Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile: Portraying a Killer

Zac Efron is playing Ted Bundy in a film. Some think the casting glamorizes the notorious serial killer, despite Bundy’s factual reputation as a deadly yet charismatic deceiver. In this unique case, is it unethical to be accurate?

Warning: contains mention of violent crime and may be disturbing for some readers.

By Serena Ypelaar

“Can we please not glamorize a killer?”

That was the online response from many after seeing the teaser trailer in which Zac Efron plays infamous serial killer Ted Bundy in the upcoming film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

I agree – we don’t want to promote or celebrate murderers. But is accurately depicting a killer the same as “glamorizing” them?

Though the film follows the perspective of Bundy’s long-term girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), audiences are unsurprisingly fixated on Efron’s portrayal of Bundy.

Joe Berlinger, who also put together the four-part Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), directed the film. The true crime docuseries features audio of interviews with Bundy while he was on death row.

Zac Efron as notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Photo: Daily Express

Bundy was active throughout the United States between 1974 and 1978, murdering and raping upward of 30 women in seven states. He escaped from prison twice but was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed thirty years ago, on 24 January 1989 at Florida State Prison.

I understand where our concerns are coming from. Somehow, there’s a real threat of people becoming infatuated with murderers. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a great idea to cast a charming, good-looking actor as a depraved killer. What does that impression promote?

The truth is, Bundy was handsome. He was charming. And he used his personality to make people trust him, from his victims – whom he persuaded to accompany him to his car under the guise of disability, usually using a sling or crutches – to people who knew him. Friends, partners (Kloepfer, and later Bundy’s wife Carole Ann Boone, whom he married at one of his trials), and his mother all thought there was no way he could’ve committed such grisly crimes. Kloepfer eventually contacted the police with some vague suspicions, but Bundy still got away with a lot under her nose. He was a skilled and charismatic manipulator. He wanted people to believe he was normal, and he maintained the lie of his innocence until just before his execution.   

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, compared alongside Ted Bundy himself.

So couldn’t it be that Zac Efron is actually the perfect choice for the role? I was skeptical at first, but after watching Conversations with a Killer, I changed my mind. Efron and Bundy even look alike; Efron claims they even have some of the same mannerisms.

I believe that in order to show him exactly the way he was, it’s not really glorifying him. I think hopefully it will make women … be more aware of their surroundings and be cautious. He had different tactics that he used for people to help him get in cars or do things, and in your gut, if you just feel that something doesn’t feel right, just say no.

Kathy Kleiner Rubin, one of Bundy’s survivors, doesn’t have a problem with the film

It’s important for us to try to understand, or at least recognize, how serial killers like Ted Bundy operate. The uncanny ability to convince people around him (as well as those avidly following his case in the 1980s) that he was wrongfully accused is troubling. Bundy himself said in Conversations with a Killer that “people don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin.” They have a chameleon-like talent for blending in (“The Bundy Effect”). If the film depicts this trait in Bundy without sensationalizing details, it won’t be glamorous; it’ll be truthful.

Understanding how serial killers deceive, and people who do evil deceive, really is kind of the theme of the film.

Director Joe Berlinger

We are in control of our own opinions. As long as we, the viewers, are conscientious and aware of context, we can watch films without falling prey to misinformation. It all comes down to critical thinking, which is our responsibility. In a pre-internet era, I can see how a film that seemingly glamorizes Bundy (or shows him accurately as the charismatic liar he was) could run the risk of misleading people. But we live in an age where a quick Google search can set the facts straight, if the movie doesn’t do that to begin with. We just have to make sure we commit to learning ethically and questioning sources.

Photo: Google News

As always, I’ll reserve final judgement on the film until it gets released. I hope it doesn’t simplify Bundy’s disconcertingly complex personality. I kind of think our deep-seated concerns may end up being less about “glamorizing” the killer and more about how the killer was able to glamorize himself. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile thus has a huge opportunity to be very telling about sinister individuals and their ability to elude detection.

Advice After the Fact: What Historical Advisors Do Best

Historical advisors make sure the era-specific details of television and film are portrayed authentically. Using Downton Abbey as a case study, we examine the various aspects they consider when recreating a time period.  

By Serena Ypelaar

The approach of fall, and later winter, inevitably means one thing: More time indoors = more television = more period dramas.

In mainstream media, historical television has gained traction in recent years, with shows like Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders, Poldark, Mad Men, and The Crown gaining cult followings. As a historian, I love a good period drama, since watching a fictional recreation of an era is one of the best ways to learn about it. Of course, being a historian means I’m also hung up on accuracy.

Did you know there’s a specific job in which people ensure period dramas are accurate? Those magical people are called historical advisors.

Not every show has one, but I’d like to argue the importance of such a role. In the most miniscule ways, historical dramas give viewers a vivid impression of life in a specific era. The details simply provide a backdrop for the overarching narrative, but if incorrect, they undermine the story and realism of the series. I’ve highlighted five key elements a historical advisor must oversee to help interpret history for television and produce a credible period drama. In the interest of time, all examples come from Downton Abbey, whose historical advisor Alastair Bruce has spoken publicly about his role.

downton
Ensemble cast of Downton Abbey, in Season 1 promotional image. From left: Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Siobhan Finneran, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Rose Leslie, Thomas Howes, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Rob James-Collier, Dan Stevens, Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown Findlay. Photo: Flickr

Setting, set design, and technology 

Set in Edwardian England, Downton Abbey follows the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the eponymous great house. We’re treated with an (albeit rose-tinted) illustration of British society and its evolution from 1912 through 1926. It’s important that these shows capture setting in a way that transports viewers while avoiding anachronisms. Sets must be dressed with care, including items such as telephones, musical instruments, and furniture to highlight technological advances of the time.

Costuming, dress codes, and wardrobe etiquette 

dressing
Downton Abbey capitalizes on portraying everyday aspects of life, such as dining or dressing, seen here. Source: Golden Globes

Perhaps the most universally enjoyed element of historical drama is the fashion. Historical advisors should ideally work with costume designers for accuracy, since clothing leaves a lasting overall impression. In an upstairs-downstairs series like Downton, the frequent act of the staff dressing their employers demonstrates how garments were worn. Alastair Bruce famously intervened in a scene in which newspaper man Sir Richard Carlisle shakes hands with Cora Crawley with his glove on. According to Bruce, gentlemen would always remove a glove before shaking hands.

Mannerisms, accents, and speech

Downton Abbey is located in Yorkshire, but you won’t hear the upper-crust Crawleys speaking with northern accents. Actress Michelle Dockery, who normally speaks with an Essex accent, had to adopt a measured drawl to convincingly play the aloof Lady Mary. Conversely, you’ll find the belowstairs staff using coarser dialects. Historical advisors must ensure consistency as well as monitor word choice in scripts, as some words weren’t commonly used yet. Physical mannerisms likewise illustrate character; the Crawleys and their peers would walk rigidly upright while the working class characters have a different gait, especially when relaxing “off-duty”. These details may seem insignificant to viewers, but when employed they can help teach us the nuances of how our forebears lived.

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Downton Abbey’s historical advisor, Alastair Bruce. Source: Downton Abbey Wiki

Gender, race, sexual orientation, and class politics

Often, dynamics between people from different stations in life drive the tension in period dramas. Any good period drama will highlight change, usually in the form of innovation, social causes, and cultural shifts. It’s essential that historical advisors allow writers to capitalize on these changes without sacrificing legitimacy. In a series like Downton Abbey, where men and women of varying status and motivations interact in a large house, there are specific protocols which historically would have been followed – and which Alastair Bruce had to emphasize during filming.

Society, nationalism, trends, and overarching historical context

The wider historical backdrop is the linchpin. It shapes the characters’ outlook, values, and knowledge (How do they understand the world? What has happened at this point, and what is yet to come? Are they racist? Probably). National context, such as British sentiment during World War I, was crucial to understand while writing Downton. This is one area I feel Bruce and writer Julian Fellowes falter – not in the overall context, but in the mindsets of their characters. The Crawleys are astonishingly progressive for conservative landowners; certain characters exhibit a surprising lack of prejudice, which at times breaks the carefully crafted personas from their vantage point of a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, the motivation was undoubtedly to foster empathy, which in a television series is understandable.

thomas and the crawleys
So we’re supposed to believe that these wealthy conservative Britons living a hundred years before us have the same tolerant sensibilities of our time? Oooookay (but we love the outfits so we’ll suspend our disbelief, am I right?) Source: The Daily Mail

With prior knowledge of Fellowes’ planned storylines before each season, Bruce conducted preliminary research using specific case studies – in this case, country houses in England – to determine the aspects of life in a country estate like the fictional Downton Abbey. He then advised on the finer elements of the story’s execution.

As someone who writes historical fiction, I can relate. I’ve always found the storyline to be the core of a project – the steering wheel, so to speak – while the research, the actual historical facts, are the engine. The creator is the driver. In period television, the writer and historical advisor must copilot the vehicle if they are to arrive smoothly at their destination: a polished, realistic period drama that will appeal to laymen and historians alike.* Granted, Downton Abbey is certainly not without its critics (myself included when it comes to the later seasons), but the showrunners’ meticulous attention to detail does it credit.

*Fans of Downton Abbey will hopefully forgive me for my tactless use of a car metaphor – it just came to me as I went. Trust me, I know it’s a sore spot, as I myself haven’t quite gotten over The Incident from the 2012 Christmas special…