Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ted Bundy

Typically, when we think of serial killers our brains conjure an image of a sadistic miscreant with distinct physical features a la John Wayne Gacy in his clown get-up; and as uneasy as that sounds, what is even more terrifying is a savage killer concealed beneath the appearance of the All American, average Joe. For such a case study, one needs to not look any further than Ted Bundy, one of America’s most horrific mass murderers.
Ted Bundy rose to infamous celebrity in the mid to late 1970s after Bundy had allegedly murdered over 30 women. As a result, Bundy is considered America’s most notorious serial killer and in fact, the term “serial killer” was first used to describe Bundy. It has been said that he was constantly charming women (even while in prison; he received hundreds of lover letters and wedding proposals just months before his execution). Of course, everyone asks the same question: “how can someone so seemingly pleasant commit such unspeakable crimes?” Well, the answer to said question is not easy and requires careful analysis of our case study. Let’s begin with his childhood.
Theodore Robert Cowell was born on November 24, 1946 in Burlington, Vermont to Eleanor Louise Cowell. The boy’s father was unknown and so Eleanor was an unwed mother, which was practically a crime in a 1940s, devout Christian America. So, to make sure she was not ostracized, she became the boy’s “older sister” and his grandparents became his “parents.” Ann Rule, Bundy biographer and one time companion, claims that “he sensed that he was living a lie.” Despite this speculation, Ted was a “good” boy: he did as he was told and loved and respected his authoritarian parents (or grandparents). On the other hand, it is now clear that there were several warning signs that he was not the most stable child. In one instance, a three year old Bundy took all the household knives and placed them around his sleeping teenage aunt, with the blades pointing in her direction.
Though Bundy is often said to have had a “normal” life, this is not true. The home he was raised in was not as peaceful as it looked on the surface. His grandmother suffered from clinical depression and his grandfather was a bizarre and extremely violent man. Sam Cowell excessively read pornography (as we will see this medium will play a significant role in the killer’s future life) and even worse threw his daughters down the stairs for sleeping to late. As strange as it sounds, for some reason the young Bundy was deeply attached to his “father” and when he was forced to move to Tacoma, Washington (3,000 miles away from Vermont) he was severely devastated. Fortunately, he adjusted to his new life and soon made friends. It should be noted that beneath Tacoma’s beauty lied a nasty underbelly: the downtown streets were filled with honky-bars, peep shows, and pornography shops. Not too long after the move, his mother married Johnny Culpepper Bundy, officially changing his last name. Ted rejected his new father and he looked down on him for not having a higher position in life, like his uncle Jack, a college professor, someone he admired. This internal conflict in the Bundy family never was resolved and as a result the two never had a chance to really know one another. When disciplining his child, Johnnie used a belt as a form of corporal punishment. This may have been a typical form of obedience for the time period or this could be seen as a cold, abusive, ultra-authoritarian tactic leaving Bundy’s relationship with his father even more torn and jaded. It is possible, that this could have contributed to the boy’s disdain for rules/laws and his lack of impulse control.
From a young age, Ted seemed special and his mother believed that he displayed the most potential out of all her children. He was active in school and usually maintained a B average. Unfortunately, besides being an above average student, his school life in Junior High was miserable. According to former classmates, Ted was shy, introverted, and often stuttered, causing the boy to bear the brunt of some of his classmates’ worst bullying, particularly during physical education class. Supposedly, Ted showered privately, instead of the open showers, where the other boys were. The tormenters took pleasure in pouring icy cold water down the back of an unsuspected Ted. Mortified, he would chase the boys away. As several other cases have proven, bullying has been a contributing factor to many serial killers and related criminals. In comparison to others of his kind, like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (the Columbine perpetrators), Ted’s experience with bullying was minimal, and yet at the same time at close inspection some factors can be deduced. All of Ted’s killings were sexually motivated and followed brutal rapes; it is possible that in his youth he was frustrated with his physical appearance (small, skinny, slender, etc.) and therefore did not want to shower where he normally would have. As an adult he expressed this rage through his atrocious behavior to gain power and it seems by doing this he could accept his self-identity. Since, he was fascinated by women his entire life, one would think Ted would chase after girls left and right in high school, but this was not the case.
Luckily for Ted Bundy, high school proved to be better than junior high school. According to former friends and acquaintances, Bundy was popular, eye-catching, extremely well-mannered, stylish, and yet he never dated. Despite this clean cut image, at a young age he engaged in various petty crimes. By the age of fifteen, he was a skilled shoplifter, and he was a suspect in a couple of auto theft and burglary cases, though never being arrested for said crimes. Of course, over the years these minute details were expunged from the Bundy profile, thus contributing to the theme of the clean cut, charming male. However, these tidbits tell us something even more important. They further demonstrate Bundy’s severe lack of impulse control. Bundy’s contempt for the law can be applied to his all around attitude toward women and social norms altogether. He desperately needed immediate gratification. As claimed in Bundy’s A&E Biography, the constant shoplifting made Bundy feel narcissistic because he could outwit the police and get away with it. This same feeling of entitlement would remain during his murders.
Besides the fact that Ted Bundy was introduced to pornography at a young age, there were other earlier warning signs of his obsession with the other sex. During his teen years, Bundy was said to have been a Peeping Tom, taking great pleasure in spying on various girls and women he found attractive.
The most disturbing “warning sign” is the theory that Ted Bundy may have begun his killing at age fifteen. Though, there is no actual evidence to support this, in hindsight, after knowing what crimes Bundy would later commit, it seems very plausible. During Bundy’s paper route days, there was an eight year old girl that he delivered the papers to and one day she was missing; she was never found. Various analysts, including Ann Rule, believe she was Bundy’s first victim.
For much of his youth, Bundy was very awkward and shy around women, but by the time he reached college, this would all change. He began creating a new façade in which he was confident, well-spoken, and cool. With Bundy’s natural charm it worked. In college he began his first sexual relationship with Stephanie Brooks. Brooks represented everything he wanted: an attractive, well-rounded, wealthy, female. To Brooks, the two were merely college sweethearts, but to Bundy this was everything, he found someone he fell in love with for the first time in his life. When the couple broke up, Bundy was left devastated. She evidently ended their relationship because she felt that he was immature and unmotivated. It can be surmised that this is why Bundy maintained an accomplished career in psychology and law (as ironic as it seems). Along with this incident, he also discovered his “older sister” Louise was actually his biological mother. It appears that these two seriously traumatic events strongly damaged what was left of an already fragile psyche. Within the next few years he would have relationships with other women and he would go back and forth with Brooks, in fact he eventually dumped her. Following this he began his murderous rampage in 1973 which lasted until 1978, when he was finally imprisoned. His trials were infamous and devoured by the media. Bundy was treated like a rock star, where court rooms were filled with adoring fans (all women, oddly enough). Archive footage displays a giggling Bundy, grinning as if he was the homecoming queen trying to decide who will go to the prom with her. He remained on Death Row until January 24, 1989, when he was executed by the electric chair to cheering families of victims, celebrating the announcement of his death, outside the prison.
In conclusion, as the film Ted Bundy asks, who was Ted Bundy? Or more importantly, who is Ted Bundy? The answer to this question as well as the question I posed before: how can someone so seemingly pleasant commit such unspeakable crimes? is still not simple and it turns out we could spend every waking hour studying Ted Bundy’s life and we still would be unsatisfied. If I’ve learned anything from Bundy’s story is that we need to be more honest about ourselves to our families, our friends, and most importantly to ourselves. Bundy desperately needed to discuss his impulse control or lack thereof with someone. He deserved to know who is real mother was as soon as possible. He needed to accept his self-identity. We, as a society can no longer discriminate and realize that anyone could be a serial killer, no matter what they look like.

1 comment:

  1. I have always been fascinated with serial killers and how they work inside. I have been studying them for over 10 years now and my second film Blank was all about psychopaths.

    I am getting ready to make a long running web series titled A.S.K.E. (American Serial Killer in Europe) and am currently running a campaign at Indiegogo (

    I am looking for like minded people that are fascinated with serial killers to help support the project and get a better understanding of the mind within.


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