The Ted Bundy Project: Can’t Look Away – Greg Wohead

A while back I came across a section of Ted Bundy’s confession tapes online and was both intrigued and horrified by it. I suppose I’m fascinated by serial killers in general — I think a lot of people are — but I find Ted Bundy particularly interesting because of his reputation as a ‘nice guy’.

He confessed to killing around 30 women (though many estimate the actual number to be much higher) between 1974 and 1978, and was normally able to convince people to follow him to his car by faking an injury and asking for help carrying a box or briefcase.

There are so many utterly compelling twists and turns in Ted Bundy’s case that I think anyone would find interesting; he escaped prison twice, he served as his own attorney, he got married in the courtroom during his murder trial (due to a loophole in Florida’s legal system).

Really, though, when I listened to his confession tapes that first time, I felt confronted with the fact that I was listening to a human being. It made me wonder what I was capable of doing myself, almost daring myself to imagine everything that humans have the potential to do. There was a morbid pleasure in listening to the tapes, in disgusting myself and letting my imagination go to horrible places. I guess the piece is my response to that morbid pleasure and an attempt to open up that response in a live space with other people.

I understand the fascination that much of the world seems to have with serial killers in as much as I can identify with it. I certainly feel it myself. I don’t presume to know exactly what’s behind it, and I don’t think it’s down to any one thing. In researching this piece, I read a lot of books, talked to several psychologists, psychopathy experts, social workers and neurologists. Some people seem to be sure they know what the interest in serial killers — or more generally, morbid fascination — is all about, but they all say different things.

One of the richest explorations of morbid fascination I came across was a book called Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away by Eric G Wilson. Rather than attempting any sort of definitive explanation, Wilson looks at this pull towards darkness in a series of essays and personal accounts. To me, that seems like an honest way to understand a fascination with serial killers; like most things in life, it isn’t easy to explain or put into a category. It’s slippery and off centre, and I think the way we relate to these things says more about us than we like to think about. I think that might have something to do with why there can be an aspect of pleasure in experiencing it.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I imagine with most people there is some sort of differentiation between the real-life serial killers and fictional serial-killers they come across in books and programmes. Something I’ve thought about a lot during the development of this piece is the difference between the real and fake when it comes to gory or violent stories and imagery (or maybe more interestingly, whether they’re perceived to be real or fake). In his book, Wilson talks about hovering on a border; a sort of sweet spot when it comes to morbid curiosity where we’re far enough away from the trauma to know that we are safe, but close enough for the thrill. A location of the morbid aesthetic where we can touch something sublime.

I think the attraction to or interest in real-life serial killers can provide this sense of potency; these are real people and events that actually happened, so we feel a different kind of thrill in reading books or interviews or watching programmes about them. It could have happened to us. Or maybe in some circumstances we could have been the aggressor. It’s a different kind of thrill than you get from fiction (you can obviously get a thrill from fictional stories and characters, but it has a different quality, I think, and in some ways it can be less potent).

Whether fictional and fictionalised violence is a problem in our culture is a complicated question. I don’t think the general idea of fictional and fictionalised violence is a problem (in that I think things are rarely that simple), but I think portrayals of violence can be used in damaging ways when it comes to how power is wielded and communicated in our culture. I’m not necessarily saying it’s not a problem, but I think it can be far too easy to blame something like fictional or fictionalised violence when maybe what we really need to confront is the part of ourselves that is titillated by those portrayals of violence. With this piece, I’m really less interested in pointing a finger at some dark ‘other’ that is damaging society, and more interested in open myself (and all of us) up and pointing the finger towards the bloody mess of guts inside us.

The Ted Bundy Project

Greg in The Ted Bundy Project

Researching this piece was difficult at times. Some research led me to a few dark places online. I guess I wasn’t really that surprised, but it was the first time I became aware of a few online communities specifically centred around sharing real-life gory images and videos from crime scenes or horrific accidents, and in a few cases photos or videos taken by a murderer of the victim. There were definitely some questions that have come up — and still come up – for me about consent and what I am (we are) condoning or supporting when I (we) look at images like that. It’s an uncomfortable headspace to occupy, but I don’t think that means I (we) should shy away from it.

I wouldn’t say I ever regretted my decision to make this play. I think the difficulty in researching it made me feel that it was important to bring into a live space.

I would say my aim is usually to make a space where people can have an experience rather than just to show them something. In this case I suppose my aim is to make contact with the experience of morbid fascination which I think we can all identify with — through different kinds of confessions and reconstructions. It’s like an hour set aside to look directly at something we sometimes keep in our peripheral vision because it’s ugly.

Thematically, I’m attracted to both the dark and the light, I’d say. In the past I have mainly worked with much lighter themes, but as an audience member (and person), I’m equally attracted to darkness and light. Obviously, though, I do feel a strong attraction to darkness, which is where the impulse for this piece comes from.

The Ted Bundy Project is very different from all of my previous work in a lot of ways. My work before this has been described using words like ‘nostalgic’, ‘lovely’ or ‘whimsical’. I’ve made several storytelling shows, and I have in the past been accused of twee-ness. So far, people have used lots of different words to describe The Ted Bundy Project, but ‘twee’ has not been one of them.

It’s not so much that I just wanted to try something new with Ted Bundy for the sake of it, but it’s that I wanted to recognise the qualities that existed in myself and my work — the qualities that led people to describe my work as ‘lovely’ — and use those qualities to take us all somewhere different or unexpected. That felt appropriate to what I wanted to explore.

As told to Richard Aslan for Mayfest. | @gregwohead

The Ted Bundy Project plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 23-27 June. Find out more, and book tickets here.

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