As I turned on the Netflix movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, I was surprised to see Zac Efron‘s face pop up on the screen portraying Ted Bundy. I’ve always liked the positivity and humor of Zac in his various roles, so it took a minute to get used to the thought of seeing him as the notorious serial killer. We typically don’t like to think of our serial killers as charming, attractive, and intelligent. We want the simplicity of someone being all bad. We want the safety of telling ourselves that we would recognize evil if we came across it. We like to put our villians in boxes and think that would we wouldn’t be distracted by bright teeth and great abs. However, the data regarding narcissists and sociopaths don’t match our basic assumptions about our ability to recognize evil. In fact, in The Sociopath Next Door there is a quote by Martha Stout that says “I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s. His hair was perfect.”
As a toxic relationship recovery specialist, I know the most successful representations of evil among us do have an attractive personality, a drive to succeed, an uncanny ability to make people feel sorry for them, and an energy that attracts people to them rather than away from them. If humans were nearly as good at recognizing evil as we think we are, then dangerous people wouldn’t be nearly as successful at their game as they are. If humans were good at recognizing evil then the entire course of history would look different. However, I don’t think the fact that we miss evil so often is a testament to our stupidity. I believe it is a testament to our goodness.
As humans we are fabulous at seeing things from our own perspective. This means if you are coming from a perspective of mostly good then you are unlikely to recognize someone who is mostly evil. People who are good, loyal, kind, forgiving, and optimistic are more likely to find themselves in relationships of all types with destructive people. And then after they are fooled, they are most likely to struggle with forgiving themselves for not seeing the signs.
This is why as I watched Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile I had so much grace for his longterm girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. The movie was advertised as being from her perspective and there were shockingly few scenes in which you saw the “real” Ted Bundy. The movie portrayed the side of Ted Bundy that Elizabeth saw. As a viewer you saw the side of Ted Bundy he wanted you to see. The side he wanted Elizabeth and his other lovers to see. When the evidence began to stack against Ted, you saw Elizabeth flashback to memories of her past as she tried to work through the cognitive dissonance of “Who is the real Ted Bundy? Is it the man who kissed my neck and made me giggle before we made love? Is it the man who fed my daughter breakfast so I could sleep in? Or is it the man who is wanted for so many murders?”
And the answer to her questions is yes. The answer is both. Because toxic people of all forms make sure you see the side of them they want you to see rather than the side of them that is evil. They play to your pity. They use the best pieces of your personality against you. They make themselves indispensable to you. They show up with flowers and favors. They make you feel as if your life has finally begun right before they destroy everything you hold dear. And if they aren’t destroying you then they are using you as a decoy as they destroy someone else.
That is how the game works. Producer and star Zac Efron so accurately portrays the fact that Elizabeth did see the good in Ted because she saw the good in humankind. It isn’t that she was stupid. She saw from her own perspective, as most of us do, and because of this she assumed she would recognize evil if she saw it. She then wrestled with with cognitive dissonance as she tired to align the man in the news with the man in her bed.
Toxic people know this and will use it to their advantage. Throughout the movie you notice Ted playing on her strengths. He uses her optimism to control her as he asked her to hope. He uses her loyalty against her as he pushed her to wait for him. He uses her logic against her as he proclaims his innocence and argues “You know me! Am I the type of person who could do these horrible things?”
Like many of the people tuning in to this Netflix thriller I came to the movie with several questions. What type of woman falls for someone like Ted Bundy? Was she crazy too? Was she tricked? Did she know what was happening? What red flags did she miss? But after watching Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile I know that Elizabeth was just one of the many women among us who saw from our own perspectives. Who saw the person we hoped he would be rather than the person he was. Who saw two sides of someone and battled cognitive dissonance to know which side was true.
Elizabeth, if you are reading this I hope you can forgive yourself because your very nature was used against you. And to any other good, kind, loyal, forgiving and optimistic person who has been hurt by someone who was supposed to love them, I hope you can forgive yourself too. Because chances are you weren’t stupid. You were simply good.
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