Teri McMurtry-Chubb, Why So Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile?
Why So Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile?: A review of Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
One year at Halloween there were two sisters, one pre-pubescent and one a teenager, walking hand-in-hand out trick-or-treating. little sister was resplendent in a pink fairy princess costume, her bejeweled tiara catching the fading rays of a late October sun playing hide and seek with the moon. Her mood fit her costume. She engaged in frolicsome skipping on the street between houses that promised treats, pausing only to laugh with Big sister and give a respectful “thank you” to those who opened their doors to drop candy in her organza sack. After another benevolent resident bestowed candy and shut the door, she resumed skipping and was promptly tripped by the hem of her flowing gown. As she was getting to her feet, ego bruised but body whole, she felt Big sister’s tightening grip on her tiny pink painted fingers. Big sister stood rigid, fixed in the gaze of a man across the street. She pushed little sister behind her. The man was about 5’10, good-looking, fatherly even, with a nascent pudginess and a five o’clock shadow drifting towards six o’clock pm. When little sister was again standing and balanced, Big sister pulled her into a quick walk and then a run away from the man, away from a danger that little sister had not sensed. Big sister was deaf to little sister’s questions about why they happened to be running, why they needed to be afraid. They kept on running, until they heard a faint rough voice sharper than the autumn air mutter “Little Black bitches.” Big sister stopped a few doors away from our childhood home, put both hands on my face and told me “We are safe now. Pay no attention to that White man. You are a beautiful princess.” It was on that night of costumes and masks, fantasy and mystery that I learned my first lesson about how evil masquerades in innocuous forms. Looking back on that moment, I understand now that the public’s obsession with Ted Bundy is based on the mistaken belief that a good-looking White man is an innocuous form.
Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile reveals Bundy’s ordinary dangerousness through relationships in lieu of focusing on his victims and crimes. In the opening scenes we see the serial murderer behind the prison glass searching for connection with his longtime girlfriend Elizabeth “Liz” Kloepfer (Lily Collins). Cutaways introduce us to these characters through their first meeting. Bundy (Zac Efron) and Liz meet at Bundy’s hunting ground, a college bar among co-eds. Both begin their meeting with a lie. A divorcée and young mother, Liz has been dragged into the Seattle college bar scene by her best friend Joanna (Angela Sarafyan). She is reluctant to swallow her friend’s nighttime cure for loneliness – a fantasy where Liz is a childfree college student out for a drink with a bestie. Bundy’s delusion is that he is like every other college age male in the bar hoping for a hook-up. Instead he is a predator, watching for vulnerabilities, waiting for the right partner to complete the illusion of normalcy as she falls prey to the reality of kidnapping, assault, and murder. We are spectators to Liz and Ted’s banal encounter at the jukebox, watching the images of the bar scene in soft focus, two people chatting, laughing, dancing, and then leaving for an evening alone together. We are afraid for Liz. We know how this story ends. However, like a mouse that finds the end of its tail under the paw of a playful kitten, we want to believe that the game is just a game even as we hear the tap of a sharpened claw.
In the scene that follows, we find ourselves at Liz’s house, our mouse back on her turf but still in the game. As Ted and Liz continue their dance, now the awkward dance of will they or won’t they, the emergence of the baby-sitter from the front door and Liz’s revelation to Ted that she is mother to a small child suggests they won’t. Surprisingly, Liz invites Ted inside her house. He is unfazed by her motherhood and stays the night, in the same room with Liz and her sleeping child, Molly. Liz and Ted also sleep, that’s all. The next morning Liz awakes alone and in a panic when she sees that Ted is gone and Molly’s crib is empty. She finds the two in the kitchen. Ted is in an apron making breakfast and cheerfully offers Liz coffee. Molly sits well behaved in her high chair, Ted having plied her with Cheerios. From here, home movies draw us into Ted, Liz, and Molly’s circle. This is the image of family we have been taught to view as a fixture of American life. Ted and Liz are the aspirational couple–their kid cute, their skin White, their lives documented on Super8 film showcasing Christmases, birthdays, and first bike rides. We exhale in relief. Ted, 5’10, good looking, fatherly even, with a kind demeanor, politeness, and obvious care for Liz and Molly reinforces our belief that his appearance matches his character. We bear witness to the birth of a family, the default picture of an American family, and see its evolution along with Ted’s evolution as a serial killer.
Theodore Robert Bundy’s success as a predator of young women was in his knowledge of how to lure them. From his first on-screen encounter with Utah police, we see him shift into his “every man” persona. When stopped by police for running two stop signs in a residential area, he forces a smile, exits the car and puts his hands up, fleetingly, in the universal symbol of harmlessness, surrender, and compliance. His dialogue is casual. Bundy tells the officer “Hi officer. I think I must be lost . . . I couldn’t make your car. The headlights were in my eyes and to be honest I got a little bit spooked.” The officer asks to see his license. Bundy relinquishes it. The officer notes his Washington license and asks why he is in Granger, Utah so early in the morning. Bundy replies,
I live in Salt Lake. I’m a law student over at the University of Utah. My girlfriend lives in Seattle. I’m actually going to propose to her as soon as I graduate. I am trying to save for that ring, so if you could find it in your heart to let me off without a ticket, I would really appreciate it.”
In this interaction we see that Bundy is aware of his attributes that make him appear unassuming. A White man in a Volkswagen Beetle, a law student out late night/early morning speeding through the suburbs may raise questions but are themselves the answers to those questions. But for the officer’s search of the car, its displaced passenger seat on the backseat, and the ski mask, pantyhose, handcuffs, trash bags, and rope, Bundy would have been free to drive away with a warning or speeding ticket, his extreme wickedness carefully concealed. The officer would have been inclined to dismiss him as another harried law student, a distracted driver, out late after a hardcore study session. But for the bright light of the officer’s flashlight beam illuminating Bundy’s particular set of work tools, the officer may have thought that time, rather than his attempted kidnapping victim Carol DeRonch, had escaped Bundy as he rushed through the Utah suburbs.
It is these things, the seemingly out of place, the small distortions in an otherwise perfect image of an inconsequential man, that are explained away by Bundy’s presentation as the quintessential “regular guy.” His whiteness, handsomeness, and affable demeanor were how he lured his victims. Aware of women’s built in leeriness when approached by men, Bundy mitigated his maleness by pretending to be injured or in distress. Ted’s appearance, the whole package, made them feel safe enough to come in close. Once at arm’s length, Bundy smashed these women over the head with a crowbar or wrench, handcuffed them, raped and brutalized them, strangled them, and left their bodies for discovery.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile next reveals Bundy to us in his relationship with the press and the public. Newspaper accounts of missing and murdered women described the suspect/defendant Ted as a “charming killer,” a clean cut, good looking, articulate handsome, mild mannered law student who “seems like one of us.” News anchor Dan Rather called Bundy “an articulate, intelligent, 42-year old man, a former Boy Scout, law student, and Republican Party activist” in his report about Bundy’s scheduled execution. Apparently, this is “us.” The FBI’s “most wanted” poster for Ted Bundy cautions the public by leading with “Bundy, a college educated physical fitness enthusiast with a prior history of escape, is being sought as a prison escapee . . .” The poster was issued in 1978, at the end of what is believed to be Bundy’s active years as a serial killer. By this time, he had been convicted in 1976 for the kidnapping of Carol DeRonch in Utah and was on the run after escaping during his trial in Aspen, Colorado for the murder of Caryn Campbell.
Contrast Bundy’s poster with scholar and activist Angela Y. Davis’ FBI’s most wanted poster. The FBI cautioned the public about Davis by warning “Angela Davis is wanted on kidnapping and murder charges growing out of an abduction and shooting in Marin County, California on August 7, 1970. She allegedly has purchased several guns in the past. Consider possibly armed and dangerous.” At the time her poster was issued on August 18, 1970, Davis had no criminal record. In 1968 she had earned her Master’s Degree from the University of California, San Diego and subsequently worked at the University as an Assistant Professor. Unlike Davis, Bundy was able to operate as “every man” Ted due to the mistaken belief that some people, people in forms not perceived so innocuous, are more dangerous than others. Notions that well-groomed, articulate, middle-class, handsome White people are less dangerous and the least likely suspects of violent crimes are what allowed Bundy to hunt relatively unmolested for 4 years and kill over 30 young women during that time.
The penultimate revelation of Bundy the movie offers is through his relationship with the spectators at his various trials, and the judge and jury at his trial for the murders of Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy, and his assaults on Kathy Kleiner and Karen Chandler at Chi Omega Sorority house in Tallahassee, Florida. Bundy’s trial was the first televised murder trial in the United States. The definition of “spectacle,” the trial drew young, female groupies who in turns described Ted as “dreamy” and dangerous, though “not the type to kill somebody.” In the movie’s portrayal of the trial, the jury seems to be intrigued by Bundy’s magnetism but unable to reconcile it with the horrific nature of the crimes for which he is accused. They are amused at his courtroom antics and at times impressed by his legal knowledge, but ultimately not persuaded of his innocence.
The judge in Bundy’s capital murder case in Florida, Edward D. Cowart (John Malkovich), reflects the extent of Bundy’s hubris and the farce of his innocence back at him. Cowart was neither to be trifled with nor fooled. When Bundy complained about the inadequacy of his appointed counsel, Judge Cowart replied incredulously, “You have more counsel than a duck has quacks. I’ve never seen anything like it.” When the gallery cheered after Bundy’s cross-examination of the State’s orthodontic expert, Dr. Richard Souviron, Judge Cowart issued the stern retort, “I feel duty bound to remind you in the gallery that you are not on Spring Break. You are not waiting for the Flipper and Friends show at Sea World. It is a capital murder case.” It is Cowart’s last remarks at Bundy’s sentencing that expose the shocking evil within Ted’s innocuous form. Playing the part of the kindly, country judge, fatherly even, Judge Cowart tells Bundy,
Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely. Take care of yourself. You’re a bright young man. You’d a made a good lawyer. I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went a different way partner. It has been a tragedy for this court to see the total waste of humanity that we have experienced here. I don’t have any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Take care of yourself.
With that, Bundy was sent away to await his execution.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile offers one last revelation of Theodore Robert Bundy, which is through his relationships with Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario). Bundy’s friendship, courtship, and marriage to Boone lay bare the manipulative, sly, cunning Bundy that emerges on the screen. The audience meets Carol Anne as Liz does during Ted’s trial in Utah for the kidnapping of Carol DeRonch. While Ted dismisses their run-in with Carole Ann as a chance encounter, Liz is suspicious and cuts short the reunion of “old friends.” Carole Ann shows up in Colorado and then in Florida to offer Ted support and encouragement during trial. By the time the Florida trial begins, Liz is attempting to put together the pieces of her life and heal her wounds from the emotional shrapnel of bomb Bundy. Carole Ann, portrayed as a calculating and lovesick opportunist, uses Liz’s absence to be most present. She relocates to Florida, where she attempts to gain significance in Ted’s life by becoming his sole source of support and encouragement.
Ted also sees an opportunity in Carole Ann, but not as a replacement for Liz. As he has been placed under a gag order for the Florida trial and unable to communicate with the press, he speaks through Carole Ann to shape his public narrative. Carole Ann’s time in front of the camera is Ted’s time in front of the camera. With Ted’s words, Carole Ann boldly declares from Florida to the world, “Well, it’s obvious that the media has already convicted Ted before he’s had his day in court, and to broadcast it on a national stage is the first step in undercutting the judicial system, because it makes it about getting ratings, not about getting the truth.” Carole Ann is a tragic figure. She is symbolic of the joke Ted pulled on us all, how the public became enamored by his charm and charisma, how law enforcement passed him off as the acceptable and barely noticeable “one of us.” In his relationship with Carole Ann, Ted shows us who he really is. He is willing to use Carole Ann’s love and friendship against her to his own ends, even as he shows Carole Ann that any love and loyalty he possesses belongs to Liz. This duality is Bundy. Ted used his innocuous form to accomplish vile ends, all the while daring us to believe the lie of who he pretended to be.
Extremely Evil, Shockingly Wicked, and Vile relies on the audience’s knowledge of Bundy to fill in the blanks. Our understanding of Ted through news reports and popular culture enhances the horror that we feel as we see him move through his life with Liz. We see how loving Bundy drives Liz to euphoria, addiction, and finally to complete devastation. We also learn that Liz’s pain is about her own perceived betrayal of Ted. She is the one who alerted Seattle law enforcement that he resembled the composite picture of the suspect in the Washington and Oregon murders, which put him on the Utah law enforcement radar. She is the one who betrayed herself. Ted, 5’10, good looking, fatherly even – Liz suspected his Janus face, but would not let herself live in that truth.
The last scenes of the movie, previewed in its first scene, reveal the truth of Liz and Ted – both are in prison. Ted is days from execution. Liz asks, “Do you remember the night we met? We started with lies, Ted.” As Liz sits on the other side of the glass from Ted, each dressed in shades of prison orange, each of them struggling with their illusion of the other, Liz implores Ted to tell her truth. He insists on the lie; he cannot say the words. Liz cries out for Ted to release her from their shared delusion of a relationship. She presses to the glass the picture given to her by law enforcement of a dismembered corpse, and says to Bundy, “It took me over a decade to look at this photo. What happened to her head? . . . You need to release me Ted. What happened to her head?” Finally he writes in the glass fogged by his breath “HACK SAW.” Liz and Ted are done. And so are we. Like Liz, Bundy’s audience was complicit. We knew, we betrayed ourselves, we stayed for a while, and left when the death of the innocuous, good-looking White male form was impossible to ignore. Our continued acceptance of ordinary dangerousness when it comes beautifully wrapped in our biases is what is truly extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile–with utter disregard for the value of human life.
Teri McMurtry-Chubb is Professor of Law, Mercer University School of Law.
 Ted Bundy Wanted Poster, FBI, February 10, 1978 (available at https://www.fbi.gov/image-repository/bundy-wanted-poster.jpeg/view).
 National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, International Image Interoperability Framework (available at https://ids.si.edu/ids/dynamic?id=NMAAHC-2012_60_8_001&max=&iframe=true&width=85%25&height=85%25&container.padding=0&container.fullpage=1)
 Mark D. Goodman, The History Makers, Angela Davis (available at https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/angela-davis-40)