By Abby Lee Hood
The world of TikTok is full of clown makeup, catchy dances, and Gen Z humor. But there’s one trend that’s a little different, and darker: Hundreds of teens are role-playing Ted Bundy and other serial killers, as well as their victims, for an audience of millions.
For at least several months, users on the social media app have been pretending to put on makeup as they get ready for a “date” with a known murderer, only to lay on the floor and be dragged off the screen as if they’ve been killed in the following frame. Other users pretend to be Bundy himself; many set up their phones to get an under-the-bed angle as if they’re hunting for their “victims.” The videos also use a handful of common audio clips, which users can choose on the app and play in the background as they film.
They’re not alone in the trend, either: Other young users have used the app to roleplay as abuse victims or cult members, treating their videos with black-and-white filters or filming them in a dark room. And while TikTok videos are short — they run for a maximum of 15 seconds — it’s still enough time to get the point across.
It’s hard to say who was the first person to start these trends or when the first video was posted since TikTok doesn’t show you the date of each post, but the videos are quite popular. (On August 3, a teen took things even further by alleging she was Bundy’s granddaughter, a claim she later backtracked as a “joke.”) A search for #charlesmanson shows the hashtag has more than 40,000 views; #tedbundy has more than 14.5 million views, while #truecrime clocks in at 7.7 million views. As of publish time, #serialkiller has earned over 16.4 million views.
The videos may have been inspired in part by what felt like an overload of pop culture dedicated to exploring the crimes and notoriety of one of the most infamous serial killers in modern history. The four-part documentary series Conversations With a Killer dropped on Netflix in January; it was followed by the Zac Efron film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile in May. Each was seemingly timed to the 30-year anniversary of Bundy’s execution, and both works earned plenty of media coverage (though most of it was far from glowing).
Much of the criticism centered on the ways in which both projects seemed to glorify or humanize Bundy; neither project spent much time memorializing the over 30 women who were known victims. To experts, that signals a greater problem that the focus on these cautionary tales are sending mixed messages about infamy and culpability.
“Media needs to be done in a very cautious manner due to the potential of contagion and romanticizing the topic,” Dr. Christina Conolly, Chairperson of School Safety and Crisis Response at the National Association of School Psychologists, told MTV News. “We do not want individuals thinking that this may be a ‘cool’ thing to do to become famous.”
The movies, as well as the general popularity of true-crime drama as a whole, may help explain an uptick in the TikTok trend, but video creators offer different perspectives on why they wanted to film their videos. Some creators told MTV News they wanted to raise awareness about issues like domestic violence; others, like George Garaway, said they weren’t truly aware of the impact until after they’d posted.
“I was quite surprised to see that there was a lot of backlash when I made my first video,” Garaway, whose TikTok account has 200,500 followers, said in an interview with MTV News. “The majority of the comment section was telling me to ‘stop glorifying abuse.’
The creator has made a handful of Bundy videos; he told MTV News he viewed the project as a new challenge. Some of his videos feature audio from The Shining, or impersonations of Bundy in which he wears a button-up shirt and has applied lipstick kiss marks to his face and neck. Many clips are filmed in black and white, and some have racked up more than 100,000 likes, which Garaway said makes them among his most popular videos. But when he started receiving negative feedback, he quickly changed course.
“I didn’t realize at first that doing a video like this could actually harm or offended somebody, so I responded to these comments in apology about the situation,” he explained. He also updated some of the video captions to acknowledge the negative feedback and updated his content to exclude the serial killer specifically. In doing so, he noticed something curious: It was the specific murderer viewers were objecting to — not necessarily the depiction of predatory behavior.
“I could make the same exact video with the same creepy tone and themes, but as long as Ted Bundy’s name wasn’t involved it was all of a sudden considered OK,” he said.
Garaway told MTV News that about one-fourth of his videos feature darker, serial killer themes, and that if the first one had never gone viral he might not have even continued making them — the rest of his videos are a diverse mix of jokes about makeup trends, and pop song dances.
But such a simplification might not hold water for another group of creators, who have been making videos calling out the trend and its apparent glorification of violence. Take Christina Alekseeva, a TikTok user with 1,100 followers. On June 9, she posted a video with a plot twist: Instead of finishing the 15-second song clip most people have been using, her audio switches to a robotic voice asking people to stop making Bundy videos and to respect the families who lost loved ones.
“I don’t think that it’s right to make videos like this for clout,” Alekseeva said of her video, which has just over 7,600 likes. “People pretending to be victims because its ‘aesthetic’ is not OK.”
But some users like Helen Cobos believe their clips go beyond a trend, and are instead highlighting a painful reality. In one video, Cobos, who has 64,000 followers, applies makeup for a “date” with a stranger from the Internet. By the end of the video, her makeup has been altered to make it look like she had been crying and someone bruised her face; the caption says the date didn’t go well. Cobos said views and likes were not her motivation; her intention was to raise awareness around domestic abuse.
“At the end of the day if [the video] only received five likes, it did not matter, because at least I knew that five people had… awareness,” Cobos told MTV News. “All [my] videos were created with a good purpose… I hope that in the end the message has been received.”
But Conolly believes that content like these videos could be harmful to TikTok users who don’t fully grasp the context of what they’re watching. She also pointed out how serious topics like this can actually trigger people instead of helping them.
“Unfortunately videos like this may ‘normalize’ violence,” Conolly said. “It can unfortunately lead to doing more harm than good.”
While a creator’s intentions might be in the right place, weighing the reality of how people receive the information is crucial. Alekseeva told MTV News she was shocked at people commenting on some videos with heart-eyes emojis, which The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History author Kevin Sullivan said is in keeping with the history of women who attended Bundy’s trial and otherwise romanticized a known abuser and murderer.
“I have dealt with adult women who would love to have Bundy alive so they could date him,” Sullivan said. “When I have [told] them that if Bundy were alive, he might very well murder you, they brush it off.” He also believes that media coverage has affected interest in many cases and criminals. While he doesn’t believe most people have an unhealthy obsession, Sullivan told MTV News that because real, violent crime is everywhere in the world, media coverage affects people strongly.
Dr. John Mayer, a practicing clinical psychologist and a visiting professor at the University of Nuevo Leon in Monterrey Mexico, also noted that interest in true crime is not necessarily a bad thing.
“There is a psychologically healthy mechanism to watching crime shows,” he said. “The healthy mechanism of watching disasters is a coping mechanism. It [gives] us information on the dangers to avoid and flee from.”
According to Mayer, interest in true crime is at an “all time high” because of the widespread availability of so many kinds of media. He noted that its popularity has led to arrests and could help people avoid or prevent dangerous situations, and likened the experience of watching true crime to riding a roller coaster — it can feel exciting and thrilling. The TikTok videos, however, worried him.
While TikTok was not available for comment on the trends, the platform does offer content curation and controls in its Safety Center and creates educational videos in-app for users and content that goes against the community guidelines can be reported and removed.
Trends rise and fall out of popularity all the time; some last for a few days or a few weeks. It’s entirely possible these videos will fade from feeds. But such memories and traumas aren’t as easily erased for victims or their loved ones; for them, stories like this are the furthest thing from entertainment.