Photo: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Zac Efron as Ted Bundy and Lily Collins. Brian Douglas/Netflix

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has fallen victim to backlash surrounding its so-called “romanticized” portrayal of Ted Bundy. Critics and audiences argue that the serial killer’s taste for the macabre takes a backseat to his good looks and charming disposition.

While Zac Efron has been praised for his captivating performance and acquiescence of Bundy’s “shark-like” knack for deception, the film opened to mixed critical reviews, as some felt that the “tonal shifts” were abrupt and incongruous. However, rather than diving into a critical evaluation of what this film did “right” and “wrong,” this piece will serve to analyze how the film gaslights the audience, and why this is its strongest (and most horrifying) attribute.

Bending our sense of good and evil, exposing the gray between the black and white divide we enforce upon society, this film, at its core, is a tour de force sanity check. For, the audience’s pulse slowly comes to synchronize with the drumline of admirers led by Liz Kloepfer and Carole Anne Boone.

We find ourselves asking, “was it really him?” Viewers know the history, they know the truth, but the truth – never shown, always stated – is not the message at this film’s core.

Photo: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Zac Efron as Ted Bundy. Brian Douglas/Netflix

Why the Killings in Extremely Wicked Occur Off-Screen

Allowing real footage and news reports to explain Bundy’s gruesome acts – as a side gig to his life as a family man – keeps the viewer’s perception of Ted Bundy untainted. If the film were to a show a heinous murder from the get-go, Bundy would take on the “cool killer” trope: calm in the face of distress, yet twisted in the safeties of the dark. This assigned identity is meant to be attained: the film is a journey back through the 1970s, not a retelling of the truth associated with later garnered knowledge. On-screen cruelty would violate the film’s intent. Those behind the production refuse to smear the trustworthy image of Bundy that they so work diligently to develop (never allowing us to return him to the villainous box that history eventually enclosed him within).

Joe Berlinger (director) and Michael Werwie (writer) do not make it easy for us to dismiss Bundy as a “bad guy;” rather, they make us come to terms on our own time. From the moment he is making breakfast in the kitchen to the phone calls behind bars, Bundy – almost effortlessly – captures our foolish hearts. Yet, why is it so easy? You can thank what psychologists call “The Halo Effect.”

Photo: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Zac Efron as Ted Bundy. Brian Douglas/Netflix

Ted Bundy, The Halo Effect, and a Traumatized Audience

The Halo Effect is a type of cognitive bias, in which our overall impression of a person dictates our perception of said individual’s character. To explain, if you think someone is nice, you are also likely to think he is smart. If you think someone is pretty, you are also likely to assume he is good. Extremely Wicked runs with this psychologically proven bias and employs it to maximum effect, showing viewers just how easy we are to manipulate. Bundy was cute, charming, caring, and considerate; thus, he was no serial killer, especially not to the many women who smiled at him during his trial.

Extremely Wicked is a masterpiece on the humanity scale, for it reflects back on us one of our most innate tendencies, and reveals the horrors that can result from placing the beautiful on a pedestal.  How scary is it to think that an attraction to Ted Bundy or a suppressed desire to see him emerge triumphant, in the 1970s, did not make you a demented individual; it merely made you human. Human to an “incredibly shocking” fault.  

Cast: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Dylan Baker,
Brian Geraghty, Terry Kinney, Haley Joel Osment, James Hetfield, Grace Victoria Cox with Jim
Parsons and John Malkovich

Director: Joe Berlinger

Writer: Michael Werwie

Producers: Michael Costigan, Nicolas Chartier, Ara Keshishian, Michael Simkin and Joe Berlinger

Executive Producers: Zac Efron, Michael Werwie, Jonathan Deckter and Jason Barrett

By Joshua Lezmi

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