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The sexy killer fandom wars: No, fancying Ted Bundy is not the same thing as fancying Venom
Tis a truth universally acknowledged that if something exists on the internet then there are a subset of people who will find said thing sexually attractive. The weirder or less tangibly human that crush, the better! This is nothing new. History is chock full of cultural and artistic depictions of passionate trysts between humans and animals, monsters or transforming gods. Zeus alone was his own sexual menagerie. In pop culture terms, the results have been more varied and entertaining. Last year alone, we had fandom squee over Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War, Pennywise from IT, the robot from Lost in Space with the nice backside, the fish monster from The Shape of Water (or hell, basically any creature created by Guillermo del Toro), and everyone’s favorite alien parasite, Venom.
The Venom fandom was especially fervent, becoming the Tumblr ship du jour and sparking a harried panic from comic book fans who never saw the sexual appeal in a man with a gooey uber-muscled alien force engulfing him, keeping him company and eventually getting them pregnant. Any seasoned fandom watcher could have seen the screeds of fan-fic coming from a mile away. Hey, we never said fans liked to play it safe. Fandom is, as we have said many times before, a safe haven for people, often young women and marginalized individuals, to explore their notions of desire and control. The chances are these people wouldn’t actually f*ck Venom, but the secure fantasy created around that obviously outlandish notion is a crucial part of self-discovery.
But fancying pop culture villains is one thing; fandoms for literal serial killers is quite another.
In a move that shall surprise absolutely nobody, Netflix’s recent docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes has inspired a minor legion of Bundy fanciers. Yes, the man who was sentenced to death for the murder of at least 30 women has fangirls. No, seriously, the self-confessed necrophile has a fandom. We shouldn't even need to explain why this is bad. Even Netflix’s Twitter account had to say this was a bad thing. Things took an even weirder turn when it was discovered that these Bundy lovers were using Venom fandom as their defense: If people want to fantasize over a man-eating parasite, why not this?
I’m not sure this should even require an explanation, but here we go anyway.
Ted Bundy fandom is, dishearteningly, nothing new. One of the things that helped to secure his legend and infamy was this notion that Bundy was endlessly charismatic and could seduce people, usually women, into doing whatever he wanted. Ann Rule, the true crime writer and author of the definitive Bundy book The Stranger Beside Me, wrote about how, after Bundy's execution, she was shocked and disappointed to receive messages from countless "sensitive, intelligent, kind young women" who were sad about his death. She describes one college student who sent flowers to the funeral parlor attending to Bundy's body, claiming that "He wouldn't have hurt me [...] All he needed was some kindness. I know he wouldn't have hurt me..."
Even the trailer for the fictionalized dramatization of Bundy’s life that dropped last week plays up the fangirl angle. In the trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (starring Zac Efron as Bundy), women are shown practically fawning over him and questioning his guilt. A brief shot of Efron's extremely muscled chest is also shown, all part of a trailer whose tone is best described as cheeky.
There have been extensive psychological studies on why so many women find themselves attracted to criminals and serial killers. Hybristophilia, the phenomenon of sexual arousal in relation to being with a partner who has committed heinous crimes, is also known as Bonnie and Clyde syndrome. Bundy got fan-mail but so did Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez, the Boston Marathon bomber, the Menendez brothers, and, of course, Charles Manson. As Dr. Louis B. Schlesinger, PhD noted in a 2018 article from Cosmopolitan, "There is no empirical research" that confirms how many cases of this phenomenon exist, and most of the studies rely on "case reports of these individuals." Katherine Ramsland, PhD, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and author of the book Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, believes that this fetish is more about narcissism than sex. "People want to be close to the notoriety of it. They also get a sense that they’re special to the person, so that if the person escaped he or she wouldn’t harm."
In its most abstract form, Hybristophilia is a fantasy of control, the idea that you would be the exception to these monsters’ rules. He would never hurt you. He just needs someone who loves him more than any of those other women did. Only you understand him.
Of course, this is only something that can exist in the abstract. Ted Bundy didn’t need the “right woman” to keep him in line. He hated women and took pride in annihilating dozens of them from existence. His frequent acts of necrophilia were not about passion. Attorney Polly Nelson, a member of his last defense team, said that he was "the very definition of heartless evil". Many of the families of his victims are still alive today and must contend with the psychological scars left over, and that's before they even get to seeing the man who destroyed their lives becoming a quirky sexual fad once more.
To return to Venom and other such fictional villains who have garnered fandoms, their statuses as creations of fiction are not the only things that make justifications from Bundy fans so blatantly idiotic. Venom, Pennywise, the robot, the fish-man… These are palpably unreal creations. They cannot and will never exist in our reality. A similar argument can be applied to the NBC series Hannibal (of which I am a huge fan). Murderers like Dr. Hannibal Lecter exist, yes, but the crimes he commits and the methods with which he does them on that show are beyond possible and almost mythic in execution. That show, like Venom and company, is always two steps away from the real world and allows that distance of fantasy. Even pop culture like Lifetime and Netflix’s You, which focuses on a murdering stalker who feels 100% plausible, has the sheen of melodrama to keep you at arm’s length. These are not perfect comparisons but pop culture’s fantasy nature gives it a structural boundary that real life cannot provide.
There’s also the problem of who we choose to empower. Ted Bundy didn’t get away with his monstrous crimes because he was a master manipulator, or at least, that wasn’t the only method. Bundy benefitted from sloppy police work and a lack of reliable forensic research. Charles Manson is another criminal who gained from this historical rewrite that positioned him as the ultimate charmer. Really, he was just another drugged up unwashed wannabe Rockstar who had enough sway over very young drugged up woman at a time in our culture when that held a modicum of social capital. He wasn’t Satan on earth and building up his reputation as such did more to propagandize his image than the crimes themselves. Even if it is meant ironically — and I suspect a lot of it is — Bundy fandom wilfully empowers an over-inflated myth about a truly disgusting man who worked overtime to ensure his own legacy.
Once again, Ann Rule put it best: "They see compassion and sadness in his eyes [...] To get well, they must realize that they were conned by the master conman. They are grieving for a shadow man that never existed."