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Here’s What Ted Bundy’s Life and Education Was Like Before the Story Told in Netflix’s Extremely Wicked
Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile tells the story of serial killer Ted Bundy, largely from the point of view of his real-life girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall. The film begins around the time of Bundy’s first arrest related to his murders in 1975, but doesn’t tell the story of Bundy’s early life and education. Both were integral to the how Bundy was able to get away with his crimes—and why we’re still talking about him today.
Bundy was born in 1946 to Eleanore Louise Cowell, who gave birth to her son at a home for unwed mothers. Bundy’s biological father is unknown. The future killer spent his early years living in Philadelphia with his mother and grandparents who, in an effort to hide the fact that he was born out of wedlock, initially told him that his mother was his sister and that his grandparents were his parents. As a child, Bundy moved with his mother to Washington, where she married Johnnie Bundy, whose last name was adopted by his stepson.
Bundy resented his stepfather for being working class, and coveted the trappings of wealth. He began his criminal career as a teenager, prowling his community as a Peeping Tom and shoplifting while still a student at Tacoma’s Woodrow Wilson High School. He went onto the University of Puget Sound, then transferred to the University of Washington before dropping out of school. During his years away from university, Bundy volunteered for the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller and attended the 1968 Republican National Convention. He returned to the University of Washington in the early 1970s, and graduated with a degree in psychology.
Zac Efron plays Bundy in Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The killer studied law for a time, and represented himself in court.
He entered the University of Utah School of Law (though he would never earn a degree) in 1974, the same year he committed his first confirmed murder. Bundy brutally killed at least 30 women over the next five years.
Bundy’s educational credentials played a significant role in the coverage he and his trial received, and contributes to the fact that we’re still discussing him today. He used his clean-cut student’s persona to kidnap his victims and to evade authorities—Bundy was able to pull off his first escape from police custody by jumping out the window of a Colorado courthouse law library after he was allowed unshackled and unsupervised access to it while researching his case. It’s hard to imagine that such a privilege would have been extended to any murder suspect but a young, white graduate student. And once he was captured for good, Bundy became a figure of national fascination in part because he didn’t fit the working-class stereotypes associated with serial murderers, as embodied by figures like drifter and high school dropout Richard Ramirez and truck factory worker Gary Ridgway. Just think of the wildly inappropriate parting words judge Edward Cowart left Bundy with after sentencing him to death in 1979:
Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself, please. It’s a tragedy for this court to see such a total waste, I think, of humanity that I have experienced in this court. You’re a bright young man. You would have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Once again, take care of yourself.
Bundy and his one-time girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall. Kendall’s memoir served as the basis for Netflix’s film.
Yes, that was his takeaway after spending weeks learning about Bundy raping, murdering, and mutilating young women.
Bundy’s status as a well-educated, middle class man helped the public romanticize him as a brilliant, handsome killer. But it’s important to note that this isn’t true. Bundy wasn’t especially bright—he was attracted to the trappings of an upper-middle class professional life, but was too poor a student to earn admission to the more selective universities he aspired to. Extremely Wicked director Joe Berlinger’s Bundy documentary, Conversations With a Killer, revealed that Bundy was a compulsive nose picker who never quite fit in with his peers. “He was going to show the world that he was the one to be dealt with and it was a lot of blowhard talk,” Sandi Holt, who grew up with Bundy, said in the film. “He tried to fool you and lie to you. He wasn’t athletic. He wanted to be number-one in class but he wasn’t.” The idea of Bundy as a brilliant, handsome, charmer is largely a myth—one that it’s important to debunk.
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.