Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dark Fascination: Serial Killers and me

What have I been doing the past year-- besides not blogging? If you've seen the photos I've posted, you've probably imagined me wandering through nature appreciating moments of wonder, beauty and peace. And though that is true, I doubt you've imagined me devouring books and movies about serial killers. And if you happened to peek at my browser history, which on a given day might include searches for homicide by strangulation and the decomposition of a body buried in a pit, you'd be forgiven for backing away, carefully.

If you're a writer, you know I'm doing research. The two main characters in my new novel are a female magician and a serial killer. My fascination with murder and mystery is not new. I was a noir kid growing up in suburbia. By night I was a fearless detective who helped Nancy Drew, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlow navigate the dark unknown. Problem was that by day I was a wimp, scared of the dark, horror movies, snakes, and clowns.

My imagination magnified all dangers. A mere glimpse of a scene in a horror film would root in my mind for decades. Here's one I can't forget (I've blocked the title!): the moment a man realizes that his wife has been possessed by evil forces. As he stares in horror, her face shifts from human to leering skeleton and back to human. But from that moment on, no matter what she says or does, he knows that she hides her true self behind the mask of a beautiful woman.

My desire to be a detective led to my desire at age 9 to be a writer, or a detective with a pen. My writing is a search for clues to understand what it means to be human. In the end, isn't that the greatest mystery of all?

Maybe that's the source of my dark fascination with serial killers: how they manage to compartmentalize their various identities and roles. I have seen the face of madness, more than once. Once you've seen it, you never forget the terrifying moment when the mask is removed, and the shadow-self is revealed. Serial killer, Ted Bundy, called his dark force The Entity. Dexter, TV's favorite serial killer, called his shadow, The Dark Passenger, and said, "The only way to kill a Dark Passenger is to take out the Driver." When the Driver is charming, charismatic, and attractive, it is difficult to believe the gruesome brutality of his crimes. Which leads us back to Ted Bundy.

I began reading about him a few years ago, and quickly grew fascinated and dove into the extensive Bundy bibliography. In the early days, I had the naive hope that if I read enough, learned every detail of his life, the secrets he hid to the stories of every woman he murdered, I'd come closer to understanding him and perhaps find the human connection that would help me create my own killer.

I soon realized that would not happen. Psychologists who studied him could come to no conclusions either. But I'm not the only one who is fascinated by Bundy. Though his murderous rampage was conducted in the 70s, you could say that he's the serial killer of the moment. There are two movies about him currently airing on Netflix, both directed by Joe Berlinger. The first is a 4-part documentary, "Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes," during which we hear Bundy analyze himself through a third-person perspective that allows him to distance himself from his "confessions." Even so, the interviewer recalls that when Bundy "really got going," his blue eyes "went absolutely black," echoing Carol DaRonch, who described his "beady, blank, lifeless eyes." DaRonch was the one that got away, and it's because of her testimony that he was first caught and sentenced.

Hoping for a clue to the "why," we listen to Bundy describe his idyllic childhood much the way his mother describes "the best son in the world," but at every point his whitewashing is punctured: he had no idea how to act with people, especially girls; he was arrested twice for suspicion of burglary and car theft, the records expunged when he turned 18; he was a loner who wandered his neighborhood at night, peering into windows to watch women undress. We hear him pontificate on all manner of subjects at mind-numbing length until on Death Row, he finally admits to committing at least 30 murders, and we hear the chilling whisper of a killer confessing in first person to transporting the head of one of his victims for necrophiliac purposes.

How do you reconcile the monster who went on a one night mad rampage of rape, torture, and murder through a sorority house in Tallahassee, and then stole a car and while on the run, stopped to buy socks with a stolen credit card. Lots and lots of socks.

"One of my fondest dreams is to have all the underwear and socks I ever could conceivably use. It’s one of my fantasies. To be able to wear new socks every day!"

Yes, that's Ted. Obsessed with socks. He once said if he'd had enough white socks, he'd have been happy. A sock fetish? A need to be pure, as if by changing into a new pair of white socks every morning, he could erase the crimes of the day before? A wish for enough money to buy dozens and dozens of socks and never have to worry that he couldn't pay for them? Maybe a mix of all the above.

All his life he envied those who had money and felt insecure and outclassed by them. The truth is he was insecure around everyone because they seemed to hold the secret to... simply being human. What did it mean to fall in love with someone? To be one of the popular guys who knew what to say and do, who got girls effortlessly? That insecurity was matched with an arrogance-- he was smarter than everyone else. And for years, it seemed that he was.

The second film, "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," is a feature film starring Zac Efron as Bundy, that is based on Elizabeth Kloepfer's memoir, "The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy." Efron is great but the movie wants to have it both ways: to tell the story from Liz Kloepfer's perspective while describing events she had no way of seeing. The book actually reveals the tension of what it meant for her to love and live with Bundy on and off for several years.   

I first read her account a couple of years ago, hoping to find out what she saw and experienced. Were there clues to his secret identity? Did she sense something was wrong? I also wanted to know how it was from his perspective, how he managed to live with a woman and her small daughter for years, day in day out, no escape hatch, no place to hide. It was while he lived with her that he began his killing spree, attacking female students at universities in Washington and Oregon. He killed, and then went home to Liz and her daughter. Were they only his cover, his mask to appear normal, or did he feel something for them? He did have black nights, when he disappeared to his own apartment. Ah, I thought, that's where he went to take off the mask and breathe before returning to the performance of being Ted Bundy, law student, suicide hotline operator, and loving boyfriend.

Ted Bundy and Liz Kloepfer

Liz did grow to suspect him. Turns out that the nights the girls disappeared, he did not stay at her apartment. He had curious objects in his car and apartment--a hatchet, crutches, pantyhose, and a bowl of female underwear. She called the police in Washington and in Utah to report her suspicious boyfriend, but they dismissed her calls. After she reported him, she stayed with him. That's the stumbling block for most of us. You suspect your live-in boyfriend is a killer, but you take him back again and again.

And yet isn't that what we do with handsome, charming men who-- as Ted Bundy put it-- "snow" us? We don't want to believe that evil hides behind a smiling human face. Centuries ago, Shakespeare said it: "That a man may smile and smile and be a villain." Our first instinct is to insist that evil is something foreign and separate from us, as if the killer is out there, an alien monster, non-human, and we are watching safely from behind our curtains. It's a means of self-preservation, a delusion we want to preserve, because the alternative is far more terrifying, maybe the source of the true horror: the Dark Passenger is the guy in VW Beetle next to you at the red light, smiling, and when the light changes, off he goes, leaving a trail of white socks.