Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer Renders the Women Three-Dimensional

Illustration for article titled iTed Bundy: Falling for a Killer/i Renders the Women Three-Dimensional
Screenshot: Amazon

In the black-and-white photograph of Georgann Hawkins, she beams at the camera, a big, posed smile, and a flower tucked into her long hair. Her puffed floral sleeves barely fit into the photograph’s cropped frame. She is young and looks happy. The photograph of Hawkins should be unremarkable, the kind of photograph that’s tucked away in nearly every photo album in the country. The kind of photograph that’s kept to remember a moment or a look. But this photograph of Hawkins isn’t a personal keepsake; instead, it was unwillingly transformed, made part of an aging and grim archive of smiling girls and women who were murdered by Ted Bundy.

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This photograph of Hawkins has been used in nearly every documentary about Bundy (it’s even used in her IMDb page). And like the scores of other women who smile in photographs, Hawkins is forever fixed in time, forever a teenager, no older than 18 years old, the age she was when she disappeared in 1974. Though the photograph of Hawkins is familiar—I’ve seen it in documentary after documentary—Hawkins is not. She is usually just this photograph or a number; an illustration of Bundy’s crimes, an obligatory and quick fact before the narrative refocuses on Bundy. But in director Trish Wood’s new documentary, Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, Hawkins is more than a flat photograph, rendered here as more than a victim or a number. Instead, she’s rendered as a three-dimensional person and remembered by a friend who, more than four decades after her death, still tears up when talking about her.

That’s true of all the women in Falling for a Killer, a five-episode documentary streaming on Amazon. Unlike Netflix’s disastrously cruel 2019 Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Falling for a Killer moves the traditional true-crime narrative away from a kind of morbid fascination with the killer and a detailed investment in his gruesome work and refocuses it on the women whose lives he affected. For Wood, this includes everyone from Bundy’s victims to their friends and family to women who survived his attacks. There are also the two women police officers who worked the Bundy case, journalists, writers, lawyers, and Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall and her daughter Molly. The result is a story about violence, fear, and deep-rooted misogyny that refuses to give into the myths that have accumulated around Bundy, including those of his charm and intellect. As writer Ginger Strand says in the first episode, the Bundy myth “discount[s] of the stories of the women in favor of the central hero.”

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“This story has been told many times by men, now is the time to talk about our own story [...],” Elizabeth Kendall says to the camera. It’s almost ironic then that Falling for a Killer came about because of men telling Kendall’s story. According to the reissue of Kendall’s 1981 memoir The Phantom Prince, with a new introduction by both Elizabeth and daughter Molly, she was “stunned” to find out that director Joe Berlinger was making Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile about Kendall and Bundy’s six-year relationship. Kendall notes that she was surprised and didn’t know anything about the project since Berlinger never spoke to her or, apparently, optioned The Phantom Prince. Eventually, Berlinger and Kendall struck a deal and had a “good” collaboration on the film.

But the experience made both Elizabeth and Molly realize that their silence was only serving the Bundy mythos. Falling for a Killer is, in some ways, Molly and Elizabeth reclaiming their story. What becomes clear throughout is that Elizabeth and Molly (Molly was a child during her mother’s relationship with Bundy) are Bundy’s victims too; their story is a salient reminder that the story doesn’t begin with Bundy’s first murder and end with his execution in 1989. It’s still happening, and it’s happening to real women, not simply black-and-white photographs. If it seems like history, it’s because the standard true-crime narrative has little place for the voices of victims since it needs them to be static objects; it often has even less interest in stories that don’t contribute to the romanticized idea of the serial killer.

Perhaps that’s why Karen Sparks Epley, Bundy’s first confirmed victim who survived a brutal attack that left her with permanent brain damage, never spoke publicly before Falling for a Killer. “Women who are survivors keep their secrets to themselves,” Sparks Epley says. “We’re taught to just get on with it.” This kind of silent resilence runs throughout the documentary. It strikes an extremely different tone than previous Bundy docs which often drip with the self-congratulations of men and insist on Bundy’s glamour. Here, Bundy is a petty criminal whose behavior toward Molly and Elizabeth borders on abusive (Molly recounts behavior that was sexually abusive, as well). Instead of women being constantly charmed by Bundy, they are brutally beaten and disappear. Here, his charm amounts to numerous women who remember him but refused to help him when he played handicapped or injured. Here, women aren’t lured by him but rather, as one witness says, “no longer with us.... [because they were] a nice person.”

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Wood makes clear throughout the five episodes that much of Bundy’s success was facilitated by structural misogyny: women are cultured, and especially were in the mid-1970s, to be nice to men and the police often simply don’t believe them. Joanna Testa, a roommate of victim Lynda Healy, remembers that police ignored her even though she was “very insistent something was wrong.” And it’s striking that Elizabeth called the police at least twice to report Bundy, believing that after Janice Ott and Denise Naslundthe were murdered at Lake Sammamish, her boyfriend was who the police were looking for. Both of the male detectives she speaks to dismiss her concerns. Frustrated, Elizabeth recalls asking her own father for help because she believed that the police would take a man more seriously. Her father refuses and warns her that she could ruin Bundy’s reputation. Finally, Elizabeth hears about a “woman detective” who has been asking questions about Bundy and she calls the police station and asks for the “woman detective.” Kathleen McChesney, the only woman on the local police force, takes Elizabeth’s call, believes her, and develops a working relationship with her. McChesney recalls the “culture of disbelief.”

At times, Wood’s examination of how exactly misogyny worked to protect Bundy can feel a bit stretched. She suggests that Bundy was angrily reacting to the women’s liberation movement and weaves in interviews with second-generation activists, including a women’s self-defense teacher. A string of University of Washington students recall the excitement of women’s lib in the early 1970s, including Billy Jean King’s Battle of the Sexes and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There’s even a suggestion that Bundy set back the women’s movement because women suddenly felt too scared to leave their homes. It’s a deeply limited understanding of the women’s liberation movement that sees it only as white, young, and middle class, like many of Bundy’s victims. It feels unnecessary and distracts from the otherwise compelling stories.

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But Falling for a Killer still remains a necessary intervention, charting how to tell a victim-centered story and resist the myths that surround the popular notion of the “serial killer,” myths that have been repeated so often that they become powerful and seem true, particularly in the case of Bundy. Many of those myths are deconstructed here as Wood interrogates their origin in the media and even in the justice system. It’s hard to watch contemporary footage of a news anchor who describes Bundy’s arrest as “terrifying” for him. It’s harder to watch the judge who presided over Bundy’s Florida trial, at which he was convicted for the murders of Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman, express empathy and apologize to Bundy. Such sympathy can only be mustered up when the women who lined up to testify against Bundy are dismissed and his victims are willfully dehumanized or forgotten in favor of a hero-centered narrative.

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DISCUSSION

breakerbaker
BreakerBaker

I have Prime and didn’t even realize this was a thing. I feel like if this were on Netflix, I would be bombarded by prompts to watch it, but this is the first I’ve seen of it.

Maybe I’m too cynical, but watching the trailer, it still feels pretty exploitative and opportunistic—like a superficially empowering repackaging of the myth more than a challenging of the myth. But that’s just the trailer, obviously.