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Stripping infamous killers of their celebrity
The best new non-fiction crime has left behind the salacious reverence of notorious murderers…
In her new novel, Bright Young Women, writer Jessica Knoll spins a historical thriller about two women affected by the horrors inflicted by a notorious serial killer in the 1970s.
It’s fiction drawn from real events. In 1978, a depraved attack takes place at a sorority house in Tallahassee, Florida. Four women are attacked, two die.
One of the survivors, Pamela, actually sees the killer’s face, and is still haunted by it 40 years later. She also still mourns the friends who did not survive.
Meanwhile, Tina devotes herself to uncovering what happened to a friend who disappeared at Lake Sammamish State Park, Washington State, in broad daylight.
A one-man serial-killer genre
One of the striking aspects of this well-received novel is that Knoll does not name the killer, who is only referred to as ‘the Defendant’.
Of course, most readers will get it, know who was awful man was. He has had films made about him, such as Zac Efron’s 2019 feature Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
That’s a title which really wants to have its cake and eat, like it’s saying, ‘Look he was a scumbag, but don’t you just love watching movies about his guy?’
Look at IMDB to see how much of an entertainment industry this man has spawned. At the expense of naming him, here’s a sample: Ted Bundy: American Bogeyman (2021, starring Chad Michael Murray), Bundy and the Green River Killer (2019, Matthew Baunsgard), Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer (2021, Elizabeth Kendall), Bundy Legacy of Evil (2009, Corin Nemec), Bundy & The Wolf Man: Closer than We Think (2023, documentary), Ted Bundy: Natural Porn Killer (2006, documentary).
Many of the titles alone are depressing enough. That’s to say nothing of the books and podcasts that also virtually salivate over his atrocities.
Untold lives in The Five
Most serial killers revel in seeing their sobriquet in the headlines. They cause ongoing grief and misery, and then get to be the star in their own show, becoming anti-heroes in popular culture. Bundy is forever referred to as being handsome, charming and intelligent, where in fact he was pathetic, alone in his dismal fantasy world and dead inside.
Bright Young Women repudiates the serial-killer-as-star narrative, reclaiming attention for the survivors in its story. Pamela, along with the other protagonists, Ruth and Tina, exhibit the qualities that should be celebrated – empathy, intelligence, the capacity to love.
A revulsion to what might be seen as a chamber of horrors-style of true-crime depictions has been underway for a while now.
We see it in dramas such as the superb 2006 BBC mini-series Five Daughters, a moving account of the victims of Ipswich serial killer Steve Wright. This was a very sensitive look at grief and loss, with Wright relegated to the role of off-screen reference.
Hallie Rubenhold’s brilliant non-fiction book The Five reset the narrative around the most long-running of all such cases, ‘Jack the Ripper’, upsetting many ‘fans’ along the way. She had the temerity to also focus on the five victims, offering the sobering context of appalling poverty and tragedy that blighted their lives and placed them in the path of a killer.
And, of course, as I’ve mentioned recently on this site, the current ITV series The Long Shadow has purposely avoided all mention of Peter Sutcliffe’s media nickname, denying him a brand and currency that is unpalatable to many even today.
For more about Bright Young Women, see Patton Oswalt’s review in the New York Times.
A documentary to look out for… Bad Host: Hunting the Couchsurfing Predator is a three-parter from Sky Documentaries. It follows a group of women from various countries who joined forces and spent six years trying to bring down a predatory Italian policeman. No schedule date yet, but coming from production company Lightbox, founded by Oscar-winner Simon Chinn and Emmy-winner Jonathan Chinn, it sounds like an intriguing story and one to watch out for.
The Reckoning on BBC One has been uncomfortable viewing. Steve Coogan’s chilling portrayal of national celeb and all-round monster Jimmy Savile is compelling, but it offers little in the way of the roots of his psychopathy.