1. Ted Bundy made me a hypocrite. I spent two years working on a book about female serial killers, thinking that maybe it was possible — necessary, even — to humanize some of history’s worst people. To do this, I cultivated empathy in myself like some sort of swamp herb. It felt important to remember that in certain ways serial killers are driven by the same things that drive the rest of us. I collected old newspaper articles in which these women were called “animals” and “beasts,” and on those reactions I built my philosophy: No, they were human. Always human.
This was all very well and good until I finished my work and sank down into my favorite armchair with a sigh of relief. I was in the mood for an exciting change of pace, and so I decided to read the thickest book I could find on Mr. Theodore Robert Cowell Nelson Bundy: the law student, the young Republican, the necrophiliac. With a world-weary sigh, I cracked open The Stranger Beside Me, a true-crime classic by Ann Rule. On the cover of the book, Bundy’s eyes float menacingly. They’re in the sky — no, they are the sky.
A few days later I closed the book, foaming at the mouth. My philosophy had mutated. “ANIMAL,” I cried. “BEAST.”
2. Later that week I went for a teeth cleaning and chatted about serial killers with the dental hygienist. At one point, as he was doing something obscure to my molars, he said, “Have you seen pictures of Jeffrey Dahmer? I would have totally gone home with him.” I let out some sort of laugh/shriek that almost caused him to cut off my tongue. “I’m glad you didn’t!” I said. He chuckled, and I felt that we were bonded for life.
Afterward, I sat in my car and Googled pictures of Dahmer, who I had always thought of as sort of wormy and ugly, based on one widespread photo of him in an orange jumpsuit. I didn’t realize that in other photos he looks like a young hipster, the sort of guy you might see at your local Intelligentsia. It was disturbing to realize this, and even more disturbing to realize that I was oddly intrigued by how mainstream he looked. Suddenly Dahmer seemed less Other, more like a snake in the grass. The stranger beside me.
I didn’t move from Dahmer to Bundy in any particularly poetic way. I just sat there in my car and thought to myself, “What other hot serial killers can I look up?” Some eyewitnesses say that Bundy was only blandly handsome in the courtroom, and not as hypnotizing as the myths suggest — but it doesn’t matter, because the myths are what shaped him, and the myths say he was the most handsome man in the world, America’s good boy, could have been president if only he’d tried…. The photos confirmed all this strange seductive bias. I started to wonder if I would have shivered while passing him on the street or if I would have smiled and lowered my eyes and walked on, thinking he was just like many other guys — a little bit dangerous but mostly okay.
3. As a kid, you start to flesh out your idea of the Bogeyman. At first, he’s a blurry manifestation of fear, designed to make you behave. The monster under the bed. The shrouded figure in the corner of the room. But as you grow up, the Bogeyman changes, too. He forms hands, his voice deepens, he develops a sort of intention. Now the Bogeyman wants something specific: you. It’s scary if the Bogeyman is a shapeless monster, but it’s scarier if he looks like someone you could find yourself chatting with under a streetlamp somewhere. I think that for many young women, the Bogeyman looks a lot like Ted Bundy.
4. Imagine this: A young co-ed strolls across campus on a warm June night, a little bit preoccupied by her impending Spanish exam. She wants to stop by her boyfriend’s fraternity, kiss him goodnight. She is wearing red, white, and blue. She has a bottle of “Heaven Sent” perfume in her purse.
To get home, she has to walk through an alley. He’s waiting for her there. The Bogeyman. You wouldn’t think it was him at first. He looks like a nice guy, maybe a law student, handsome. Arm in a cast. Asks for help with his briefcase. He’s staring at her in a way that feels seductive if she doesn’t think about it too hard. She walks to the car with him, where he hits her on the back of the head with the crowbar he has tucked away especially for that purpose. He is very methodical when it comes to his dates.
5. His good looks, coupled with the fact that he abducted girls in public and sometimes in broad daylight, mean that some people think of Ted Bundy as the perfect serial killer. A suave simulacrum of a man, smooth and cold as a mirror. Ann Rule writes, “I can remember thinking that if I were younger and single or if my daughters were older, this would be almost the perfect man.” There’s a frightening cleanliness to many of his early crimes, before he went berserk in Florida. Over and over, his victims seemed to vanish from the face of the earth.
But if there has ever been a “perfect” serial killer, it’s someone like Jack the Ripper — a murderer who got away with it all and is now laying smugly in a grave somewhere, far beyond the long arm of the law. It’s not Ted Bundy, and I’m not just saying that because he got caught. I’m saying that because his eyes — eyes that his own lawyer called “peepholes someone else was peering out of” — gave him away.
6. Sweet Georgeann Hawkins was the girl in red, white, and blue. Years later, in an interview with police, Ted calls her “the Hawkins girl,” as in, “I just said that the Hawkins girl’s head was severed and taken up the road about twenty-five to fifty yards and buried in a location about ten yard west of the road.”
I remember Georgeann most, I think, because the last night of her life was off to an idyllic start. A dream of college in the 1970s. She was wearing bellbottoms, a little Tiffany ring with a pearl on one finger. When I was little and longing for adulthood, I wanted to be a girl like that: wandering through the warm night air to see a boyfriend, looking cool and beautiful in a favorite pair of pants. Even her impending exam would have appealed to me — I remember yearning for the hassles of adulthood, the banalities, the grocery shopping, the deadlines.
But I also remember Georgeann Hawkins because of her roommate, who stayed up until 2 AM waiting for her to come home, and then grew nervous and raised the alarm. Now, this didn’t save Georgeann. But if you read Ted Bundy’s story carefully, you’ll notice that girls like this roommate keep showing up, wary and alert. The story of Ted Bundy is a story of a monster who killed young women, yes. But it’s also a story of young women looking out for each other.
7. On January 15, 1978, a man crawled through the window of 21-year-old Cheryl Thomas’ bedroom, clutching a club. Cheryl’s neighbors, who were also young women, woke up at 4 AM to a strange, repetitive sound — they didn’t know it yet, but it was the sound of Ted Bundy bashing in Cheryl’s skull. Frightened, one of the girls called her boyfriend. He told her to go back to sleep.
Clearly, the boyfriend didn’t speak the primal, delicate, otherworldly language of young women, because the neighbor girls did not go back to sleep. Instead, they decided to activate a system that they’d put in place with Cheryl long before: No matter how late it was, they were always supposed to answer the telephone. They called Cheryl and heard her phone ringing through the walls — but she didn’t pick up. And so they called the police. Ted Bundy bolted. Cheryl lived.
8. Not every girl was able to save her friend from Ted Bundy. The girls of Chi Omega at Florida State University in Tallahassee — the sorority house where Ted Bundy entered his berserker mode, killing two of them and brutally injuring two more in the span of fifteen minutes — carry a “special anguish,” according to a 1989 article in the Sun-Sentinel. The anguish centers around the fact that “they were there but could not feel their friends dying two doors down.” They could not feel their friends dying. Even when the system failed, the girls knew that it was supposed to be there.
These girls had symbols, secret knocks. They knew each other’s habits and schedules and could tell when something was out of the ordinary. They waited up for each other to get home. They left nothing to chance. Ted Bundy killed so many girls. But years before he was apprehended, the girls were already fighting back — even if they didn’t know who or what they were fighting yet. They only knew that they lived in a dangerous world, and they were not resigned.
9. I don’t think we’ll ever know how many women got away from Ted Bundy, but it could be twice as many as he killed. It could be more. For decades after Ann Rule wrote The Stranger Beside Me, she would receive letters and emails from women saying that they’d narrowly escaped from Bundy back in the mid-70s. These women wrote to her like they were confessing to a priest, like they’d had a run-in with the devil and couldn’t bear to keep it a secret anymore.
Again and again, these women escaped because they noticed something in his eyes. His were the reptilian eyes of the sociopath — eyes that triggered an ancient fear in other people. He made far too much eye contact, his eyes seemed to act of their own accord (“peepholes someone else was peering out of”), and at least one girl said that he stared at her as though she weren’t human, but prey.
“The only physical quirk Bundy displayed, which was noticeable only to an alert observer, was his abnormal eye contact,” wrote detective Robert Keppel, who investigated Bundy. An alert male observer, maybe — or pretty much any girl. A few months after Georgeann Hawkins vanished, Ted approached another girl a few blocks from where he’d lured Georgeann to his car. He was doing his thing: a cast, crutches, performatively dropping his briefcase, grinning disarmingly. “He looked like he wanted me to help him,” the girl told police later, “and I was almost going to…until I noticed his eyes…”
10. I like knowing that the Bogeyman has cracks in his armor. Sure, he can memorize his lines and dress like a grad student and work on perfecting his rakish grin, but no matter how hard he tries, something about him warns women to run. See, we always hear about the times when women didn’t escape. When they vanished, and turned up years later as nothing but a handful of bleached bones. Sometimes it seems like that’s the only story we ever hear. But sometimes they got away. Because Bundy was not a god, a myth, or any sort of particularly unknowable monster. He was only human.