man on his way to becoming a lawyer. Brilliant, but nothing exceptional, right?

Most people would think the same, until he became one of the most notorious serial killers and rapists of the 20th century.

Bundy’s death sentence via electric chair was carried out in the Florida State Prison in 1989, but his legacy eerily lives on in American media.

In this article, we will explore why individuals are so fascinated by horrific and violent criminals such as Bundy.

Read on for an in-depth look at:

  • The romanticization of Bundy
  • The psychology of empathy

Romanticizing violent criminals

The phenomenon

Recently, Zac Efron starred as Bundy in the biographic film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, released on Netflix. Amidst the hype before and after the release of the film, many shocking opinions on the Internet surfaced along the lines of, “Call me crazy, but Ted Bundy was hot.” Wait, what?!

Zac Efron portraying Bundy.  Photo courtesy of Netflix.

The pushback

You’ll find several words describing the hyper-fascination with serial killers: romanticization, glorification, glamorization. No matter the word, the critique is similar: we cannot humanize these criminals.

Many feminist critics feel passionately about  this issue, especially in the era of #MeToo, since so many crimes against (primarily) women including rape, sexual assault, etc. are swept under the rug by the justice system. These critics might agree that there’s something wrong with the way we, as a society,  perceive crime.

Netflix itself even tweeted in protest of this phenomenon recently: “I’ve seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service—almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers.”

So, what’s going on here?

The psychology of empathy

Photo courtesy of Psychology Spot.

A huge part of the fascination with criminals like Bundy, according to criminologist Scott A. Bohn, is empathy. Bohn theorizes that there is an important link between empathy and fear.

In order to make things less frightful, we must attempt to understand them, which often involves empathy. So when we see a Bundy-list criminal as a human, we are merely attempting—consciously, or not—to understand the flaws of other humans in a way that reduces our fear of them.

Indeed, this empathy reveals another truth about humans: that we don’t want to become evil.

On this point, psychologist Raymond Mar says: “I think the scariest monsters are those in which we are able to see an aspect of humanity present. [...] Understanding our own capacity to be or become a monster creates true existential fear.”

In order to rationalize and reduce the fear of, for example, a serial killer, we tend to use empathetic processes to humanize them. However, our attempts to humanize them may lead us to inadvertently become serial killer apologists.

Bohn believes that there is dual humanization and dehumanization occurring when we attempt to wrap our heads around someone like Bundy. Humanization, since we try to make him less scary, but dehumanization, since we try to forge a moral boundary between good and evil.

Conclusions: it’s a draw

Of course, our attempts in empathy may be misguided or confused, so the claims made by the feminists aren’t entirely invalidated. They indeed do make important claims that it is dangerous to rationalize abuse or other violent behavior. As Bohn says, “[i]ronically, our sincere attempts to achieve clarity result in further ambiguity in our perceptions of the predator among us.”

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