Ted Bundy was executed in Florida more than 30 years ago, and yet we are still talking about him. We are still reading books and watching films on the horrors he instilled in America in the 1970s. This week, a trial opened for a man who was obsessed with Bundy and abducted, raped and killed a Chinese student in Illinois in imitation of Bundy’s M.O.
This year Netflix showed two great shows on Ted Bundy, “Conversations with a killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes” based on Hayes Aynesworth’s book of the same name (and tapes, naturally); and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”, a movie featuring Zac Effron based on Elizabeth Kendall’s book “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy” (out of print since 1981 and currently sold in Amazon for $1,299). Spoiler, the title of the movie comes from Judge Cowart’s last words at Bundy’s trial for the Chi Omega massacre.
However, Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me is probably the most famous book ever written on Ted Bundy. Ann was a police officer and crime reporter who happened to be a close friend of Bundy. She happened to volunteer at a crisis/suicide hotline at the same time as Bundy, when he was still in school in Washington and stayed friends with him for years to come.
The book has two sides to it. On one hand, Rule walks us through Ted’s life as she came to know it through him and discusses him as a friend, the polite and charming persona that his friends and family knew and loved.
If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.
She tries to counter the horrific information in the case files and filtered to the media, with his humanity. On the other side, the book is a recounting of the murders and Bundy’s life from 1974 onwards. This information she came to know through her contacts with the police and all details provided come from the case files. However, her gift resides in bringing those details alive with her storytelling.
Victoria Beale, in “Too close to Ted Bundy” published by the New Yorker in October 10, 2015 sums up the conflict between both sides adeptly, when she explains that the author’s friendship with Bundy makes the moral aspect of the book questionable. Can she really be objective? I can tell you that she at least tries. However, at some point, it seems like she is trying to apologize to the reader for her proximity, paint a sympathetic picture of herself for benefiting (this book took her from rags to riches) from Ted Bundy’s massacres. And sometimes, self-pity wants to make you skip a few pages.
Before she wrote this book, she used to write sensationalist stories for a true-crime magazine. That shows in the book from time to time, when the description of the lives of the victims prior to their death seems over-dramatic, over-idealized.
Nevertheless, she does a really good job in putting the evidence into perspective. In trying to paint an objective picture of the legal cases against Bundy. Yes, the murders were horrific, but the evidence against Bundy was (in a world before DNA testing) mostly circumstantial. She walks the reader expertly through the evidence to show that Bundy’s convictions were more of a case of self-sabotage than the works of expert prosecutors. Even some of the evidence admitted at that time as ‘scientific’ is considered bogus today, like matching hair strands and forensic dentistry.
Finally, since the book was published in 1980, some of the murders attributed to Ted Bundy (but for which he was never charged), such as those of Katherine Devine and Brenda Baker, turned out to be the work of another serial killer. This was only recently discovered through DNA testing.
Notwithstanding its flaws, it is a very captivating read that will have you turning pages deep into the night. It cannot be put down.