On Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, and the dilemma of serial-killer movies

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy is the latest in the serial killer movie trend.

Despite breaking into the cultural mainstream over a decade ago in his career-defining role as teen heartthrob Troy Bolton in High School Musical, Zac Efron has all but strayed far from his hoop-shooting, hallway-singing roots in the years since. In his latest project to date, Efron tackled on a considerably distinct, if not deviant, role — that of Ted Bundy.

And if you might be familiar with the name, Ted Bundy is the controversial 1980’s serial killer, rapist, and kidnapper — who to this day remains one of the most notorious in the serial-killer canon, that numerous examinations and analyses have spawned in the wake of his trial and execution. His latest cause for worldwide controversy and fascination is the recent release of Netflix’s documentary, Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes, which promises an “unprecedented look” into the killer’s mind, as well as a Hollywood-ized account of his story in biopic form in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron as the man himself, and Lily Collins as his then-girlfriend Liz Kloepfer.

Zac Efron and Lily Collins play a troubled couple in ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’. Photo by Brian Douglas.

The film has since premiered at the Sundance film festival, and has garnered the first of critics’ reviews, but controversy has surrounded the very film ever since its first trailer drop — in regard, particularly, to the alleged ‘charming’ portrayal of the notorious serial killer by Zac Efron — a widely-regarded Hollywood heartthrob.

And indeed, in the trailer, Efron all but winks and smirks his way through the role, suave charisma practically dripping through the camera, charming everyone from Lily Collins’ Liz Kloepfer to various female interviewees, who all share the same question: did Bundy — sweet, charming, handsome Bundy — ever really perform such cruel, malicious acts? The trailer asks the audience the very same question, leaving many justifiably concerned on the film’s possibility of romanticizing a widely known and condemned serial killer.

However, Efron is but the latest in the upward surge of serial-killer fiction in recent pop culture. Less than two years ago, similarly infamous serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer was fictionalized in My Friend Dahmer, starring Disney Channel star Ross Lynch in the titular role, and even more recently came Netflix’s crime thriller You, which starred Penn Badgely as stalker-turned-murderer Joe Goldberg — and although Goldberg stands as the lone purely fictional character, it would be unsound to deny that many of his traits are collected from the very real serial killers of years past.

Disney star Ross Lynch also starred as real-life serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. 
 Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

And indeed, if anything, there is one thing that links all three, in their serial-murdering tendencies: all were essentially unsuspicious, conventionally attractive and handsome men whose inherent magnetism and appeal masked their deep, dark, dark secrets. It is this very enigma, this very juxtaposition, that has so captured the collective imagination of the world, and spurred filmmakers to create such movies that, perhaps more than anything, aim to explore if not understand the very psyche of the serial killer deviance.

And yet what remains at the very core of such movies, is, undeniably, their very subject matter, which in this case is that of serial killers — people who have literally  murdered and mutilated, abused and injured handfuls upon handfuls of people — and which remain an immensely delicate and difficult subject to touch on. There is the inadmissible long-lasting trauma felt by friends and family of his victims, for whom Ted Bundy’s legacy will forever remain in negative light, as well as the the easily-influenced teenage girl fanbase who have yet to distinguish toxic behavior in men. All this is much enhanced by the fact that Efron himself maintains a large portion of that fanbase in particular — teenage girls (and boys) who grew up knowing him as a teeny-boppy heartthrob, and still remain susceptible to viewing Bundy through romantic, rose-colored lenses.

Penn Badgely also portrayed fictional Joe Goldberg, a stalker-turned-murderer in ‘You’. Image from Netflix.

And yet on the other hand, there remains the vast untapped potential for creative and intellectual pursuit in the study of deviant psychologies, such as that of alluring, captivating, criminals. Fictionalized or not, the fact remains that the handsome-serial-killer enigma makes for an incredibly compelling, complex, and interesting character, and one that draws many audiences, as its many past iterations have proven. It is this particular dilemma that continues to divide audiences — and its very creators too. Zac Efron himself, in an interview with Variety, expressed his initial hesitation in participating, and reiterated that the film was not meant as “a celebration or glorification” of Ted Bundy, but rather a psychological study of the enigma behind the man.

But perhaps, in the end, it is this very discourse itself that remains the most significant output of such profoundly divisive films: that we are forced to reconsider and confront mistakes done in the past, to remind those of us in the present. Because in the end, the film tells us what we  have already long known: that Ted Bundy is a murderous, brutal criminal — a serial killer in every aspect of the term — but an incredibly charming, charismatic, handsome one at that. This was our mistake in the past — that instead of enumerating the man’s many transgressions, we focused instead on Bundy’s killer (pun intended) smile, his Hollywood-worthy looks. What the film trusts is that we now are a smarter audience, that we see right through Bundy’s lure and charm. And if we aren’t, it perhaps more than anything serves as a much-needed, long overdue wake-up call.

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