Ted Bundy has gone down as the most infamous serial killer in history. He was described to be smart, handsome and charming; the all-American boy. It is important to analyse one of the most perplexing criminal minds in history to provide some insight into factors that could have contributed to his reign of terror and provide answers as to why he committed atrocious crimes.
Bowlby (1969) developed a theory of attachment which proposed that children are biologically pre-programmed to develop attachments. Attachment behaviours are a survival function as they are naturally adaptive responses to separation from the caregiver (Marrone & Diamond, 2014). Winston and Chicot (2016) proposed that infancy is an essential time for brain development and it is a crucial time for attachment. Ainsworth (1979) suggested that a strong, positive attachment with the parents is vital as it provides the child with physical care and emotional care (e.g. sense of security), and in return, parents teach them love and empathy for others.
Additionally, Bretherton (1992) believed that early positive relationships with parents are essential in child development and go on to influence the development of personality of the child throughout adolescence and in adulthood. The disruption of the attachment relationship can have long-term, maladaptive consequences such as the inability to show empathy or affection for others and displaying aggressive behaviours (Hoeve & Stams, 2012).
From infancy, Bundy was not given much affection. He had come from a broken home where, from birth, his father was absent, he was made to believe his mother was his sister and his grandparents were his parents. He claimed to have a close bond with his grandfather, who he was separated from at the age of 4. According to Ainsworth (1979), the quality of physical and emotional care provided combined with early experiences influences the type of attachment the child develops. As a result of his unusual family circumstances, he was not able to develop that attachment that a child should have with his parents. Bowlby’s earlier work demonstrated that long-term effects of negative attachments could lead to delinquency and mental illness later in life (Holmes, 2014).
It is clear that his relationship with his mother was deprived of maternal love, resulting in the development of a negative attachment. In an interview, Bundy verbalised the resentment he felt towards his mother for withholding the truth from him about his paternity. His relationship with his mother could have been the reason why his victims were females. Research has indicated that a child who has developed a negative attachment is more likely to develop personality deficiencies which includes a lack of empathy and being very controlling/manipulative (Pearce, 2010). Bundy was known to have these personality deficiencies as well as a ‘deadly superficial charm’. According to the DSM-IV, these are essential features of a personality disorder (Hare & Hart et al, 1991).
Combined with Bowlby’s (1969) attachment theory, Freud’s (1905) theory about early childhood experiences could also contribute to the possible explanation for Bundy’s reign of terror. He suggested that our adult lives are shaped by childhood experiences. He proposed that the three elements of personality (id: seeks pleasure, ego: seeks reality and superego: seeks perfection) develop through the psychosexual stages of development. To successfully develop through these stages, the child must identify with the same-sex parent. If a stage is not successfully completed it can lead to sexual orientation disorder or sexual obsessions. In Bundy’s case, because he did not have a father, he was not able to identify with the same-sex parent, therefore, not completing the psychosexual stages.
When applying this theory to Bundy, it suggests that there was a possible correlation between his childhood and the atrocious crimes he committed. The conflict in Bundy’s childhood (his unusual family situation) stunted his emotional attachment with the primary caregivers in his life (mother and grandfather). Consequently, this disrupted his progression through the psychosexual stages of development which resulted in maladaptive behaviours in adulthood. This led to the development of paraphilias and sexual crimes. According to Freud (1905), Bundy’s lack of empathy and guilt was because of an underdeveloped superego caused by the lack of idealisation.
However, Bundy denied that his upbringing influenced his actions in any way. In an interview featured in Netflix’s “Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”, he mentioned that it was ‘normal’ for people to find out they are illegitimate at a later age, additionally stating that he grew up in “a wonderful home with two dedicated and loving parents”. He told death row interviewer, Dr. James Dobson, that his childhood consisted of completely normal activities, such as playing football and going fishing. In one of the interviews in Netflix’s special, he insisted that “there’s nothing in my background which would lead one to believe that I was capable of committing murder”.
In addition to this, a huge limitation of applying Freud’s theory to this case is that the theory simplifies the human mind into the threefold structure of personality and the psychosexual stages, making it a reductionist approach. It oversimplifies Bundy’s unusual behaviour and serial killer characteristics and uses basic structures to explain the complexities of the human mind. It is also deterministic in that it only accounts for the social context (childhood experiences) and does not explore the person’s free-will or genetics (Sulloway, 1991).
It is important to recognise that Bundy’s grandfather may have played a role in his criminality. Samuel Cowell was known to be a violent and abusive man with an obsession for pornography. He would abuse his children and torture animals (Michaud & Aynesworth, 2000). Despite this, Bundy apparently had a very close and special bond with his grandfather and was devastated when he was taken away from him. It seems as though the only strong relationship he developed in his childhood was with his grandfather. It is possible that Bundy identified with his grandfather who became a ‘fantasy character’ for him. Applying Bandura’s (1969) social learning theory to this, the grandfather was a role model whose behaviour/actions Bundy observed and imitated.
Bandura suggested that observational learning could produce ‘creative’ or ‘innovative’ behaviours as the observer may draw on his own conclusions from various responses to the action/behaviour modelled and make up new rules of behaviour that allows them to go beyond what they have observed. Observational learning can either occur intentionally or unintentionally (Engler, 2014). Through observing his grandfather, he was familiarised with abuse and pornography, which Bundy later went on to say became an obsession for him, leading to the formation of his sexually deviant and murderous characteristics. Akers (2001) supports this theory asserting that crime can be heavily influenced by imitation and additionally asserting being exposed to more deviant role models than confirmative role models could lead to higher levels of law violations. In this case, an interview with Dr. Dorothy Lewis found that Bundy’s grandfather influenced him more than he realised.
To support this, previous research has proposed that those who experienced violent behaviour or actions from their primary caregivers in childhood were almost 15% more likely to carry out violent behaviours/actions than those who experiences no violence in their childhood (Teague, 2007). Bundy started to exhibit bizarre behaviour from the age of three when he appeared at his aunt’s bedside several times, lifting the covers and placing knives next to her. He was familiarised with pro-criminal tendencies at a tender age and his parents failed to condition him away from deviant behaviours (Glueck & Glueck, 1950).
Furthermore, it is important to explore how the violent pornography may have been a contributing factor to Bundy’s crimes. Pavlov (1849/1936) articulated the theory of classical conditioning. The theory suggests that behaviour is learnt through responses to stimulation and association. During the process of conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus (pornography) produces an unconditioned response (fantasies) which is paired with a neutral stimulus (images of sexual acts). Overtime, this led to the conditioned stimulus (viewing hardcore pornography) to elicit a conditioned response (rape & murder; Engler, 2014). Bundy was introduced to pornography at a young age. He would sneak into a greenhouse where his grandfather’s pornography was hidden and read it.
He later became addicted to hardcore, violent pornography. Eventually, the pornography was not satisfying enough and in order to get his ‘fix’ he turned these crude fantasies into realities and actually performed the acts to satisfy his addiction. In his final interview, in response to the interviewer asking whether the violent pornography fuelled his fantasies, Bundy claimed “like an addiction, you keep craving … until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far ‐ that jumping off point where you begin to think maybe actually doing it will give you that which is just beyond reading about it and looking at it”. Pavlov’s (1849) theory suggests that Bundy’s inclination of raping/murdering women can be linked to the violent pornography he was subjected to at a young age.
However, in his final interview Bundy stressed that though it may have fuelled his criminal tendencies, he did not “blame pornography” and that it did not cause him to go out and commit these acts, whilst taking full responsibility for what he had done. He further asserted, “the issue is how this kind of literature contributed and helped mold and shape the kinds of violent behavior”. We can conclude from this that once again, this theory may be too deterministic as it suggests that being exposed to pornography elicited a condition response (rape/murder), thus dismissing the free-will of the individual. This deterministic theory reduces individual responsibility and stresses that Bundy’s behaviour was a passive reaction to environmental factors.
Whilst it’s important to recognise how Bundy’s social environment contributed to the development of his criminality, it is equally important to explore biological constructs and genetic factors that may have led to one of the most perplexing serial killers in history. It could be possible that Bundy had a predisposition toward mental illness and violent personality characteristics that led to his violent crimes.
Bundy’s grandmother suffered severe bouts of depression and hysteria. Dr. Dorothy Lewis mentioned that the grandmother had been hospitalised on many occasions and undergone electroshock therapy. She also developed a severe phobia of leaving her house. Bundy’s grandfather was known to be a violent man who apparently hallucinated and heard voices. There was also a widespread rumour that his grandfather may have raped his mother and that he was a product of incest (Nelson, 1994). These factors combined indicate that Bundy may have had a genetic predisposition to criminal traits. To support this, findings from previous research has shown that in a family were crime rates were high, twenty percent of around 700 descendants from the bloodline were found to be involved in criminal activity (Dugdale, 1877).
In opposition to this, it may seem that this explanation it too reductionist. Biological reductionism reduces many aspects of human experiences to a set of biological events. We cannot assume that Bundy’s genetics were the main cause of his criminality. Research has indicated that neural underpinnings of psychopathy is ambiguous and so far, no empirical evidence of neuroanatomical correlates for psychopathic behavior has been found (Laakso & Vaurio, 2001). Additionally, according to Bartol and Bartol (2011) many bio-psychologists state that it is equally important to consider the social context when determining whether an individual will have pro-criminal tendencies.
In conclusion, it is difficult to investigate one of the most perplexing criminal minds in history. There are a range of psychological theories exploring individual and situational forces in order to provide a possible explanation into what contributed to this individual to take the lives of several women.