Ted Bundy – A Researcher’s Dream Case Study


When people think of serial killers, Ted Bundy is usually at the top of the list.  He was attractive, charming, and very twisted.  He was also brought down by circumstances unforeseeable to himself or law enforcement (he was stopped after he looked suspicious driving around a neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, when the cop looked in his car, he noticed burglary tools and he was hauled in on suspicion of burglary… only once he was in custody, did the truth about his crimes come to light).

Bundy was willing to give interviews to anyone and everyone that asked for them; whether that was law enforcement or the media, he didn’t care, he just wanted the infamy.  Unfortunately, much of what we know about sociopaths and psychopaths came from Bundy who was a pathological liar and extreme narcissist.  This didn’t make him the most reliable source of information.

Furthermore, there is still debate about what exactly Ted was… Ann Rule called him a sociopath in her book about him.  Many others consider him a psychopath.  The confusion exists because he has traits of both.  Bundy was incapable of empathy, but he also didn’t understand the feeling of fear.  Or he did, but only in the sense that other psychopaths understand fear, it’s mostly a weapon with which they derive pleasure.

More confusion exists because at times, Bundy appeared remorseful about his killings and at other times, he was a braggart about them.  He is thought to have killed between 30-40 victims.  At times he claimed only two or three victims and at times he claimed 100 victims.  The inflation of numbers is not uncommon among serial killers, Henry Lee Lucas confessed to more than 200, but a large number of those could be proven not to be his victims.  It is far less common for a serial killer to reduce his victim count; especially when the evidence proves otherwise.

There are questions about how he spent his last night.  Some say he cried and prayed all night, begging God for forgiveness.  Others say he ate, slept well, and seemed to think little of the fact that he would be executed the following day.  In other words, for most people, it was the execution day for America’s most notorious serial killer and for Ted it was Tuesday (January 24, 1989, the day of his execution was in fact, a Tuesday).

One of the few things not in question is that most researchers believe Ted Bundy was born to be a serial killer.  While his childhood wasn’t great, they firmly believe that it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference with Bundy.  He could have been born into a wealthy, loving, devoted family and he still would have grown up to be a serial killer.  Perhaps the most famous story proving this theory is that of an encounter with his aunt.  His aunt, who was a teen at the time Ted lived with his grandparents, said she awoke in the early morning hours to find herself surrounded by knives and her 3-year-old nephew Ted, standing at the foot of her bed, watching her.  Even for a child with a difficult home life, this is a strange thing to do, especially at 3-years-old.  However, it would only be a year later, when he was 4, that he would be accused of killing the neighbor’s dog.  If all psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies are created by environment, then we need to know a whole lot more about Bundy’s childhood before he was 3 to figure out why he was a sociopath/psychopath at that tender age.

Sadly, we do know a great deal about it.  His aunt was a valuable source of information in that department and as I said before, his childhood was rough, but it wasn’t likely to turn a 3-year-old into a psychopath.  For this reason, Bundy is often used in case studies to prove that psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies can be genetic, not just environmental.

Which leads us back to the daunting, unanswered question:  Was Bundy a sociopath or a psychopath?  A case can be made for either.  Or is it possible that Bundy was something else?  In recent years, researchers have been trying to prove that being born with psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies is much worse than having them created as a child develops.  One group believes that physiological changes exist in born psychopaths/sociopaths.  Another believes that the lines between psychopaths/sociopaths is much less defined if a child is born that way.  Yet another is trying to prove that all high functioning psychopaths/sociopaths are born with it.  And Ted Bundy is one of the few case studies that crosses over all these areas.

Bundy did have some abnormal brain activity that could not be explained by head trauma, but has been found to occur in other high functioning psychopaths/sociopaths.  He did seem to have psychopathic tendencies from birth and that despite his drug-addicted teen mother and very stern, possibly abusive, grandparents raising him, he exhibited psychopathic tendencies at a much younger age than most would have thought possible.  He doesn’t neatly fit into one category or the other.  And regardless of claims that he was low functioning; he did graduate high school, he did attend college, he was able to hold down jobs, he was able to make money, he was able to get married and have a semi-normal relationship with his wife… all hallmarks of a high functioning psychopath/sociopath.

So, while most of what Ted told us was a lie, he has still been able to assist with psychopathic/sociopathic research.  Maybe one day, we will even be able to determine if he was more sociopath or psychopath.  – As a footnote, until the Green River Killer (Gary Ridgway), Bundy was considered America’s most prolific serial killer.  Also, until the capture of BTK (Dennis Rader), he was considered America’s most “normal” serial killer.

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