The trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile dropped last month to much social media frenzy. The Ted Bundy biopic starring Zac Efron, chronicles the crimes of the infamous serial killer during the height of his fame. The ninety second trailer shows Efron as an attractive, everyday man and contains several zoomed in shots of his charismatic smile. The trailer paints Bundy in a positive light and leaves viewers wondering if they were watching a promotion for a romantic comedy. Within minutes of the trailer being released, people flocked to the internet in voicing their disappointment, claiming the trailer was diminishing the horrible crimes he committed. Others realized the movie intended to show how people struggled to accept that a seemingly perfect man would be capable of committing such horrors. Although early reviews attempted to assure people that the trailer is misleading, the damage may already be done, as movie goers are predicted to shun the film.
This whole controversy raises an interesting question about the movie industry and where it’s headed. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is not the only Bundy related release of the year. Two months into the new year and we already have at least two major visuals based on the convicted felon—the other being Netflix’s documentary series. Hollywood has always had a knack for turning the depraved into entertainment, and you have to admit it’s a working formula. But, the recent spike in films about mass murderers and criminals suggests a worrying trend since these movies have the unintended consequence of glamorizing their heinous acts.
Films, especially in Hollywood, have an ongoing love affair with Gangster flicks that began in the early nineties. The success of the likes of Untouchables and Donnie Brasco helped cement this genre in American culture. Directors would have a wide variety of stories to explore, but they all shared the action filled violence and strong anti-hero figures. Thought to be harmless, these motion pictures had the effect of romanticizing organized crime to the impressionable youth. We see a similar theme in today’s television with shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter, exemplifying the deviant sides of society. Dexter stars a sociopathic murderer who enacts his form of justice on people he deems to be unworthy and Breaking Bad follows a high school chemistry teacher who enables his dark side by peddling meth. These shows oppose the archetype protagonist, replacing heroes with drug traffickers and murderers and enticing audiences to root for these characters. Even though, we all know these behaviours are wrong, simply condoning these actions within the confines of the show sends a wrong message subconsciously—one that relays it’s acceptable to unleash our criminal tendencies if push comes to shove.
Sadly, this practice of belittling serious issues doesn’t just stop there. Pop culture has a way of romanticizing mental illness and rewarding bad behaviour with instant fame. The popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why tried to start a conversation on suicide; instead, its depiction of depression may have hindered the discussion rather than helped it. Perhaps the whole scenario of the main character’s suicide, where she leaves behind a series of tapes addressed to individuals she holds responsible for her action, is suggestive to younger audiences. In trying to address a delicate topic, the writers failed to provide educational information on suicide prevention. Suicide was reduced to a mere plot device and story about teenage struggles.
Similarly, another Netflix entry You, which tells the story of internet dangers, resulted in viewers writing “thirst tweets” about Penn Badgley’s psychopathic stalker. His character was made so desirable and his intentions made to look pure that people found themselves sympathizing with him.
It’s not just the world of cinema that falls culprit to idealizing the dangerous. There is a common notion that artists who suffer from mental illnesses produce better art. Even the suggestion that depression or its likes can inspire creativity is bothersome. Some people use art as a means to battle their personal demons and trivializing their struggles by making such statements reduce their abilities to symptoms of their disease, as if their suffering is a gift to humanity. Likewise, there are misconceptions that alcoholism and drug addiction can fuel one’s inner artist, leading to negligent thinking such as, “All you need to be a good artist is a rough childhood.” Making light of people’s struggles and romanticizing them instead of respecting their achievements sets a harmful precedent.
Art should be about celebrating people’s lives, and given the influence it has on shaping the world, its leading proponents have a responsibility to treat certain topics with more care. It’s a scary thought imagining how the families of Ted Bundy’s victims would feel about Hollywood glorifying him and showing his life as a love story from someone’s perspective.