Evil as entertainment

You may be aware that Netflix has a new documentary series on infamous 20th century serial killer Ted Bundy. The Ted Bundy Tapes, as the series is entitled, utilizes ostensibly unknown footage to produce a new, more detailed portrait of the killer and his actions.

I watched the first episode of Netflix’s with my partner and a roommate. As I test relatively low in disgust sensitivity (20-50th percentile on the disgust scale) and extremely high in openness to experience (99th percentile BFI) I did not expect to be particularly unnerved or unsettled. I also have no problem with representations of violence or evil in film – Upgrade, one of my favorite films of all time, features brutal violence that ends with the bad guy getting away with it.

Yet to my immense surprise, this doc completely shut me down.

The Tapes begins with Bundy’s childhood, and sketches the chronological progression of his transformation into America’s most infamous serial killer. No violence is shown onscreen; the relatively tame crime scene photographs constitute the only PG-13 material on screen. Scene-by-scene, the content left nothing to be disturbed by.

Yet what both grips and horrifies the viewer at the same time is the interplay between the atrocious violence of Ted Bundy, retold with consistently palpable glee on audio, and the helpless, frustrated horror it caused, as retold by whose who knew his victims. The constant back-and-forth tennis match between Bundy’s reveling in his murders and the tortured confusion of the communities and families gives way to an emergent property of abject horror that by far outstrips anything one might expect to see in even the worst of horror films.

As a curious teen with an internet connection, I recall many times stumbling across grotesque shock videos on the dark corners of the internet. Images and videos of women in high-heels stepping on cats, among other unspeakably sick things involving children or animals. I recall struggling to analyze my own disgusted emotions at the time, and realizing that a key factor lay in the helplessness of the victims depicted. Obviously, it isn’t hard to step on a cat because a cat can’t defend itself; what keeps us from abusing animals and people isn’t the difficulty of the act, but the fact that every moral sensibility, innate or acquired, tells us not to do so.

Upon analysis, the actions of Ted Bundy seem strikingly similar. It was not hard, in the overwhelmingly white areas of 1970s America that Bundy victimized, to gain someone’s trust – but to abuse that trust, and the person offering it, would have been unthinkable.

Bundy reveled in that unthinkability. In the documentary, we see him boasting about gaining the trust of women whom he later violates and brutally murders. The shock value derived from his unspeakable crimes is precisely what motivates him to retell them to the recording interviewer.

It’s not particularly surprising that this experience left me as shocked and disgusted as it likely did his interviewer. But by feeling the reaction he intended, I gave him – even in death – exactly what he wanted. The entire audiovisual experience of this Netflix series inadvertently validates the motive behind Bundy’s psychopathic crimes in the first place.

Is it good that we make documentaries designed to give serial killers what they want, even in death? Probably not. Many news sites have already started anonymizing school shooters to address this very problem. Netflix’s commercialization of it is thus something I want nothing more to do with.

Narratives of conversion

A while ago I was doing a research project on converts to Islam and their motivations through qualitative self-reports, which I collated into a series of ‘types’ or narrative trends. Here’s what I found.

Identity
For many in the increasingly multicultural, heterogeneous, disoriented West, Islam provides a specific identity by which they can define themselves and their relationships with other entities in the world.

A young guy at my gym (16) who recently converted to Islam is an example; he is son to a white father who abandoned his black immigrant mother before he was born, and described to me the difficulties of identification at school. He was being raised by a black mother in a black neighborhood, but looks more white. Islam grants him a consistent in-group with which he can find solidarity. He knows absolutely nothing about the theological aspects of Islam and hasn’t read the Qur’an, but takes pride in his new identity as a Muslim and often drops standard Muslim vocab (hamdulillah, mashallah, etc).

His newly obtained insider status he displays frequently, saying ‘we’ (Muslims) and ‘you’ (non-Muslims) even though he only converted a few months ago. Previously, as a ‘white’ looking kid yet also a product of a black subculture, there were presumably fewer individuals he could feel connected with in the same way.

Philosophy
The West is increasingly irreligious, but the human need for spirituality remains a motivating factor in many of our lives. We naturally seek out something to fill that void. For many, Christianity seems ‘weak’ and ‘feminine’ in comparison to a much more ‘muscular’ and uncompromising Islam. The level of piety displayed by self-declared Christians, many of whom do not go to church and the vast majority of whom do not do anything ‘Christian’ above that, might also seem ‘shallow’ in comparison to Muslims, who (ostentatiously) display strong degrees of religious attachment and faith.

For some, then, a quest for spirituality and a desire to know the ‘truth’ of existence can drive them towards religion; Islam will often be the obvious choice due to its constant proselytizing, its muscularity and universal presence, and the unwavering faith (and total lack of doubt) of the vast majority of its adherents. As a convert, I myself fell into this category.

Purpose
Islam is a religion, but that religion mandates a specific way of life for its adherents in a way that no other organized religion does. While this is authoritarian, many people in the West, especially young people, feel that this gives them a sense of purpose; they are no longer sleeping in until 1 in the morning on weekends, but waking up for fajr at 5 AM.

Not only that, but they have a clear template for how to live their lives; do this, do that, and things will all turn out fine. For many, these firm guidelines bestow upon their lives a sense of drive that would otherwise be lacking. There are also clear tiers of accomplishment and progression that allows someone to feel successful; memorizing surahs, for example, or improving one’s tajweed gives a sense of achievement that is otherwise lacking for many people, especially those in dead-end jobs or careers.

Indigenous women are the largest source of converts to Islam in Europe. Islam assigns women a clear role as homemakers submissive to their husbands (4:34) and although this may seem counterintuitive, some women (not only underachievers) are quite happy to be just that, and feel uncomfortable with an increased burden of responsibility placed upon them by feminism and the equality of the sexes, which demands they do more. For them, Islam gives them a more ‘traditional’ template which not only does not punish them for not taking on a career and being a stay-at-home mom, but in fact rewards them for it.

Others
I feel like narratives around conversion in prisons is also something worth examining, as it is happening at an alarming rate in the UK and often results in the emergence of religious gangs within prisons openly exposing extremist views, which can impede reintegration. I’m currently reading more on this phenomenon.

Another type, the ‘decolonialist’ type of conversion, is observed particularly in the United States, where Islam has been seen as a more authentically ‘African’ religion, ever since the 1930s with the founding of the Nation of Islam movement. Prominent individuals like Malcolm X have popularized this model, and many black Americans feel that they have a collective grievance against Christianity for slavery which is best solved by turning to Islam. The MASSIVE increase in appropriated names of Arabic origin in the black American community is symptomatic of this trend.

Losing my glasses and seeing reality

Myopia runs strong on both sides of my family, so it wasn’t so much of a surprise when I began to lose my eyesight while in China last year (I am 24 years old, for reference). While it happened gradually enough that I was under no illusions as to what was going on, it still came as quite of a shock given that I had always – even in my early 20s – been proud of how much more ‘able’ I was than my lens-bound parents and relatives.

Of course China is the glasses capital of the world, so I was able to alleviate my state of hindrance by purchasing a (relatively cheap) pair of excellent glasses that allowed me to see better than I had in years. I’ve worn these since and practically forgotten about my blindness in the course of doing so.

Yesterday, I left my glasses at a house after attending a party, but I still have to work because I’m on a 9-5 schedule. Having to squint to merely make out the writing on a computer screen just a foot away from me, and maximize all the windows simply so I can see is a pretty humbling experience. It’s a reminder that almost all aspects of our ‘normal’ lives are enabled by a complex web of industry and technology working in cohesion to bring us a better quality of life enabled by the profit motive. Without that, we’d have nothing. We would still be troglodytes in caves; tribesmen on the African savannah.

One day, that web will collapse. Anyone skeptical of this proposition should realize that their denialism is equivalent to asserting that humans and the (exceedingly fragile) societies we have built up will last forever. In ‘real’ reality, there is no forever. There is only entropy, particle decay, and the heat death of the universe. There is only the greed of men, the biological impetus to reproduce, and the blazing heat of the atomic fire that one day will rend our very atoms asunder.

It may seem strange that losing one’s glasses could provide so poignant an opportunity to recognize and reflect these facts. But it is the experience of loss, and the revelatory acknowledgment of one’s own vulnerability, that allows us to recognize that our diligently hidden fragility is no less a part of us than it is a part of the human condition. That ephemerality, I think, is what makes life valuable. That is why life must be protected. But it is also the reason why the atavistic reversion to our pre-civilized state is never as far away as we might like to think.