The underlying promise of St. Valentine’s Day, despite today’s commerce of roses, balloons, and chocolates, is a bloody, unconditional love. We buy presents to show our lover that we’re worthy of their devotion—stupid comments, bad habits, imperfect bodies, cheating, and all—and to show that we will love them no matter what. It’s a tall order; about 45 percent of marriages end in divorce. But still we strive. And still the echo of unconditional devotion in the face of death resonates in the words we use to proclaim our love: “Until death do us part.”
Valentine’s Day’s namesake was a priest brutally martyred by the Roman emperor Claudius II for marrying Christian couples. Before he was stoned and beheaded by the emperor’s henchmen, Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. His last act before being killed on February 14, according to legend, was curing the young woman’s blindness. More than two hundred years later, in 496, Pope Gelasius I declared February 14 St. Valentine’s feast day. It was Valentine’s defiance of Rome—his unconditional love for Christ and the Church—that caused his martyrdom and secured his long, romantic afterlife.
It’s no coincidence that Valentine’s Day falls just before Lent, the forty days during which believers fast to simulate Christ’s forty days in the desert being tempted by the Devil. Gelasius I, it is said, was usurping the devotion of a pagan late-winter, pre-spring celebration of death and rebirth. But Catholics, who hang the bloody effigy of Christ on the cross above their altars to remember Christ’s “passion,” mark St. Valentine’s feast day as part of a tradition of unconditional love and self-sacrifice for our tainted souls.
Twitter has recently offered us an updated mode of expressing unconditional love, or at least attraction, still bloody and passionate. Writer Helena Fitzgerald, during the Golden Globes, tweeted: “excuse me while I lie down in the street and wait for Sandra Oh to run me over with a car.” A die-hard Taylor Swift fan wrote, “wish she’d run me over with a tank and throw what’s left in a wood chipper.” The Cut’s Gabriella Paiella picked up on these updated vows, explaining that “although ‘run me over’ may have originated within fandom communities, it’s become common internet parlance in the last couple of years.” Paiella quotes another Twitter user, Delaney Graves: “what we’re saying when we say we’d like our favorite celebrity to run us over is that we love and admire them so much that they could do something terrible and we’d still love them—which of course isn’t literally true.” Thank God.
Everywhere sacrificial sentiment is of the moment. The world is melting down, a sexual predator is in the White House and another newly appointed to the Supreme Court, #MeToo is exposing the long-ignored and disgusting behavior of men everywhere; it’s no wonder that our expressions of devotion are taking a turn for the suicidal, bloody, unconditional. Enter the resurrection of Ted Bundy.
Search “Ted Bundy hot” for a creepy, sticky, click-y sampling of this moment’s mass infatuation and its backlash.
By most accounts, Bundy was a decent boyfriend. Liz Kloepler, who met Bundy in a Seattle bar in February 1969, thought he was sad and handsome. She became Bundy’s live-in girlfriend during his salad days in the early 1970s, before the serial killer shifted his extracurricular activities to Utah. “I handed Ted my life and said, ‘Here. Take care of me.’ He did in a lot of ways,” Kloepler wrote in a pseudonymous tell-all book published in the 1980s, when Bundy’s murderous talents were at last a matter for the courts. Carol Ann Boone, who married Bundy during her testimony as a character witness in his second trial in Florida, described her lover as a “warm, kind, and patient man.” Be mine, said the man accused of murder, necrophilia, dismemberment. And she was.
Bundy met his first girlfriend, Diane Edwards—the physical template Bundy used to select his subsequent victims, investigators surmise—when they both worked for a suicide hotline. Edwards broke up with Bundy not because she suspected his murderous tendencies but because she thought he might not be a stable and accomplished-enough partner. A few years later, when he was on the up and up, Edwards thought enough of him to get back together; they were rumored to have been engaged.
Love and death are eternal bedfellows; the art, music, history, and psychology of mankind are testament to our inability to have one without the other. Yet, thanks to the blunt force of not one but two new feature-length films from Netflix, the strange love of America’s most prolific serial killer is spattering blood-red hearts with additional meaning this Valentine’s Day. The films attempt to get inside the head of the charismatic man who ultimately confessed to raping and murdering (and, in some cases, again raping) perhaps a hundred more women than investigators could pin on him; women who presumably found Bundy’s visage nice, his behavior normal, earnest, kindly, attentive. It’s the women who I find the most compelling, who offer us a clear-eyed example of love’s murderous affiliations.
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is a documentary that combines news footage, courtroom footage, and present-day interviews to revel in the charisma and skill Bundy used to cunningly charm women. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, its title taken from the sentencing statement of a beguiled judge who went on to admire Bundy’s courtroom talents, features High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron. Conversations with a Killer was released in January, and Extremely Wicked premiered at Sundance, though it will hit theaters and Netflix later this year (I have not yet seen it). While the Netflix films, both directed by Joe Berlinger, a man who makes a lot of movies about men, are vehicles for Bundy rather than his lovers or victims, the best commenters in the wake of Berlinger’s films are held hostage by the effort to unravel just why in hell so many women were vulnerable to Bundy’s charms.
The lady killer—“I enjoy women,” Bundy told interviewers—packed courtrooms full of swooning, mesmerized young women during each of his two trials in the 1980s. Some even dressed up like his victims. Even now, thirty-five years after Bundy was electrocuted in a Florida prison (as a rowdy crowd of mostly men drank and chanted “Burn, Bundy, Burn” outside) Bundy’s attractions are having an afterlife. Netflix was compelled in a tweet to dampen the new films’ fangirls: “I’ve seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service—almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers.” Search “Ted Bundy hot” for a creepy, sticky, click-y sampling of the current mass infatuation and its backlash.
Amidst the hot-or-not bustle, some have found the Bundy story an opportunity to think about the nature of evil—a trait perhaps contained within all of us. The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig writes, “One of the implications in the notion that evil is commonplace is that we all share some capacity for it. Most of us will never do anything particularly evil, but perhaps we’ll always be more capable of it than we imagine.” The Bundy story, she says, “teaches” us how very human evil is, warning that when we forget this lesson (because we too often fail to be self-reflective) we forget that “evil is common—and that common things can be horrifying, that there really are monsters, so to speak, under plenty of beds.” At The Believer (and cited by Bruenig), Sarah Marshall suspects that she, too, may be the evil under the bed. Since the age of sixteen, she writes, Marshall has been fascinated by Bundy, even traveling to the prison in Florida where he was executed. Listing all the reasons for this fascination, she addresses him directly:
Why am I here? It’s not just because I was a girl, and you were the worst of all the bad men I ever learned about, and I thought figuring out why you needed me to die would mean figuring out why the whole world did. It’s not just because calling you “a force of evil” isn’t good enough for me—not just because, more and more, I am coming to believe that evil refers to nothing, means nothing, attaches itself to acts of violence or cruelty, but is never, by itself, an identifiable force. And it’s not just because I learned to understand my value to society by imagining how much I would be missed if I were taken away by someone like you, and it’s not just because I studied these stories to learn how to survive (don’t take the shortcut through the alley, don’t talk to strangers, don’t go into “thin air”), and it’s not just because you are human and I am human. It’s because I see myself in you.
The “Bundy-as-romantic-antihero storyline” is yes, a reminder that we all possess the ability to do evil things. But, as Marshall suggests, it’s still predominantly women who are subject to men’s bad, even murderous, behavior. Of the ten million people a year who experience domestic violence—stalking, physical abuse, rape—85 percent are women. Black widows, the women who kill more than three husbands, exist and occasionally even haunt our cultural lore, but it’s mostly men who become “serial killers,” a term probably coined by an FBI agent that takes its meaning from “serial adventures,” movies in the 1930s and 1940s that were episodic and ended with a cliffhanger—Batman, The Lone Ranger.
Some have tried to pathologize the women Bundy preyed on and fascinated. The View’s Sunny Hostin identified it as hybristophilia, attraction to the murderous, the dangerous. Cosmopolitan consulted three experts last year when Efron’s role as Bundy was announced. The magazine’s Eliza Thompson wrote, “To be clear, though, it’s only hybristophilia if the non-criminal party is actually aroused by the idea of the criminal committing a murder or similar—just writing a letter to a prisoner or keeping in contact with someone you already know doesn’t count.” Which means the phenomenon can’t exactly explain the swooning over Bundy, then or now.
But this might: much of society still teaches women to be pleasing, to seek and be flattered by male attention, to be compliant and patient, to make unconditional commitments. “Young women are taught not to aggravate situations—they’re told not to speak up or criticize men for fear of angering them,” Arlene Drake told Helen Donahue during an interview about Bundy fandom for, yes, Playboy magazine. Basically, women are well-trained to put up with a lot of shit. Feminism over the past forty years has made some great strides, but really only for those select populations it’s reached. In much of the world, the narrative of bad, temperamental, dangerous men who can be tamed by the right good women is the template for young girls. Male morality is so frequently offloaded onto women that rape victims and beaten wives “were asking for it.” The ultimate achievement, then, for any woman is winning the love of a bad man; his reformation is proof that she is worthy—despite her looks, her whining, her hysterics, her aging, her weakness—of his love. Bundy’s victims wanted to please him, his groupies wanted to have his back, his girlfriends just wanted to be loved.
“When I felt his love, I was on top of the world; when I felt nothing from Ted, I felt that I was nothing,” Kloepfer, Bundy’s live-in girlfriend, wrote. She put up with the meat cleaver on his desk, the rubber glove in his coat pocket, the ski mask and handcuffs in his car. She went to the police twice, rightly fearing that the details publicly released implicated Bundy. Still, she stayed with him, unconditionally. She finally went her own way when Bundy admitted to trying to kill her. Extremely Wicked is based on Kloepfer’s story. “The tragedy,” she wrote, “is that this warm and loving man is driven to kill.”
We have a long history of stories that women learn from, that keep them in their place, that make them put up with abuse. The flowers are an apology; he didn’t mean it. We have Beauty and the Beast, Bonnie and Clyde, Romeo and Juliet, Thelma and Louise, we have vampires and murder ballads and John Cusack in Say Anything. We have thirty photos of young women with long brown hair parted in the middle, their bodies naked and rotting in the woods of seven states, that we know of. And we have a Catholic saint who gave his life for love—of Christ, yes, and the human soul, but also for a young girl who was blind. We’re never told if she loved him back.