Content warning: this post discusses murder, sexual assault and other violent crimes that may be disturbing or triggering to some.
Listen up, noobs! While you’re busy watching Night of the Living Nightmare of the Lambs again this Halloween, you’re missing out on the real scary shit. I’m talkin about the stuff that gives me horrible, realistic nightmares about being kidnapped and murdered on an almost nightly basis and the reason I’m paranoid about living alone….say it with me—TRUE CRIME.
That’s right. The subgenre of documentary film and tv dedicated to kidnappings, murders, cults, and all the other fucked up shit that humans are capable of. But wait! If this stuff gives me nightmares, then why do I love it? Well, first of all, the nightmares can’t be blamed on true crime entirely—I’m sure the massive dog piles of food I eat at 11pm every night have something to do with that. Aside from that, I’m not really sure! But I figure it can be attributed to a few factors:
-I love solving mysteries. I dig logic puzzles, riddles and other trickery that require me to put pieces together in a productive way to find a solution. This is also why I make a great leader in an office setting and deserve a raise.
-Violent criminals scare me and I like to see them get caught. I am not a violent person. The only time I’ve ever really hit someone was when I headbutted a friend in the face during a really bad acid trip/drinking binge combo five years ago and I wanted to kill myself afterward. People who hurt other people fucking suck and I like to see that shit handled.
-Violent criminals fascinate me because they are so wildly irrational and in addition to being an armchair investigator and armchair forensic scientist, I am also an armchair psychiatrist. One of my favorite pastimes is watching crime documentaries and guessing which personality disorders the perp is afflicted by. I have so many skills and I’m fun to hang out with.
-I find it cathartic to externalize my anxieties about death, injury, loneliness, the dark and other people in general by observing my worst nightmares. It also puts my stupid, nonsense worries in perspective by reminding me that I’m living in an ocean of psychopaths so it might not be the worst thing in the WORLD that no one laughed at my joke earlier.
-The justice system can’t be trusted either and I want to stay woke. A lot of the time these are stories where initial investigation was handled poorly, tainted or deeply biased in some way. And that’s not even mentioning the docs that surround a case where a specific person was unfairly targeted or even framed with no honor of presumed innocence to begin with.
Yes, true crime is ethically slippery. Some argue that it makes a spectacle of the victim and what happened to them. I can’t completely disagree with that. I do think, for what it’s worth, that most true crime fans watch out of concern, fascination and the desire to be in-the-know, and not as just superficial entertainment. Does that make it ok? I don’t know man I just live here!
For those who do choose to watch, I encourage you to think critically about the biases not only in the storytelling but also in the case itself. I never take a documentary’s conclusion at face value, and I don’t think you should either. No one ever knows for sure what really happened, and no one is qualified to make that decision except the jury. And even they get it wrong sometimes. So I’m just saying, maybe don’t start a Burke Ramsey Did It blog or become BFFs with Amanda Knox just because you saw some TV show. That’s all I’m saying!
But by all means, watch the hell out of that shit.
Anyway, without further ado…
ALL THE BEST TRUE CRIME I CAN THINK OF IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
Aka the longest running true crime series of all time! At least they used to say that. I don’t know if it’s still true. I have seen almost every episode of Forensic Files. Peter Thomas the God narrates as experts in ballistics, DNA, blood spatter, and pretty much anything you can think of track down an obviously STUPID person who committed a heinous crime and left evidence behind. Because of the science, I feel confident they usually catch the right person, and that helps me sleep at night. The reenactments can be really fuckin bad but who doesn’t love that?
Making a Murderer
Almost every millennial alive has to have seen this by now, but if you haven’t, now’s the time. The Netflix original series follows the case against Steven Avery for the murder of Teresa Halbach, all the holes in the prosecutors’ argument and the fucked up police work of the Manitowoc County cops, and how that may have led to one (or more!) wrongful convictions. This documentary sheds light on the rampant abuse of power in our justice system and how folks of low income and poor education are disadvantaged and manipulated. Side note: What happened to Steven Avery happens to people of color every day so maybe Netflix can make a doc about that next #blacklivesmatter
Robert Durst! Now there’s a character for ya. Basically this series is about a (possible mentally ill) super super rich dude who may have killed his wife and two other people (or was it 3?) in the wild ride that’s been his life. This series is the flip side of Making a Murderer: when you’re rich, no matter how guilty, your lawyers can work all KINDS of magic. This show is riveting as hell and also happens to have one of the greatest television endings of…all time, probably.
Legend has it a child killer named CROPSEY lived in the woods somewhere in New York and would take kids who were bad….it was essentially just boogeyman lore, but these documentarians wanted to see if it held any truth in its origins. In their investigation, they come across the story of Andre Rand, a convicted kidnapper. There’s a lot of fucked up details in this doc, the worst of which in my opinion is the archival footage of the deplorable mental asylum at which Rand was a patient. You remember in American Horror Story season 2 when Sara Paulson’s character tries to film an exposé of the conditions at Briarcliff? This footage is so much like that I believe they based the AHS storyline on it. I actually recommend fast forwarding through that part.
When you’re done with Cropsey you can hop on this one by the same director. It tells the true stories that inspired famous urban legends. “The Hookman,” “The Candy Man,” “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” and “The Killer Clown.” Recognize any of these? This Halloween, the story of “The Candy Man” is especially relevant since, as you’ll find out, the urban legend of the poisoned Halloween candy went a little different IRL than we were told…
OJ Made in America
This colossal five-part 30 for 30 special has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And that’s because it’s got EVERYTHING. Not only is it chock full of the drama, gore and media frenzy the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman are infamous for, but it goes above and beyond to tell the story of OJ Before The Murders–a man my generation never really knew. It also explores in depth the social climate both nationally and in LA from when OJ was born all the way to the 90s, and how being black shaped, or didn’t shape, his identity as a celebrity. This context for the crimes is essential to put into perspective the divisive national reaction to the tragedies. I’m still in the middle of this one, but I can’t wait to finish it. (Note: This documentary contains disturbing crime scene photos and video footage of police brutality. All the docs on this list contain graphic images to a degree, but I felt the need to mention this one specifically because I was extra affected by it.)
30 for 30: The Price of Gold
This one isn’t a murder, but it’s one of my favorite stories ever: Tonya Harding vs Nancy Kerrigan. This crime is pretty famous, so I think you know how it goes. But what I love about this documentary is its insight into Tonya’s childhood struggles, her abusive mom, the cycle of abuse that continued into her adult life, and the role it played in the crime itself. Y’all, I just love figure skating. The outfits are so good. And skaters are so god damn graceful. So you can imagine why the world couldn’t help but gawk when an ice princess basically turned into a mob boss before their eyes. Fascinating. Just fascinating. Oh, and just a reminder, this happened TWO WEEKS after the OJ murders. Which I’m pretty sure was the same month I fell and scraped my knee in the parking lot of my family’s town house. And I like, have a scar from that. The summer of ’94 was so crazy!
You tired of delusional athletes yet? No? Great! This one is about John du Pont, just your average kajillionnaire with a few mental illnesses. He was so obsessed with wrestling and other olympic sports that he decided to open a training center/compound dedicated to athletic training. Was he actually an athlete? Nope not really. He was just a rich guy with delusions of grandeur. Delusions that ended up driving him to…you guessed it…a murder. Of husband, father and actual athlete Dave Shultz. It’s a sad story that serves as a reminder that rich charming people are scary and can’t be trusted. At least that’s what I gathered from it.
Crimes of the Century
The DC snipers, the Unabomber, Waco, Oklahoma City and more…this miniseries takes you back in time to the crimes that rocked the 20th Century. I was either not alive or in single digits when all of the occurred so it was good to get the details. These don’t follow the typical true crime model of the Sneaky Scary Mystery You’ve Never Heard Of. They’re more the Giant Crisis Covered Ceaselessly by the Media variety. Everyone should know about them, so worth a watch.
If you’re considering being in a relationship, this documentary will change your mind! It’s about a woman whose psycho boyfriend hired men to throw lye in her face when she least expected it, causing permanent scarring and blindness. Why would he do such a thing? Well, she didn’t want to be with him anymore. What was he supposed to do, just move on with his life like a normal person and not disfigure this poor woman? C’mon. The twist, of course, is that the two get back together. How, why, and the circumstances of which I will let you find out on your own.
This documentary, released on Netflix last month, is more about the media sensationalism and unfair trial that led to Amanda Knox’s and Raffaele Sollicito’s stints in Italian prison than it is about about the murder of Meredith Kercher. Maybe you remember this case – I was a freshman in college at the time when Amanda and Meredith, also in college, were studying abroad in Perugia, Italy. When Meredith was murdered, all fingers pointed to Amanda as the killer. But why? Well, there were a lot of factors at play. An obsessed DA, shoddy police investigation, and some seriously irresponsible journalism…just to name a few. The documentary lets Amanda tell her story, from the time of the murder through her trial, jail time, acquittal, retrial and appeal, and shows just how terrifying and helpless it feels to be presumed guilty by the entire world. Was she completely innocent of any and all crimes relating to the murder of Meredith Kercher? I mean, who’s to say?! Like Making a Murderer, this documentary seems to be less about proving someone’s total innocence than it is about the fairness of the case, so don’t get too carried away. I will say, it sure is a lot scarier of a story if she didn’t do it. Because then it could happen to any of us.
The Case of JonBenet Ramsey
The JonBenet case is one of the most famous cold cases certainly of my lifetime, but possibly of ALL time. You must remember her pretty face plastered on the cover of every National Enquirer in the late 90s and beyond, but if you don’t know what happened, 6 year old JonBenet was murdered under some seriously suspicious circumstances on the day after Christmas in 1996, and it really, really looked like the parents were involved. But they were never charged, and the case was never solved. By the end of Part 1 of this two-part CBS documentary, it’s clear who the producers believe is the murderer, and their argument is pretty convincing. Do I believe this documentary is the highest form of journalism? No. While it features no shortage of expert criminologists, it’s so heavily produced and often corny that at times I was embarrassed for the hosts. Aside from the wacky bullshit factor, this is still the best documentary I’ve seen on the case. This is one of the most interesting murders I know of, and I really want it to be solved. But after watching this, that feels like kind of a longshot.
This is far and away one of my favorite true crime documentaries. The story is so crazy I don’t even want to tell you what happens. Without saying too much, a Texas family’s son goes missing, and years later he returns…but is it really him? This doc will give you chills at what people’s brains are capable of, and leave you speculating HARD on what really happened to poor Nicholas Barclay in 1994. I know I have a theory. Share yours with me when you’re done.
If you’re not already too freaked out, you should have your Halloween weekend fully planned by now. Just add Chinese food, keep wikipedia open on your phone, and prepare to solve some freakin’ crimes. But beware, the true crime obsession is a slippery slope. And you may never sleep again.