The 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter ends on a fear-mongering tear about “the social compost heap” from which Charles Manson sprang that may lead to an even more “virulent strain” of “Mansonism.” [This usage of Mansonism pre-dates, and I imagine was the inspiration for, the other Mansonism of the 1990s.] It’s probably the best bit in the entire film, and it lays bare the moral at the heart of the film: Manson introduced a special variety of hippie that will endlessly multiple and grow increasingly more aberrant and antisocial. They represent a “virulent strain” of the youth movement that is coming of age presently, and that the viewer must be particularly wary of these mutants. Here is the clip, watch it through:
According to Helter Skelter, the idealism of 1960s youth movements in search of social justice, peace, and a better future effectively devolves into anarchic, violent cults led by fervent fanatics. A pretty effective narrative to stem popular support for any socially responsible activism during the 1970s. In fact, Vincent Bugliosi’s final commentary on this “era of madness” (which just as well could refer to the 1960s more generally as it does to the Manson murders) was probably the scariest thing about the TV movie when I watched it as a kid in 1976. The rabid Mansonites were out there multiplying wildly in mass orgies. It’s an image somehow akin to what 1950s youth must have felt when watching the xenophobic horror and scifi films of that era, namely Them! (1954) or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But the difference now was the threat was from within (something John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing updates brilliantly about the films from the 1950s).
Such a message of paranoia and fear in Helter Skelter informs the general public’s idea of the hippies as the modern incarnation of violent commies. And it gets even more interestingly when set against another burgeoning identity group of the era: the yuppies. The emergence of this category of young, conservative, upper-class urban professionals was the opposite extreme to the feral Manson hippies. White, clean-cut, all-American capitalists who are living the dream of social status and conspicuous consumption. The poster children for a re-worked vision of class consciousness that would ultimately celebrate the idea of material privilege in the mainstream media of the 1980s. Something that reaches its logical extreme with Bret Easton Ellis‘s 1991 novel American Psycho, but it can’t get there without first passing through Bundyism.
Ted Bundy in many ways was the prototypical yuppie during the late 1960s and early 1970s. A staunch college Republican who openly denounced student movements. In Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me (1980) she notes Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Meg Anders, was asked by police what he had said when asked about the lug wrench with a taped handle he kept in his car (which he used to crush the skulls of women he abducted) he answered, “You never know when you can get caught in the middle of a student riot” (193). A bizarre transference of his aggression onto the socially oriented activism of the day.
Yet, he seemed to use the university as a cloak of privilege as well as a hunting ground for his victims. He hid within an affectation of culture, and dressed the part of a prep—complete with turtleneck, blazer, white tennis shoes, and corduroys. What’s more, he resisted any communal idea of organizing, he was an individualist. His determination to become successful was described by Ann Rule as “an almost Horatio Alger-like metamorphosis” (21). What’s more, he was anything but a radical:
He believed totally in the orderly progression of changes in the system of government through legislation. His stance made him something of a loner among the work-study students working at the Crisis Clinic. They were semi-hippies, in both their garb and their political views, and he was a conservative Republican. (36)
I love the way Ann Rule delineates the two foci of “semi-hippies”: clothes and politics. Can’t the same be said of Yuppies? In this regard Ted Bundy really is a stand-out. He’s the very opposite of Manson, and in many ways scarier. He’s a clean-cut kid with predatory appetite that represents the most primal vision of a political rhetoric around social Darwinism that seems to buttress a system that amasses its fortunes in terms of human trophies, or said another way: disinvestment. He is the logical extreme of such a system of accumulation. Without God, without fate, and within a very flimsy world tied together by a fragile lattice of coincidence, survival of the fittest is all you have left. It’s the horror at the heart of the vision of the serial killer that explodes throughout the 70s and 80s—we’re being preyed on by forces out of our control. We’re supine in the face of chance, we can only hope to survive the predations of the most twisted among us. It’s a view of the world Ann Rule seem to buy into, one wherein weakness is a trait that must be culled at all costs:
Had the man who approached these young women divined somehow that he had come to his victims in a time when they were particularly vulnerable, when they were not thinking as clearly as they usually did? It would almost seem so. The stalking, predatory animal cuts the weakest from the pack, and then kills at his leisure.
Is Rule suggesting here that the common condition of the women who were abducted, beaten, raped, and then mutilated by Bundy might have been avoidable? Are we blaming the victims here? If only these women weren’t so vulnerable, if only they had a sense of how savage the world truly is, if only we were more scared of that stranger beside us. Ted becomes the one in total charge, the figure of power—the women become the “weakest of the pack.” And this metaphor of nature’s culling of the weak tends to reinforce the most conservative political rhetoric. The strong will survive and the weak shall perish. It’s the mantra of the corporate world, and it’s been an enduring a vision of our society for the last forty years that in many ways could be considered at the opposite end of the spectrum from the revolutions of the 1960s. In such a predatory world there’s no sense of community, no support for the vulnerable, and a return to a pre-civilized moment in which humanity is on par with animals on the hunt. It’s the closest thing to a worldview in Rule’s book, and it’s probably the best way to sum up the escalation of U.S. political culture as we enter the 1980s. And like Bugliosi’s view of Mansonism, it’s equally feral, just far less distinguishable from normalcy.
And there is so much more. Bundy’s defining romance with Stephanie (a girl from an affluent family) that ultimately becomes a source of rejection. After undergraduate, she no longer considered theirs a viable, longterm relationship based on his prospects (which might be read as a class division). The whole thing kinda reads like the plot of a John Hughes film from the 1980s. It’s as if Bundy was the other side of Manson, the bizarre horror of submerged class consciousness as well as the worst of sensationalized violence against women. As Bundy is coming into the national scene as a media sensation, so are slasher movies. The popular vision of violence against women is another cultural touchstone. The deranged killers of the slasher cycle of films that represent so much psychic baggage of a decade of deeply scarring turmoil, from Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) through Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and many many more. Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that’s why they call it culture. And the struggle between the horrific caricatures of Manson and Bundy might be exactly the political battle we are still fighting today, to borrow from Mike Caulfield‘s awesome comment here that inspired much of my ramblings above 🙂
But let me end this post somewhat haphazardly with another quote from Ann Rule’s book that captures for me an image of Bundy’s life that I believe supports my theory of him as the prototypical yuppie. In this scene during May, 1975 Ted is entertaining people he used to work with in Washington in his apartment in Salt Lake City:
The trio from Washington found Ted’s apartment very pleasant; he’d cut pictures out of magazines and tried to duplicate the decor he favored. He still had the bicycle tire, hung from the meat hook in his kitchen, and he used that to store knives and other kitchen utensils in a mobile effect. He had a color television set, a good stereo, and he played Mozart for them to accompany the gourmet meals he prepared.
It almost seemed like a scene out of some bratpack movie from the 80s like St Elmo’s Fire. The attention to decor, the Mozart accompanied by gourmet good, not to mention the hifi system. Ted is about things, he is about possessions and appearance, but as this passage also makes clear he also has a meat hook that holds knives and maybe even the cleaver he brings on his midnight forays. Part of the vision here is out of style magazine, and the other part a slasher film. Ted is the premise of a cultural flashpoint of consumption, predation, and affectation that would come to define the next 15 years of U.S. culture. If Helter Skelter killed the hippie, then The Stranger Beside Me gave the yuppies their first serial killer, but certainly not there last!