Premiering in January 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival, Joe Berlinger’s docudrama ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ was his second work on the serial killer Theodore (Ted) Robert Bundy. Bundy sexually assaulted and murdered young women between 1974 and 1978, and confessed to 28 murders (even though there are estimations of many more).
He was eventually sentenced to death in 1979 and was executed ten years later by electric chair. (Jenkins, 2019) He has been one of the most infamous serial killers in America (Schmid, 2005) and ‘…there is no doubt that Bundy remains the exemplary American serial killer,’ (Schmid, 2005, p. 211) . The story of Bundy’s crimes has been made into several movies and documentaries several times, such as Berlinger’s other 2019 work, ‘Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,’ which is a four-episode documentary series on Bundy’s crimes.
A Life with Ted Bundy
Berlinger’s movie and documentary series are both published on Netflix, and by now one might think that the genre of these works seems to be the only thing that makes them different. However, that is not the case. Where Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes consists of actual footage of Bundy’s conviction, interviews, and so on, the docudrama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a fictional movie based on the factual material.
This material is not completely the same as in the docuseries, as the docudrama is based on the biography of Bundy’s former girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Liz) as told in her book ‘The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.’ (1981) Thus, Bundy is not the only main character in the stories about his crimes, there is also Kloepfer, and we now meet Bundy through her eyes.
This paper explores Berlinger’s ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ (2019) with a focus on characterization. The research question in this case study is: what choices are made in the characterization of Ted and Liz? Firstly, there will be a short look into the genre and narrative to which the movie belongs, then, the exploration into the characters will be discussed and finally, a conclusion will be made.
Defining genre and narrative
As mentioned in the introduction, Berlinger’s latest work on Bundy is a fictionalized movie, based on factual, biographical material. One could place this movie within the genre of docudramas, which is described by Springer & Rhodes as:
‘The docudrama represents an attempt to present factual material through the organizing aesthetics of fiction and narrative, and inevitably it utilizes certain forms of narrative patterning and visual composition that facilitate audience identification with the “characters”— even when these characters are well-known historical figures. Docudramas thus move away from the presumed objectivity of documentary and closer towards the techniques of narrative fiction.’ (2006, p. 6)
Bundy is played by actor Zac Efron and Kloepfer is played by Lily Collins, both looking very much like the actual Ted and Elizabeth, showing an example of how a docudrama is about re-creating actual people and events. (Lipkin, 2011) However, we can also place the movie within the genre of a biopic as it tells Kloepfer's story from her biographical book about her life with Ted Bundy. From this, it also shows that the movie follows a relational narrative, as the narrative is told from the perspective of the relationship between Bundy and Kloepfer. (Poletti 2012)This makes for a special twist on Bundy's story, as his crimes are usually in the spotlight.
Bundy was, until the very end, seen as extremely attractive by many women, with some of them showing up to his trials to support him.
Within the movie, no violence is shown except for one scene at the end. The only other moments when we are confronted with Bundy’s crimes is through courtroom scenes or when we see him approaching new victims, e.g. at a party. This is very fitting to the perspective that Berlinger has chosen to take on Bundy’s story, as in the movie, Kloepfer herself also never actually witnesses his crimes. She is only made aware of them through police statements and the television airing of his trial. Thus, Bundy's story is experienced through a relational narrative, making it so the audience never really sees any of his crimes, just as Kloepfer herself never did. Besides this, the movie can be seen as a docudrama as it re-enacts Kloepfer's biography on her life with Bundy.
The characterization of Liz and Ted
Characters are of extreme importance to the success of movies, documentaries, and series. It is through these characters that we, as an audience, understand and experience media and are guided through the narrative – characters are fundamental to any media work. (Batty, 2014) Besides this, the connection between the audience and the characters also develops and makes for the notion of ‘narrative pleasure’, as described by Batty:
‘We take pleasure in the narrative because we understand what it is trying to achieve; and, because we need someone or something to guide us through the narrative—a central identification figure—we psychologically connect to the character as a way of rendering meaning possible.’ (2014, p. 39)
He adds to this that understanding the structure of the narrative is also dependent on characters, as a character is the structure of the narrative. (Batty, 2014, p. 39) Within Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, we can also find this in the characters of Liz (Elizabeth Kloepfer) and Ted (Bundy). Within his chapter, Batty (2014), talks about several aspects of character development within reality television that are also present in this movie in Liz and Ted.
First, there is the aspect of (emotional) transformation which can most clearly be seen in Liz. As the crimes surrounding her boyfriend Ted accumulate and he is arrested, she is at first in denial. This is then also supported by Ted himself, as he keeps convincing her that he is being framed and has nothing to do with the accusations. However, Liz has an emotional transformation over time as she comes to realize that everything does match up with her boyfriend.
She transforms from lying around and waiting for any news or a call from Ted, to moving on and even becoming close with one of her male co-workers. There is even a second transformation, as at the end she decides to visit Ted in jail – she had been avoiding him for many years. She decides to visit him in order to ‘free’ herself from the guilt she has always felt for giving his name to the police at the very beginning of the investigation. Whether she is freed from this guilt is not clear, but it does show a second transformation within her character.
Ted does not show any particular transformation, as he remains acting the same way throughout the entire movie: convincing people of his innocence, escaping, and murdering again. However, this is also a choice worthy of being noted, as this shows a clear choice has been made by the director. One could perhaps see Bundy's last conversation with Liz as a slight transformation, as he ‘confesses’ to the killing of one girl to her by writing ‘HACKSAW’ on the glass.
A second character development that Batty (2014) mentions, is that of conflicting characters. In his chapter, this is related to the entertainment that conflicts can give in reality television, but in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the power of this character development is also visible. Liz and Ted start off as characters that are very fond of each other, spending much time together and expressing their affection, however, this quickly changes when the investigation into Ted starts. As mentioned before, Liz at first feels very conflicted and believes Ted, but this changes over time.
From then on, the conflict starts. It is not a loud, very present conflict, as there are not many words shared between Liz and Ted and there is no real fighting between them. Still, a conflict is present as we witness how Liz decides to not answer Ted’s calls anymore, making him feel rather annoyed. This happens more often when Liz’s co-worker starts to play a role in her life and decides to, for example, tell Ted on the phone that he should not contact her anymore. One could see this as a rather one-sided conflict, as Ted is frustrated with Liz's avoidance, but the Liz's internal struggle is also clearly visible. Hence, the aspect of character development regarding conflicting characters is very present, but in a more calm, silent form.
Third, the role of Liz as a ‘cultural intermediary’ (Batty, 2014, p. 51) can be seen, as through her, we understand what it is like to be in a relationship with the main suspect of several murder cases. It is through characters, such as Liz, that we are able to make sense of the world we live in. (Batty, 2014, p. 51) Liz can be seen as what Batty calls a ‘celebrity expert’ (2014, p. 51). Even though she is not considered a celebrity, we can definitely see her as an expert on the issue of being in love with a serial killer.
A serial killer and celebrity
As the movie is based on Liz's book, this paper has explored the character of Liz more than that of Ted. However we cannot deny the importance of his character as well. When talking about Ted Bundy, in real life, it quickly becomes apparent that he is not just a serial killer: he is also a character as he ‘…bears all the traits of a fictional protagonist to draw in…audience:…a unique persona, a strong voice, and alarming actions.’ (Batty, 2014, p. 36) Ted Bundy, in real life, was very aware of his celebrity status and knew that the American public was fascinated by him. (Schmid, 2005) This made for a very strong contradiction:
‘Bundy presents the puzzling relationship between normality and abnormality in serial killers in a particularly concentrated form because of the apparent extreme contrast between his successful, ambitious, handsome, white, straight, Republican, male, middle-class exterior, and the “monster within.” (Schmid, 2005, p. 212)
Within the movie, Berlinger chose to work with this contradiction, with a larger focus on the normality that Bundy radiated. One could question this choice, as Bundy was still a brutal murderer: should we then not display this? This was a problem for many others, such as true-crime writers, that worked with Bundy’s case as it was very difficult to ‘…reconcile Bundy’s all-American appearance with the fact that he was accused of the brutal murder of dozens of young women.’ (Schmid, 2005, p. 212)
the character of Ted is shown to be very true to the facts, as even though he is convicted in several brutal murder cases , he still played his role as the charming, caring, neat, ‘all-American’ man.
Bundy was, until the very end, seen as extremely attractive by many women, with some of them showing up to his trials to support him. These women were called ‘Ted groupies’ and even gave him financial support and promises of never-ending love. (Schmid, 2005, p. 212) This part of Bundy was fundamental to his entire case, and Bundy’s character Berlinger's movie shows exactly that.
The audience is introduced to Ted as a charming, confident man who is admired by many women, but still going for one woman in particular: Liz. He becomes a family man, while also being a law student. As the accusations against him build, women are still very much attracted to him. Everywhere he goes women stare and Ted feels as confident as ever.Courtroom scenes in the film depict Ted's groupies coming to support him.
Even though one might criticise this choice in Ted's characterizationas romanticization of a serial killer, the harsh reality remains that Bundy was found to be a charming, attractive man, the ‘all-American’ man that everyone knows a few of. Besides this, Berlinger also stays true to telling the story from Kloepfer’s perspective, in which there were not many confrontations with Bundy’s killer side. After all, the two were madly in love.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile shows us two main characters, Ted and Liz, from Liz's perspective. Berlinger shows clear choices in their characterization while staying true to the facts. Liz (Elizabeth Kloepfer) is portrayed as a transformative character, undergoing several emotional transformations in her journey towards healing from the truth behind Ted, and healing from the loss of a loved person in her life. Ted, however, is not really going through any transformation, which is still a clear choice for his character.
Throughout the entire story in real-life, he also always stayed in his ‘character’ and beliefs. Liz can also be seen as a cultural intermediary as she gives the audience an opportunity to understand what life is like in her position. Besides this, they also show the characterization in the form of conflict as the constant struggle, which still is quite a calm and quiet one, is visible throughout the movie.
Lastly, the character of Ted is shown to be very true to the facts, as even though he is convicted in several brutal murder cases , he still played his role as the charming, caring, neat, ‘all-American’ man. This is, of course, also what made it possible for him to come so close to his victims, and what also made many women support him throughout his trials. While some can perhaps experience this characterization of Bundy as a romanticized one, this actually points us to the harsh reality behind his crimes and above all, why he got away with them for so long.
Even though the movie shows Ted Bundy’s story from another perspective, his character still takes up a big part of the spotlight. While exploring the characterization of his character in Berlinger’s movie, it shows that most is spot-on the same. However, the underlying story beneath his charming persona remains the same: he’s extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile.
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