Ted Bundy & the ‘Promising Young Man’ Myth

Ted Bundy victims

Promising young men, you’ve heard of them. On the threshold of greatness, they symbolise a site of potential in which our culture invests a great deal. I was reminded of these young men while watching Netflix’s new series on the prolific serial killer, Ted Bundy.

In 1978, when Bundy is found guilty of a heinous attack in a Floridian sorority house, the presiding judge, Edward D. Cowart, laments the waste his conviction represents.

“You’d have made a good lawyer,” Cowart says, heavily. “I’d have loved to have you practice in front of me. But you went another way, partner.”

Talk about an understatement. Bundy used his knowledge of the law, police procedure and psychology to conduct a murder spree that traversed the United States, which saw him evade detection for years and, when finally apprehended, escape not once but twice.

Bundy was tried in 1978, executed in 1989. Sadly, the trope of the promising young man did not perish with him. It persists, resurfacing whenever white, educated, well-turned out young men of certain (read ‘respectable’) backgrounds find themselves held accountable for their crimes against women. We hear its echo in another trope often evoked to excuse or humanise men’s violence – the pillar of the community, who would do anything for anyone, except perhaps his slain wife and children.

There is nothing promising about men who, by dint of their brutality towards women, represent the basest, most reprehensible aspects of humanity. Their potential – which they chose to ruin – is not the one we should be mourning. Bundy was a rampant narcissist with a pathological entitlement complex. Mythologizing his crimes commodifies the suffering of his victims and those who loved them while displacing their stories from view; it gives Bundy what he wanted – the starring role.

Lamenting the thwarted potential of men like Bundy is to ignore the real injustice: the loss they inflicted on their victims, all those promising young women, and the shadows their crimes cast for every woman trying to move freely through the world.


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