A Killer’s Mind: Ted Bundy’s Mental Health Diagnosis

A Killer's Mind: Ted Bundy's Mental Health Diagnosis

You’ve probably heard the name Ted Bundy — the serial killer infamously responsible for the deaths of at least 30 young women in the 1970s. With criminologists engaged in studying him to dissect the mind of a serial killer, the case has fascinated and frightened the public for decades.

When experts interviewed Bundy, he shared conflicting details about his early life, his thought processes and what truly motivated him to kill. He described his violent acts as addiction, recalled a sense of euphoria after each murder and even expressed gratitude for his inability to feel guilt. Did Ted Bundy’s mental illness play a part in the heinous crimes he committed?

Who Was Ted Bundy?

Ted Bundy was born Theodore Robert Cowell on November 24, 1946, in Burlington, Vermont. He grew up believing he lived with his older sister, Louise Cowell, and his parents — but Louise was his mother, and Ted’s “parents” were actually his grandparents.

Louise was 21 years old when she became pregnant, and being a single mother was frowned upon at the time. When Bundy was 4 years old, his mother moved them to Washington, DC, and married Johnnie Bundy. Despite taking his last name, Ted thought little of his stepfather. Louise never revealed the identity of Ted’s biological father, and thus their relationship was strained.

As a child, Bundy was shy and introverted, with a strange fascination with knives and violence. He was also a habitual liar. As a teenager, he struggled with his identity and felt anger and resentment towards his mother for keeping his biological father a secret.

During college, he was more outgoing and even started dating, but his relationships were tumultuous, marked by jealousy and possessiveness. Academically, however, Bundy was very successful. His professors held him in high regard, and he worked for a while at Seattle’s Suicide Hotline Crisis Center.

In 1972, Bundy earned a degree in psychology before getting accepted into law school in Utah. By 1975, the young man was active in the Republican Party and showed promise for a successful career in law. Instead, he became the worst kind of criminal.

Ted Bundy’s Murders

Between 1974 and 1978, Ted Bundy committed a string of brutal murders in at least five states, including Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Florida. His victims were typically young, attractive women with long brown hair whom he would abduct, rape and kill. Bundy would lure his victims in by using his charm and posing as an authority figure or someone who needed help, gaining their trust before abducting them.

The murders involved a gruesome level of violence, including necrophilia and post-mortem mutilation. It’s unknown how many young women Bundy killed; he confessed to 36, but some believe the number could be as high as 100. In 1975 he was finally arrested when one of his victims survived. However, Bundy managed to escape police custody twice between 1975 and 1977 and continued to kill. Twelve-year-old Kimberly Leach was Bundy’s final victim.

It took a long time for Ted Bundy to finally face justice for his crimes. His victims were from different states, and back then, police from separate jurisdictions rarely shared information, which significantly stymied the investigation.

What Was Ted Bundy’s Mental Illness?

So, what was wrong with Ted Bundy? While incarcerated, Bundy underwent several psychological evaluations that deemed him a complex and deeply disturbed individual. Bundy’s intelligence and charm allowed him to manipulate those around him, including the police, the public and psychology professionals. His uncanny ability to show different sides of his personality led to experts reaching separate conclusions after evaluating him.

According to Thomas Widiger, “[Bundy] was, for the most part, emotionally stable. A trait common to all psychopaths is the ability to be deceptive — to lie with ease. The classic phrase in psychopathy literature is that they wear ‘a mask of sanity.'”

Psychological assessments of the killer ranged from a diagnosis of bipolar to a clean bill of health. Dr. Carlisle, a psychologist who spent many hours interviewing Bundy, noted, “The question was, how he could seem so normal and friendly at times and yet be evil at other times? This is the chameleon in him.”

Ted Bundy’s personality traits added up to a manipulator who’d say what he thought the person in front of him wanted to hear. The most obvious evidence of this was during his final interview with Reverend Dr. James Dobson. Dobson was an anti-pornography activist, so Bundy described how his consumption of pornography contributed to his murderous impulses. Up until that point, he hadn’t once mentioned or alluded to a correlation.

Famed psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley diagnosed Bundy with psychopathy, also known as antisocial personality disorder. Individuals with this condition have a pervasive disregard for the rights of others and lack empathy or remorse. They can be superficially charming but tend to lie, manipulate and hurt those around them without feeling guilt.

Recent research shows Bundy may have also had narcissistic personality disorder. Traits of this condition include feeling superior to others, an overly inflated ego and feeling entitled to special treatment and privileges. This diagnosis may explain why Bundy thought he’d be able to avoid getting caught indefinitely, and even his decision to represent himself during trial.

Lessons From Ted Bundy’s Case

The case of Ted Bundy is a chilling reminder of the importance of mental health care — specifically, the need for early intervention in cases of personality disorders. People suffering from these disorders need to receive proper treatment to prevent them from acting on their impulses.

Bundy was an outwardly well-adjusted individual, and many people in his life were surprised to hear the extent of his crimes. Cross-state and county communication between police forces might have gotten him arrested a lot sooner, but it’s hard to say whether such a disturbed individual could have been prevented from committing acts of violence in the first place.

If you feel your mental health struggles are getting out of hand, don’t delay — get in touch with the Restore Mental Health team today. Our experienced and compassionate team is available 24/7 to help you start your journey toward recovery. Restore offers individualized outpatient and inpatient treatment options to suit your needs.