The untold truth of Ted Bundy

In the early morning hours of August 16, 1975, Utah highway patrolman Bob Hayward saw a tan Volkswagen Beetle parked outside a home where it didn't belong. Residing at the home were teenage girls whose parents were away. It was an ominous scene at a time when women were being murdered with terrifying frequency. The driver bolted after noticing Hayward but stopped at an abandoned gas station. Hayward had unknowingly caught Ted Bundy.

Bundy was a nightmare with a nice smile who used his charming veneer to lure, rape, and kill his victims. By the time he crossed paths with Hayward he had murdered at least 25 women across four states. "I didn't want to shoot the guy," Hayward later recalled. "I wish I had." Instead he arrested Bundy after uncovering incriminating items in the Volkswagen.

Twice in 1977, Bundy eluded justice, once by leaping from a courthouse window and later by sawing a hole in the ceiling of his jail cell. He continued killing until he was apprehended for good in 1978. Prior to his execution in 1989 he admitted to raping and murdering 36 people, including a 12-year-old girl. Yet he somehow enjoyed a grotesque celebrity that persists to this day. Here we attempt to explore Ted Bundy's origins, possible motivations, and the jarring stardom he garnered.

When Ted Bundy became Hannibal Lecter

In 2019, columnist David von Drehle proclaimed that Ted Bundy was "no Hannibal Lecter," but rather a "savagely violent sex criminal" that tricked the public into perceiving him as a "suave up-and-comer." But Hannibal was a cannibal who, much like Bundy, hid his savagery behind a likable facade. In fact, the character is partly based on Bundy.

According to the New York Post, the books Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, wherein Hannibal helps detectives nab serial killers, were directly inspired by the interactions between Ted Bundy and Detective Robert Keppel. In 1984, Bundy reached out to Keppel from prison to offer assistance in catching the Green River Killer, a then-faceless predator (later identified as Gary Ridgway) who killed almost 50 prostitutes in Seattle. Bundy's theories about the killer were "eerily accurate," per the Seattle Times. He knew Ridgway would keep returning to where he buried his victims and recommended a clever way to catch him.

Keppel suspected that Bundy's guesses about the Green River killer were largely "a projection of himself." However, Bundy also saw himself in the Keppel because they were both "hunters of humans." His respect for the detective prompted him to open up about his own crimes.

What Bundy's necrophilia may say about his motives

Bundy was unsettling on many levels, and the way he behaved toward corpses made his crimes all the more disturbing. A rapist and self-confessed necrophile, he violated his victims before and sometimes days after killing them. When asked by psychologist Al Carlisle about his necrophilia, Bundy explained that he wanted to possess "the essence of the victim." Why his urge to "possess" people took such a ghastly form is anyone's guess, but neuroscientist Jack Pemment had a pretty intriguing idea.

Based on recordings featured in Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Pemment concluded that Bundy's acts were rooted in a "desire for ... intimacy." Specifically, he suggested the killer was trying to recreate the closeness he lost after a traumatic breakup with girlfriend Diane Edwards. Bundy placed their relationship on a pedestal, idealizing Edwards' looks and the time they spent together. He later felt that a corpse could "be anyone he [wanted] them to be."

Bundy enjoyed watching his victims decompose. In some instances, he apparently shampooed their hair and painted their fingernails. Sometimes he kept their severed heads until he no longer wanted to be near them. Perhaps in some twisted, sadistic way, he viewed his victims as romantic partners who couldn't leave him.

A childhood steeped in confusion and cruelty

Before his long-delayed trip to the electric chair, Ted Bundy insisted his depravity had nothing to do with how he was raised. He claimed he was brought up in "a wonderful home with two dedicated and loving parents" and painted a portrait of familial bliss devoid of the slightest vice. His relatives, however, told a drastically different story.

In this alternate picture, Bundy's upbringing was filled with deception, chaos, and cruelty. For years he was told his mother was his sister and that his grandparents were his parents, per ThoughtCo, to conceal that he was born out of wedlock. The man he called dad was vicious and unstable. As psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis described, Bundy's grandfather, Samuel Cowell, "would kick dogs, swing cats by their tails, [and] beat people who angered him." He also argued with hallucinations.

At age 3, Bundy would lay butcher knives beside his sleeping aunt. In a 2019 Netflix special, a childhood friend recalled that Bundy set "tiger traps," which were "[pits] with pointed stakes, disguised with vegetation." Bundy's psychiatrist posited that he was mentally ill (possibly bipolar) since infancy, which along with his horrific home life might help explain how he turned out.

From lonely peeping Tom to deadly predator

Growing up, Bundy struggled with loneliness. According to psychologist Al Carlisle, as a kid Bundy felt overshadowed by his step-siblings after his mother married Johnnie Bundy. Though he later claimed on tape he had plenty of friends to keep him company, one of his actual childhood friends said Bundy "had a horrible speech impediment, so he was teased a lot."

Often feeling insignificant, Bundy retreated into his own mind where he imagined being "someone important." He listened to the radio and imitated the accents of politicians he heard. In high school he was known to try to trick people. Perhaps tellingly, as a serial killer he would sometimes attempt to trick women by mimicking a "British or Canadian accent" and pretending to be injured.

As a teen, Bundy began peeping through women's windows. He didn't date in high school and when he finally fell for someone, she dumped him for being dishonest and nonassertive. Emotionally shattered, he coped by breaking the law. After a failed foray into politics and a failed stint at Temple University, he felt even lonelier and spiraled into violence. Obviously, loneliness didn't cause Bundy kill, but it seems related, especially when you consider that he claimed that killing women made them a part of him forever.

What you see is what gets you

In 1978, the New York Times described Ted Bundy as "an all-American boy on trial." A murder-weary nation watched incredulously as a smartly dressed "terrific-looking man" stood accused of barbarically killing young women for years. It was utterly flummoxing for a public used to thinking that murderers vere visibly different from the rest of society.

Bundy didn't just look good; he sometimes acted like a good guy. In the past he reportedly ran down and subdued a purse snatcher and saved drowning children. He even served as the assistant director of Seattle's Crime Prevention Advisory Commission and wrote a rape-prevention pamphlet. While living and killing in Utah he became an active member of the Mormon church and enrolled in law school.

At first, much of the public viewed Bundy as the victim of overzealous prosecutors, crooked cops, and a vengeful fiancee. He used that perception to his advantage and turned court proceedings into sideshows built around his supposed squeaky-cleanness. Acting as his own attorney, he questioned girlfriend Carole Boone on the stand. After getting her to say he wasn't creepy, he popped the question and they tied the knot in the middle of the hearing. (Boone later had a daughter by Bundy but divorced him after he confessed to his crimes.)

A destabilizing kind of love

Bundy's string of rapes and murders partly overlapped with a serious relationship in which he nearly married and tried to murder his girlfriend. That unlucky soul was Elizabeth Kloepfer, who dated Bundy for six years. When they became acquainted in 1969, Kloepfer was a lonely single mother consumed by alcoholism. She had moved from Utah to Washington after divorcing a man she discovered was a convicted felon. Ironically, she introduced herself to Bundy at a bar in order to dodge a different "creepy guy."

Perhaps as the lonely son of a troubled unwed mother, Bundy felt at home with Kloepfer. He later claimed he loved her in a "destabilizing" way. Each year, he celebrated the day they met by giving her a rose. He behaved like a father to her daughter. However, his warmth was interspersed with unpredictable coldness and fury. He even ripped up what would have been their marriage license because she worried about her old-fashioned parents seeing his belongings in her apartment. When evidence of Bundy's crimes mounted, an emotionally dependent Kloepfer remained in denial. However, she ultimately warned law enforcement. While behind bars Bundy told Kloepfer he fought the urge to murder her but once blocked a chimney in hopes of killing her through smoke inhalation.

The Ted Bundy effect

Ted Bundy is an exceedingly grim example of how deceiving appearances can be. But even if you wanted to judge him by his cover, that cover changed so often that it's unclear who the "authentic" Bundy was or if there was one at all. He constantly altered his hairstyle and "made himself look completely different," per journalist Stephen Michaud. He could be cleancut, hairy, rugged, or downright frightening.

His many transformations weren't just follicle-deep. "Bundy became whatever he thought he needed to be," according to forensic psychologist Dr. Katherine Ramsland. He could go from showing deep devotion to callous indifference. When he wanted to hide a crime he seemed to sincerely believe his lie. Those who've known him on different levels have likened Bundy to a Kennedy, a cave-dwelling animal, and an ideal boyfriend.

Maybe Bundy felt most comfortable being someone else. After all, his grandparents pretended to be his parents, his mother pretended to be his sister, and in childhood he fantasized about becoming other people, too. It's also possible that his transformations weren't always voluntary. Psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, who assessed the killer before his death, suggested that Bundy suffered from split personalities or bipolar disorder.

Cracks in the mask

No matter how good you are at hiding your true self, your performative mask will eventually crack. Marylynne Chino saw it happen with former friend Ted Bundy. She first saw the infamous killer at Seattle's Sandpiper Lounge in 1969. At the time he didn't seem evil, Chino told KUTV. Instead, "Ted was charismatic, he was nice."

Chino's best friend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, got into a serious long-term relationship with Bundy. Inevitably, indications of his dangerousness began to stand out. As Chino recalled, Kloepfer called her after discovering women's undergarments and the plaster of Paris, which Bundy ostensibly used to make casts to fake injuries and abduct women. He reportedly warned Kloepfer, "If you ever tell anyone this I'll break your effing head."

When women started vanishing and police released a sketch of the suspect, Chino and Kloepfer thought it was Bundy. Though they eventually alerted law enforcement, initially they backtracked when an officer they contacted misidentified the color of Bundy's car. That didn't mean they trusted Bundy, though. When he insisted on driving Chino home one night, she was petrified, calling it the longest 30-minute ride of her life. Decades later, she still questioned why he didn't kill her.

Bundy's pet mice

Days before he died, Ted Bundy divulged things to Detective Robert Keppel that no ear should ever hear. But occasionally his confessions went in a surprising direction. According to their recorded sessions, in 1974, Bundy did an about-face after luring a woman to his Volkswagen. "I got all the way to the car," he claimed, "and what happened, would happen sometimes, I just said I don't want to do it. I said `Thank you. See you later.' And she walked away." Was that remorse talking? Highly doubtful — even his acts of "mercy" had sinister underpinnings.

When Bundy was a boy he enjoyed buying mice from a pet shop. As his former defense attorney, John Browne, explained, "He'd go to the woods and build a little corral, and then he'd decide which ones to kill and which ones to let go." It was Bundy's way of playing God. That's also how he viewed his human victims. For him, choosing not to kill was just another way to control life and death, which may also explain why Bundy once worked for a suicide crisis hotline.

True crime and false innocence

In 1971, Ann Rule was a 40-something-year-old mother of four whose marriage was on the rocks. Previously a police officer, she was trying to get by as a crime reporter. Per the Washington Post, once a week she volunteered at a suicide crisis hotline, where she bonded with fellow hotline worker Ted Bundy.

According to the New Yorker, Bundy opened up to Rule about his grandmother pretending to be his mother and even discussed his love life. He likely wasn't a full-blown murderer back then but had probably attempted to abduct women. You might think someone with Rule's police training would've spotted the monster behind Bundy's smile from a mile away. But as she would later write in The Stranger Beside Me, "As far as his appeal to women, I can remember thinking that if I were younger and single or if my daughters were older, this would be almost the perfect man."

Rule would later be assigned to write about a series of murders that turned out to be Bundy's doing. When he was arrested, she held out hope for his innocence, but that hope faded when he broke out of jail and went on a killing spree. Even then she remained his friend and became his biographer.

Bundy and the war on smut

When someone behaves as horrifically as Bundy, it's natural to want to know why. Pinpointing a clear-cut cause would suggest there's a clear-cut remedy. In 1989, Bundy placed the bulk of the onus on pornography and alcohol. Speaking with evangelist and psychologist James Dobson, he said the sleazy imagery he saw at grocery stores served as a gateway to more violent material and ultimately violent behavior. In what sounded like Reefer Madness of smut, Bundy warned that adult entertainment "can reach out and snatch a kid out of any house today."

With that, Ted Bundy became the dire face of the anti-porn movement, and fundraising efforts abounded. However, there are reasons to be skeptical of Bundy's account. For starters, studies from multiple countries suggest that increased porn consumption corresponds with an overall drop in sex crimes. More importantly, according to criminologist Dr. William Wilbanks, it's "naive" to believe that Bundy knew the "'real reasons' for his behavior and that he would reveal those reasons to us if he knew them." It's worth noting that Bundy insisted he grew up in a wholesome, loving household, despite strong evidence to the contrary. What if he was simply trying to preserve the illusion of normality?

Zac Efron and the halo effect

For many people, Zac Efron is the kind of eye candy that can make you weak in the knees with a single, smoldering glance. So the thought of Hunky McHotness playing a manipulative rapist and murderer might be a tad disconcerting. But that's exactly what Efron did in the 2019 film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, wherein he portrays Ted Bundy. As described by the Washington Post, detractors of the film argued that it rightly highlights Bundy's "disturbing celebrity" but "doesn't do enough to confront it." Viewers reportedly felt "awkward" lusting after "Hot Ted Bundy." Some critics accused the movie of "romanticizing" the serial killer.

It makes sense to be concerned about glorifying a monster. But maybe the real problem is the underlying assumption that being good-looking makes you a good person. This isn't simply something we do with movies. It's part of a real-life phenomenon known as the halo effect, whereby people use a single trait to judge the totality of a person. The real-life Bundy benefited greatly from this bias. His defense attorney, Margaret Good, said female admirers wrote notes to Bundy during his murder trial. As one woman put it, "He just doesn't look like the type to kill somebody."