2019 saw the release of a pair of Ted Bundy movies on Netflix: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a biopic of sorts starring Zac Efron as Bundy, and Conversations With A Killler: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a four-part documentary about Bundy featuring interviews with the killer. Both were directed by Joe Berlinger, whose filmmaking bona fides are well established; not only did he direct the Paradise Lost documentaries that eventually led to the West Memphis Three being released from prison, he created the seminal portrayal of metal band dysfunction in Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster.
Berlinger’s Bundy movies ended up being less well-received. Perhaps because they were both based on the same impossible-to-reconcile paradox: that Ted Bundy seemed like an affable, caring guy to the people that knew him even as he was killing and raping women and keeping their heads as trophies on the sly. They gave us a Bundy’s whose inner workings would remain more or less forever opaque, which is undeniably disappointing even if it speaks to some higher truth. As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote at Vulture, The Bundy Tapes “treats Bundy as a horrifying void of a man whose true emotional interior remains just out of sight, a Kurtz hidden in moral and psychological gloom no matter how much light is cast by detectives, reporters, and childhood friends.”
I saw Extremely Wicked myself at Sundance and had similar thoughts. That Bundy could at least feign normalcy — the boy-next-door killer, more or less — is the gist of almost every story about him, from Wicked and the Bundy Tapes to memoirs by Bundy ex-live-in girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy, upon which Extremely Wicked was based) and Bundy friend Ann Rule (The Stranger Beside Me). As Berlinger described it to the LA Times, “Bundy defied all stereotypes of what a serial killer was.”
Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Crazy, Not Insane, which was just released on HBO, seems to challenge that assumption. (Note: spoilers to follow, if you believe that discussing something in a documentary counts as a spoiler).
The documentary is a profile of forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis, who has spent her career studying serial killers to see what makes them tick. While Bundy himself and to some extent both of Berlinger’s Bundy movies perpetuated the notion that Bundy had a fairly normal childhood, Otnow, who throughout her career has attempted to identify and explore the then-controversial diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, describes something much different. Otnow, who conducted a four-hour interview with Bundy the day before his execution in 1989, initially found no neurological problems, just some “abnormalities seen in depressives.”
This is important considering the general thrust of Otnow’s career. According to Otnow, serial killers virtually always have observable neurological defects caused by childhood abuse or trauma. However, Otnow goes onto explain where her 1989 diagnosis was wrong, or at least, incomplete. Based on her interviews with family members, Bundy’s aunts described how Ted, at three years old, would come into their rooms and place kitchen knives around them under their bedcovers. She also relates a family history that included a Bundy grandmother who had received electro-shock treatment for depression, and interviews with Bundy’s mother, revealing that Bundy’s father (whose identity is still unknown) had taken her to an abortion doctor and given her pills that were supposed to result in an abortion — which didn’t work. Bundy’s mother initially tried to put the baby up for adoption, but ended up bringing him home again, where he was eventually raised to believe his grandfather was his father and his mother his older sister.
Bundy’s grandfather-father was, in turn, “a violent and disturbed man” with an extremely violent temper. Otnow also relates a story about Bundy telling her about a sexual encounter Bundy had had with his sister during childhood. The “smoking gun,” of sorts, is a box of letters delivered to Otnow by Bundy’s ex-wife years after his death, in which Otnow shows that Bundy would often sign his letters under different names, notably as “Sam,” the name of his own abusive grandfather. This last piece of evidence is Otnow’s justification for a belated diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder.
That Otnow has spent her career trying to promulgate the central idea that “killers are made, not born” may suggest treating these revelations with a grain of salt, seeing as they do tend to confirm her biases. Yet it’s hard to watch Crazy, Not Insane and not feel like it’s filling some important blanks in last year’s Bundy movies.
Berlinger’s movies are studiously factual and focus, fairly, on the aspect of Bundy as a guy who you might come away from thinking he was a normal, caring person, even to many people who were close to him. Yet it’s missing the connective tissue between normal guy and psycho killer. Surely that paradox was part of what he was attempting to explore in the films, but it ends up feeling like he’d set up a big mystery and pointedly left it unsolved. Otnow’s analysis in Crazy, Not Insane, offers perhaps some false catharsis in that sense. It “solves” Bundy, to some degree, inviting us as viewers to think “Aha! I knew there was something really off about that guy who murdered 30 women and had sex with corpses!”
We surely wouldn’t have been able to know that just from meeting Ted Bundy, or maybe even knowing him fairly intimately. In that sense, Berlingers’ movies are more fair to Bundy’s surviving acquaintances, and don’t allow us to separate ourselves from Bundy acquaintances, as gullible or as victims, or from Bundy, as something different than the everyday human beings we interact with every day.
Yet it also seems slightly… off for The Ted Bundy Tapes to leave us only with Otnow’s 1989 diagnosis of Bundy. She appears briefly in the Ted Bundy Tapes, offering the anti-climactic new diagnosis of Bundy as a manic depressive, without any of the later information described in Crazy, Not Insane. At one point, the lawyer for Bundy’s last appeal says of Otnow, “she was extremely confident that there was something unique in Ted’s brain that had led to this.”
That’s the last we hear about Otnow in The Ted Bundy Tapes, naturally leading us to conclude that she was wrong and there was nothing unique in Ted’s brain. In his LA Times interview, Berlinger described deliberately leaving some new information out of The Bundy Tapes (without saying what it was) “that we decided not to use because it would be new to the public and that wouldn’t be fair.”
Yet wasn’t there something unique in Bundy’s brain? He may have been unique in his ability to pose as a normal, everyday fellow, even famously convincing the judge of it in the trial depicted in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile. But it seems just as important to note that Bundy wasn’t exactly a normal guy. At least as Otnow argues it, Bundy was an unwanted child raised in an incestual household by an abusive family who had once tried to abort him.
Maybe that’s reductive in some way. Maybe every generation has their own explanation for Ted Bundy, whether it’s pornography (as Bundy told James Dobson in the 80s), genetic psychopathy, or the trauma-induced DID Otnow alleges. We’ll have to come back to that one in 10 years. For now, Crazy, Not Insane feels like it completes a sketch that Extremely Wicked and The Ted Bundy Tapes started but left notably unfinished.
‘Crazy, Not Insane’ is available now via HBO. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.