On Friday, Netflix premiered Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Joe Berlinger’s thriller based on__Elizabeth Kloepfer’s__ real-life, approximately five-year romance with Ted Bundy. Kloepfer, played by Lily Collins, is a single mother living in Seattle in 1969, when she first meets Bundy (Zac Efron) at a bar and begins dating him. He seems to be the perfect husband and father figure for her small family unit—willing to cook dinner and help take care of her daughter, even if he occasionally needs to borrow money. But when a frightening murder spree begins in 1974, and police start releasing details about the suspect—believed to be a handsome, well-dressed man named “Ted,” who drives a VW Beetle— Kloepfer becomes suspicious of her own Ted, suddenly re-examining moments from her relationship that, in this new context, take on chilling meaning.
The film’s script, by Michael Werwie, is adapted from Kloepfer’s out-of-print 1981 memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, and was made with Kloepfer’s blessing. But in order to fit Kloepfer’s story into a roughly 100-minute film, there were elements of the real story that had to be cut or contorted.
Light spoilers ahead for those who have not yet seen Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
In Kloepfer’s memoir, after she begins hearing details about the murder suspect’s modus operandi, she begins to think back on small coincidences that seem to connect him to her own Ted. The police describe the suspect as, on occasion, acting injured in order to lure his victims into assisting him back to his car. Kloepfer remembers that, while snooping through her boyfriend’s apartment, she once found Plaster of Paris that he had stolen from the medical-supply company where he once worked. Another time, she noticed a pair of crutches in his apartment, which he said were his landlord. On another haunting occasion, she reached underneath his car seat to find something she had dropped, only to discover a hatchet. She was frightened, but Bundy explained it with such ease—he needed to cut down a tree for his parents—that she waved it off in the moment. While borrowing his car, Kloepfer found a stack of gas receipts over his visor—suggesting he had been on long road trips without telling her.
Kloepfer reached out to police multiple times with these details—but, because Bundy had no prior criminal record, Seattle authorities did not seem to consider him a serious suspect. Kloepfer also told them about Bundy’s habit of stealing—everything from a television to textbooks. When an officer asked if Bundy might have a reason to want to harm women, she told them that he was born illegitimate—and harboring resentment toward his mother for never telling him the truth about his father.
It was not until 1975, after Bundy moved to Utah for law school, that that he was pulled over for speeding and arrested. His car contained what appeared to be burglary tools—a crowbar, handcuffs, rope, a ski mask, and another mask fashioned out of pantyhose. But in speaking to Kloepfer, he had more quick, easy explanations for the items—telling her that he wore the pantyhose, for example, underneath the ski mask when shoveling snow. By this time, Bundy and Kloepfer had broken up multiple times; she was ready for marriage, and frustrated that Bundy was so distant, flaky, and, from what Kloepfer gathered, seeing other women. Even though they were not officially a couple, Bundy would still sometimes proclaim his love for her in phone calls and letters. And when Bundy stood trial in Utah in 1976 for attempted kidnapping and assault, a tearful Kloepfer joined Bundy’s parents at the sentencing.
In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and in real life, Kloepfer is and was haunted by the mystery of whether Bundy had murdered the women she had read about. In the film, Kloepfer eventually visits Bundy on death row, and finally gets closure on the matter of Bundy’s guilt, in a haunting face-to-face encounter which I will not spoil here.
In real life, however, Kloepfer’s chilling closure arrived differently—via phone call. It was February 1978. The previous December, Bundy had made his second prison escape, from Colorado, by climbing through the ceiling of his cell. Kloepfer had no way of knowing where Bundy was—but when news broke in January that two sorority sisters had been brutally murdered in Florida, Kloepfer had an “ominous feeling” that Bundy was in the state. Bundy, then one of the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted Fugitives, was arrested for driving a stolen vehicle. Once in custody, Bundy bargained with officers—who did not seem to realize yet that they had arrested a serial murderer—for a phone call, and dialed Kloepfer in a panic.
“It’s going to be bad,” he said, according to Kloepfer’s memoir, “real bad when it breaks tomorrow. I want you to be prepared. It could be really ugly.”
Kloepfer asked whether he was a suspect in the sorority murders—unaware, at the time, that Bundy had also killed a 12-year-old girl, the same age as Kloepfer’s daughter.
“I wish we could sit down . . . alone . . . and talk about things,” Bundy told her, “with nobody listening . . . about why I am the way I am.”
When Kloepfer pressed Bundy for details, he grew angry and diverted the conversation. But a week later, Bundy called again.
“I want to talk about . . . what we were talking about on Thursday,” he said, according to the memoir.
“About being sick?” Kloepfer asked.
“Yes,”?Bundy said. “I was afraid you would have nothing to do with me if I told you.” During the course of the call, he explained that there was something wrong with him—a force building inside of him. “I just couldn’t contain it. I’ve fought it for a long, long time . . . it got too strong.”
Kloepfer asked if he had ever considered murdering her. After a long silence, he confessed to feeling “it coming on” one night when he was staying over at her apartment. “I closed the damper so the smoke couldn’t go up the chimney,” Bundy told her. “And then I left and put a towel in the crack under the door so the smoke would stay in the apartment.”
Kloepfer remembered that night—waking up, because she could not breathe, in an apartment filled with smoke, and running around to open the windows. “I almost didn’t believe him,” Kloepfer wrote. “It didn’t fit in with the murders. I thought that maybe he wasn’t willing to talk about any more serious attempts to kill me.”
Kloepfer asked him whether he used her to “touch base with reality” after the murders. By that time, she had obsessively gone through her calendar to figure out whether she was with Bundy at the times of the murders. She had realized that, sometimes, Bundy had reached out to her mere hours before or after he murdered again.
“Yeah, that’s a pretty good guess,” he responded. “I don’t have a split personality. I don’t have blackouts. I remember everything I’ve done. [ . . . ] The force would just consume me. Like one night, I was walking by the campus and I followed the sorority girl. I didn’t want to follow her. . . . I’d try not to, but I’d do it anyway.”
Kloepfer asked why Bundy couldn’t contain his impulses, even after breaking free from prison again. Why would he risk that freedom?
“I have a sickness,” he replied. “A disease like your alcoholism . . . you can’t take another drink and with my . . . sickness . . . there is something . . . that I just can’t be around . . . and I know it now.”
When she asked him to clarify, Bundy replied, “Don’t make me say it.”
The phone call ended, and Kloepfer sat in her living room in silence. “I had prayed for so long ‘to know,’” Kloepfer wrote, “and now the answer killed a part of me.”
In the preface of the book, Kloepfer explained that she initially wanted to keep her involvement with Bundy a secret—but reporters, writers, and private investigators tracked her down. If she was going to tell her story, however, she wanted to do it on her own terms, and in full—fleshing out the complexities of their relationship. “In spite of all the destruction [Bundy] has caused around him, I still care what happens to Ted,” Kloepfer wrote. “I have come to accept that a part of me will always love a part of him.”
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile ends with a title card explaining that Kloepfer has gotten sober, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, and is doing well.
When Vanity Fair spoke to Berlinger, who met with both Kloepfler and her daughter, Molly, in the process of adapting Kloepfer’s story, he explained how they responded to the film: “They have both had a hard time processing this. It took a lot of trust for them to meet with us . . . [Kloepfler] still hasn’t seen the film, and doesn’t want to see the film, and doesn’t want to do press for the film. She still has a hard time with it. But I think she is happy we made the film, and happy with Lily portraying her.”