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Jessica Davis

Jessica Davis is a fourth year student at Western majoring in Media, Information and Technoculture with a Certificate in Writing.  Her main area of focus is how trauma and violent crimes are portrayed in media and literature.  In the future, she plans on applying to graduate school for cultural theory or media studies. 



Perhaps second only to Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy is one of the most recognizable names in modern serial killer lore. His trial and two escapes from custody during the latter half of the 1970s drew fanatical attention from the media, cementing his persona and image in both judicial history and the pop culture consciousness. While this public persona began as an enigmatic contradiction—his all-American good looks, charm, and intelligence seemed at odds with the monstrous crimes he was accused of committing—it has since evolved into a larger-than-life anti-hero with a macabre cultural appeal. Although much of this latter characterization may seem like nothing more than a collective interest in the morbid side of humanity, it is actually symptomatic of consumerist culture’s drive to make Bundy a socially acceptable product. When examined honestly, Bundy is almost too horrifying a person to comprehend: he raped, bludgeoned, and murdered over thirty women and girls before repeatedly defiling their corpses—all without showing an iota of remorse. Visual media are used to commodify Ted Bundy, detaching his image from the horrific reality of his crimes and their socio-cultural significance.  So depoliticized, Bundy’s image may be comfortably consumed by a mainstream audience.                  

Why Look at Bundy

While examining the representation of Ted Bundy in visual culture may seem trivial, even sensational, it is important because the visual treatment of his persona speaks to larger social issues of serial and gender-related violence. Carla Freccero asserts about the public’s relationship to serial killers, “Through the serial killer, then, we recognize and simultaneously refuse the violence-saturated quality of the culture, by situating its source in an individual with a psychosexual dysfunction. We are thus able to locate the violence in his disorder rather than in ourselves or in the social order.” [1] While Freccero states this about all serial killers, her comments especially apply to Ted Bundy, because he is arguably the poster boy for the modern serial killer. Ann Rule, acclaimed true crime author and law enforcement instructor, corroborates this idea when she states, “The term ‘serial murder’ was relatively new [in 1985], and seemed to have been coined for Ted Bundy, even though there had been a few dozen more men who had racked up horrific tolls since Ted’s incarceration. Ted Bundy remained the celebrity killer.” [2] Because of this enduring celebrity Rule describes, Bundy is a reliable fixture for the social denial Freccero describes: Bundy is a constant and recognizable figure the public can easily return to when reaffirming that dysfunctional individuals, not society or culture, are the source of violence. By habitually marketing Bundy as the preeminent serial killer, consumerist culture simultaneously stabilizes Bundy’s reliability as this recognizable, contained source of violence and further obfuscates the socio-cultural nature of violence.  

Ted Bundy, Just Your Too Average Guy

As feminist scholar and cultural critic Jane Caputi describes, “Bundy himself was depicted as the fatherland’s (almost) ideal son—handsome, intelligent, a former law student, a rising star in Seattle’s Republican party.” [3] In other words, Ted Bundy fit the image of the All-American man, the “Boy Scout grown to adulthood.” [4] To most, he was undeniably normal. His arrest and subsequent trial severely complicated this image and left people asking: how could a man so apparently normal be so viciously deviant? In order for an audience not only to comprehend this split persona, but also begin to feel comfortable with it, this contradiction must be rationalized. A failure to rationalize this contradiction risks an uncomfortable relatability with the so-called normal Ted. [5] If Bundy’s appearance of normality is in any way genuine, then his deviance cannot be divorced from his normality. This issue implies Bundy’s deviance and normality share a common foundation: a larger cultural source that is far less extraordinary than his own deficiencies. As David Schmid describes, the “mask of sanity” image, the theory that Bundy simply faked a convincing appearance of sanity, is used to rationalize this apparent conflict. [6] The three photos discussed below are all intricate pieces in this “mask of sanity” perception that allow an audience to distance themselves from Bundy, subsequently allowing them to consume his image without feeling ashamed or uncomfortable.

The first photo, Figure 1, is like many pre-arrest photos of Bundy: it depicts nothing more than a typical, handsome young man with various girlfriends or smiling from the pages of a yearbook. Taken sometime in the early to mid 1970s, this photo shows Bundy goofing around as he washes the dishes while posing with an unidentified female. What is crucial about this photograph is that it creates an uncomfortable empathy with Ted. This photograph could be anyone’s photograph and any handsome young man could easily replace Bundy in it. The audience could most likely fondly remember a time in their own life similar to Ted and the woman washing dishes. Whether the audience wishes it or not, there is the possibility of empathizing with Bundy in this photograph.  

Conversely, Figure 2 shows Ted Bundy enraged by the guilty verdict at one of his two trials. Originally used in press coverage of Bundy’s trials, [7] this photo is now one of the most famous of Bundy, appearing across the Internet and more specifically in the best-selling novel about Bundy, The Stranger Beside Me. [8] His wide mouth, creased face, and swooping hand create a dramatic and violent effect giving him the appearance of a silent-era, Hollywood villain. With the black and white medium enhancing the theatrical effect, Bundy looks nothing short of a monster. In this photograph Bundy appears as people expect a serial rapist and murderer to appear: unhinged and visibly ferocious. The emotions this photo evokes in the viewer, such as fear, feel more appropriate to Bundy’s identity as a serial killer because this villainous appearance is what an audience expects from a violent psychopath. In many ways this photo resolves the psychological tension created by the seeming normality of the first photograph. In her true crime novel about Ted Bundy, Ann Rule rather tellingly captions this photograph, “The Ted Bundy who hid behind a charming mask suddenly reveals himself in the Orlando trial for the murder of Kimberly Leach.” [9]   In making this statement, Rule perfectly summarizes what these two images do when put in dialogue with each other: they combine and compromise their individual arguments to create Schmid’s “mask of sanity” image that allows the audience to distance themselves from Bundy’s seeming normalness.  

The third image, Figure 3, builds on the first two images by reinforcing Bundy’s “mask of sanity” image. Found in Rule’s book, The Stranger Beside Me, this series of six headshots under the headline “The Many Faces of Ted Bundy” act against each other to undermine Bundy’s guise of normalness and make him appear unsettlingly inconstant. While each photo on its own does little to raise suspicion or alarm, when placed beside each other the photos lose their benignity and become an argument for a suspect inconsistency in Bundy’s personality. The block of six images portrays a man with a frightening, chameleon-like ability to change his appearance fluidly while always appearing ordinary. Bundy’s identity now emerges as unpredictable, unknowable, and ultimately disturbing in its malleability; his exterior of normality is simply a plastic “mask of sanity” that can be removed or replaced when the occasion demands. This deviant fluidity reassures the audience that their stable identity, their normality, is in no way like that of Ted Bundy’s.  

Bundy, Violence, and Male Heterosexuality

In order to make Bundy a safe product for consumption, culture must also divorce his violent sexuality from “normal” non-violent male heterosexuality. Considering the primary demographic for serial killer cultural products are young, heterosexual males, [10] failing to unlink their sexuality from the violent and morally deplorable sexuality of Ted Bundy makes him a difficult product to sell. Consequently, consumerist culture presents Bundy’s heterosexual violence as exceptional, effectively allowing heterosexual males to obscure any violence inherent in their own sexuality.  

This rhetorical move is crucial to understanding the commodification of Ted Bundy because as cultural critic and author Jane Caputi argues, “…the murders of women and children by serial killers are not the result of inexplicably deviant men. On the contrary, sexual murder is a product of the dominant culture. It is the ultimate expression of a sexuality that defines sex as a form of domination/power; it, like rape, is a form of terror that constructs and maintains male supremacy.” [11] In making this statement, Caputi asserts that serial killers are not abnormal creatures, but extreme products of a patriarchal culture in which male sexuality and violence are inherently linked as expressions of power. Elliot Layton, one of the most frequently consulted experts on serial murder, agrees with Caputi when he says, “…I shall try to show that the killers are not mere freaks. Rather, they can only be fully understood as representing the logical extension of many of the central masculine themes of their culture—of worldly ambition, of success and failure, and of ‘manly’ avenging violence.” [12] With this statement, Layton affirms the link between male sexuality and violence and further asserts that this relationship is key to understanding serial killers. Ted Bundy particularly represents Layton’s themes of masculinity; he was an ambitious student and burgeoning politician who was hurt by the important women, both familial and romantic, in his life. [13] While it would be far too simplistic to assume Bundy’s crimes were driven solely by a desire for “avenging violence” against women, such a troubled history with key women in his life is important to consider.

To deal with these issues of Bundy’s heterosexuality, visual representations of Bundy make him anomalous by exaggerating the most “normal” aspects of his sexuality until they appear deviant. For example, Figure 4, a dark caricature of the dishwashing photo above, exaggerates Bundy’s all-American handsome features to the point where they appear chillingly sinister: his masculine attractiveness becomes the most frightening aspect of this caricature. In comparison with the dishwashing photo, his arms and shoulders appear toned and more muscular, but instead of conveying conventional male attractiveness, they become threatening symbols of his violent sexuality—especially when one notices the bloody handprint on the Volkswagen’s rear window and the “LDY-KLR” license plate. Essentially, the Bundy in this image is depicted as the “freak” Layton argued against in his discussion of serial killers, instead of a representation, albeit an extreme one, of the violently misogynistic nature of dominant, heteronormative culture.  

Bundy the Archetype

Since his capture and subsequent fame, Bundy’s persona and story have served as the archetype for fictional representations of serial killers in visual culture. Texts ranging from low budget slasher films to award-winning primetime television dramas incorporate key aspects of Bundy’s persona or story in some way. While the primary visual representations of Ted Bundy (such as the ones discussed above) do an effective job of distancing Bundy from the horrible reality of his crimes, these fictional texts transform Bundy’s true-to-life persona into a mythologized and depoliticized character with considerably different cultural significance than the original.  

The first set of relevant fictional serial killer texts to consider are the ultra-violent slasher films of the late 1970s and 1980s. Many of these films, such as John Carpenter’s 1977 film Halloween and the Friday the 13th sequels, focus on a male killer who stalks and violently murders young people, especially young women. While murdering young women is not unique to Bundy’s profile or to slasher films, the importance of these texts is that they emerged just as Bundy began to gain notoriety in the mid to late 1970s. Although it is true a chronological link is sometimes nothing more than coincidence, certain key texts suggest otherwise in this case, particularly the 1983 film The House on Sorority Row. The House on Sorority Row follows a group of sorority sisters as they cover up the accidental murder of their housemother, but die, one-by-one, at the hands of a mysterious male killer. [14] The concept of having a serial killer target a sorority house directly parallels Ted Bundy’s most notorious murders: the Chi Omega Sorority murders at Florida State University where he went room by room attacking the young sorority members as they slept. The House on Sorority Row’s blatant mimicry effectively references this incident in Bundy history, but removes it enough to call the film a piece of fiction.  

Perhaps the most telling aspect of The House on Sorority Row is that the killer is the housemother’s fatherless, [15] mentally and physically underdeveloped son, Eric. Because the film implies that his physical and mental failings are to blame for his deviancy, Eric epitomizes Carla Freccero’s assertion that serial killers are figures whose dysfunctions insulate the wider social order from any blame for the killer’s violence. Considering the parallels between The House on Sorority Row and Bundy’s Chi Omega murders, the uniqueness that Eric’s dysfunctions give him is reflected back onto Bundy. In effect, Eric makes Bundy even more deviant, distancing him further from the “normal” public.  

Slasher films such as The House on Sorority Row have also influenced dramaticized retellings of Bundy’s life. For instance, the 2002 film simply titled Ted Bundy relies heavily on slasher film clichés and aesthetics to tell Bundy’s story. This influence is especially noticeable in the scene where Bundy chases a woman he kidnapped as she tries to escape. In the scene, a deep, quick-tempo drum beat sets an ominous tone while the camera chases the scantily clad, screaming blonde through a remote forest as if it were Bundy himself chasing her. The shot moves fluidly in slow motion, reveling in its power over the nameless woman before allowing Ted to catch, rape, and kill her. [16] Instead of examining Bundy or the culture of violence in any significant way, the film takes blatant pleasure in the superficial thrill of the murder and portraying Bundy as a campy caricature. In Ted Bundy, Bundy becomes a cheap copy of the very villains he inspired, moving his representation in visual culture even further from who he actually was.  

Bundy the Cult Figure

No aspect of visual culture better embodies the current moral ambivalence toward Bundy than the numerous pieces of murderabilia and fan art [17] found on the Internet. These Ted Bundy collectables and pieces of both amateur and professional artwork are the final stage of Bundy’s commodification. In the cases of murderabilia and fan art, the creators are literally selling Bundy’s image as pieces of pop culture kitsch. For example, Figure 4 in the section on Bundy and male heterosexuality can be bought as a 23" X 35" wall poster from a website called The fact that there is a market for these types of images means that Bundy’s image has been completely disconnected from the implications of his true persona: people are willing to forgo safe, fictionalized and exaggerated versions of him to buy his serial killer image directly.  

Another particularly disturbing image also comes from the Ted Bundy women’s thong, Figure 5. Because of the misogynistic and sexually violent nature of Bundy’s crimes, the Ted Bundy women’s thong both epitomizes the disconnect between Bundy’s image and his historical identity, and highlights just how problematic this disconnect truly is. If the image of a violent rapist and serial killer who murdered people’s daughters, sisters, and girlfriends can be anything but repulsive and ethically reprehensible, then Bundy’s image no longer signifies the serious issue of vicious misogyny it once did. Instead, his image becomes a depthless piece of kitsch; a pseudo-cool and faux-risqué product that reflects more about the owner’s desire for ironically hip cultural capital than about Bundy himself.  


Ted Bundy, for better or worse, will likely always be a cultural icon: the sensational nature of his crimes guarantees this continued cultural resonance. What matters now is how the public remembers him and his crimes. While there are always some who look past the glamour of slasher films and murderabilia or the obfuscation of the “mask of sanity,” many do not see Bundy for the sadistically violent and culturally problematic figure that he is. Consequently, such people fail to create visual work that does what it should—examine and critique the cultural environment that produced Bundy. Figure 6, an Andy Warhol-esque print of Bundy and one of his victims, perfectly encapsulates what Ted Bundy’s image has become: a mass-produced cultural product that has been depoliticized so that it may be safely and successfully sold to a mainstream audience.  


Caputi, Jane, “The New Founding Fathers: The Lore and Lure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Culture.” Journal American Culture 13, no. 3 (1990): 1-12.

Feccero, Carla, “History, Violence, Censorship, and the Serial Killer.” Diacritics 77, no. 2 (1997): 44-58.

Leyton, Elliot. Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murder. Toronto:  McLelland & Stewart Ltd., 2005.

Rule, Ann. The Stranger Beside Me, 1980. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Schmid, David. Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Ted Bundy, directed by Matthew Bright. 2002; First Look International, 2002, DVD.

The House on Sorority Row, directed by Mark Rosman. 1983; VAE, 2000, DVD.



[1] Carla Feccero, “History, Violence, Censorship, and the Serial Killer.” Diacritics 77, no. 2 (1997),48.

[2] Ann Rule, The Stranger Beside Me, (1980. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 530. Original Emphasis

[3] Jane Caputi, “The New Founding Fathers: The Lore and Lure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Culture,” Journal of American Culture 13, no. 3 (1990), 5.

[4] Rule, The Stranger Beside Me, xlii.

[5] David Schmid, Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 213.

[6] Ibid., 213.

[7] “Jury Recommends Bundy Be Put to Death,” Lakeland Ledger (Lakeland, FL), July 31, 1979.

[8] Rule, photographic insert to The Stranger Beside Me, 24.

[9] This photo was actually taken on July 30, 1979 at the trial for the Chi Omega Sorority murders—not the Kimberly Leach trial in early 1980. While Rule is mistaken on the date, her reference to Bundy’s shattered veneer is no less valuable.                     Rule, photographic insert to The Stranger Beside Me, 24.

[10] Caputi, “The New Founding Fathers,” 1, 3.

[11] Ibid., 2.

[12] Elliot Leyton, Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murder, (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart Ltd., 2005), 7.

[13] Bundy’s mother lied to him about his true parentage until he was an adult and he was devastated when his first serious girlfriend rejected him because she did not see him as ambitious and successful enough. Rule, The Stranger Beside Me, 18-20.

[14] The House on Sorority Row, directed by Mark Rosman (1983; VAE, 2000, DVD)

[15] Bundy himself was illegitimate and never knew who his father was. Rule, The Stranger Beside Me, xxxiii.

[16] Ted Bundy, directed by Matthew Bright (2002; First Look International, 2002, DVD)

[17] Although the term “fan art” is problematic because many of the creators claim not to be fans of Bundy so much as interested in studying him, it is difficult to find another term that encapsulates the enthusiasm and effort that appears to go into these pieces of artwork.



Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3





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