Originally written for Exeunt.
The title of Greg Wohead’s show would have us believe that it is about Ted Bundy, the notorious American serial killer. And, in a way, it is. Wohead relates details from Bundy’s life, reproduces his confession tapes, teases out tiny details around the murder and decapitation of one of his victims.
But really, The Ted Bundy Project is about Wohead and about us.
At first glance, it might seem like an odd pairing of performer and subject matter. Wohead is so warm, so genial, so smiling. But then so, apparently, was Bundy. Wohead tells us that he was known for being a nice guy – or appearing to be, at least. He lured in his victims by quickly building up trust. He was handsome and friendly. He seemed … normal.
Wohead too seems normal, friendly, trustworthy. He opens the show by welcoming and thanking his audience, telling us a bit about Bundy, diffusing the tension with some nervous laughter. We hear a few details about Bundy’s life: his childhood, his education, all the familiar details of an unremarkable existence. And then Wohead comes sharply to the point.
“I guess you want to hear the juicy stuff.”
This desire for “the juicy stuff” is the real focus of Wohead’s show. He repeats and interlaces a number of different narrative strands: the murder of one of Bundy’s victims, the killer’s confession tapes, Wohead’s experience of listening to those tapes, a seemingly innocent memory of summer camp. By weaving together facts about Bundy and personal recollections, Wohead increasingly blurs the line between the two, gradually exposing the submerged violence in him and in his audience.
The whole thing is a dare to our dark side, a teasing appeal to the Ted Bundy in all of us. How much do you want to see? How much gore are you willing to stomach? How many of the gruesome details is your mind luridly colouring in? Like the complicity of imagination created among the audience in The Author, Wohead cannily leaves it up to us to manufacture the nastiest of the images he describes. On stage, there is not so much as one drop of blood, but our minds are bathed in horror.
Two devices are particularly striking. One is the density of fact and speculation surrounding the crime scene that Wohead constructs around one particular murder, blandly repeating the phrases “what we know is …” and “what we don’t know is …” It’s the precise, careful language of police investigations, but also the language of curiosity, of meticulously combing through details. It leaves us disgusted and yet fascinated, morbidly eager to hear more.
The other is a “reaction video”, a genre familiar to anyone who has spent a bit of time on YouTube. The video being reacted to is provocatively titled “one lunatic, one icepick”. You can probably guess the rest. But what Wohead smartly achieves by repeatedly projecting this reaction video – which shows a group of young men recoiling, covering their eyes and mouths, and in one case vomiting – is to hold a mirror up to his audience. The attraction to images of extreme violence is one we can all recognise, whether it comes from bestgore.com (visit at your peril – though I guess that’s the point) or movies like Saw and The Human Centipede.
In the end, it’s up to us to turn away or to keep on looking.
Photo: Alex Brenner.