Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (Official Trailer)
In January 1989, Ted Bundy’s death sentence was fulfilled in Florida to tailgating and fanfare.
Three decades later and several states over, a University of Kentucky psychology professor is assessing the infamous serial killer’s mental health.
Thomas Widiger of UK’s department of psychology has spent the past 15 years researching dimensional models of personality disorders, which assess personality on a complex spectrum. One such spectrum compares an individual’s personality on a five-factor scale of “neuroticism versus emotional stability, extraversion versus introversion, openness versus closedness to experience, agreeableness versus antagonism and conscientiousness versus undependability.”
That five-factor model applies to psychopathy. Widiger said Bundy “largely” fits the psychopath classification, particularly where it concerns antagonism, extraversion and low neuroticism.
Widiger described Bundy as “callous, ruthless, exploitative, manipulative, deceitful and arrogant,” but also “assertive and engaging,” with “fearlessness and glib charm.”
But Widiger said Bundy diverged from the psychopath diagnosis in respect to responsibility and organization.
“The prototypic psychopath is characterized by traits of low conscientiousness — lax, irresponsible and impulsive — whereas we have found that Bundy has traits of high conscientiousness,” Widiger said. “We suggest he fits the profile of a ‘successful’ psychopath, the variant of psychopathy that one would meet within business, politics and the law.”
Widiger added that ‘successful’ psychopaths are often referred to as “snakes in suits,” and that many people know one in their own lives.
A survey of lawyers, professors and psychologists found several participants believed they “had indeed known (a ‘successful’ psychopath),” according to Widiger.
Bundy’s perceived normalcy is in fact part of his enduring legacy. After confessing to the rapes and murders of 30 women across several states during the ‘70s, Bundy cemented his infamy. But before he was “extremely wicked, shockingly evil” and “vile,” as famously described by presiding judge Edward Cowart, Bundy was a law student and “a bright young man.”
This dramatic difference in affected personality and action encouraged mass media interest in Bundy’s case at the time. With the recent addition of a Bundy-centered biopic and true crime docuseries to Netflix’s streaming service, interest has sparked again.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins, was partially filmed in Northern Kentucky. The accompanying docuseries “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” focuses on journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth’s taped conversations with Bundy while he sat on death row. Both projects were created by Joe Berlinger.
“Really, at that time, there were so many people - I’m talking about educated people as well - that thought that Bundy couldn’t have done it,” former FBI Special Agent and criminal profiling expert John Douglas told Digital Spy last month.
Douglas said that many are fascinated by the dichotomy of Bundy “because of how (charismatic) he is... that’s not the image (people have of a killer).”
“It is difficult for us to imagine someone so evil, walking amongst us, and Ted did that for many, many years,” Widiger agreed. “Psychopathy is said to be a ‘mask of sanity,’ in that psychopaths come across so normal. They are so skilled at being deceptive, keeping hidden their heinous impulses.”
Widiger said Bundy was evaluated by leading psychopathy researcher Hervey Cleckley during his Florida trial. Cleckley diagnosed Bundy as a psychopath at the time.
As for Widiger, diagnosis is a little more complicated. With no direct access to Bundy, he has relied on “surveys of people who felt they know him sufficiently well” and existing literature that describes his personality, mannerisms and crimes.
Widiger said this form of diagnosis is not too difficult, despite sparing biographical information on Bundy.
“We don’t know much about Ted’s history. He never revealed that much to anyone,” Widiger said. “It can be risky to infer a disorder on the basis of behavior without actually interviewing the person, but the paraphilic behavior in this case is so extreme that I am comfortable in doing so.”
Widiger believes that Bundy’s interest in macabre behavior likely began earlier rather than later, though little information exists about Bundy’s childhood.
“We do know that Ted had a passion for pulp fiction during childhood and adolescence, and this fiction was heavily saturated with rape fantasies,” Widiger said. “We also know that he peeped through windows. We also know that his aunt once woke up to find that Ted had placed knives all round her body while she was sleeping.”
“In sum, I suspect that Ted had long had a paraphilic interest, but, again, Ted never revealed much at all about his past.”
In a 2007 study, Widiger submitted two pages describing Bundy’s behavior to 73 psychologists. Nearly 96% of psychologists in the sample endorsed a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder; 95% endorsed a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder; and over 50% of psychologists endorsed diagnoses of schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder.
According to Widiger, these overlaps show problems with the current standard of personality disorder diagnosis. However, they also attest to “the complex nature of Bundy’s personality.”
Or, put more simply, Widiger said Bundy could comfortably fit the description of “true evil.”
“Ted had no feelings of sympathy or empathy for his victims. He is said to have described himself as ‘the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet,’” Widiger said.
In the alleged words of Bundy himself in another death row interview: “Society wants to believe it can identify evil people, or bad or harmful people, but it’s not practical.”
Though you may be unable to identify “evil people,” Widiger is proving that you can in some cases diagnose them.