Television

Netflix’s New True Crime Hit Offers an Alternate Theory About the Son of Sam Killings

Two closeups of police artist sketches of the Son of Sam, neither of which much resembles David Berkowitz.
Police artist sketches of the Son of Sam. Netflix

If it’s a day that ends in “y,” you can be sure there’s a new true crime documentary moving up Netflix’s charts. Over the weekend, that documentary was The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness, a four episode series that follows in the footsteps of past chart-toppers like Why Did You Kill Me? and Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. As you might guess from the title, Netflix’s latest attempt to recapture that Making a Murderer magic is about the Son of Sam killings, a series of shootings that terrorized New York City between 1976 and 1977. Here’s everything you need to know about The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness.

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What is The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness?

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It’s a four-part true crime series from Cropsey director Joshua Zeman chronicling investigative journalist Maury Terry’s decades-long attempt to prove that David Berkowitz—who confessed to the Son of Sam killings immediately after his August 1977 arrest, pled guilty, and is currently in prison serving six consecutive life sentences—did not act alone. Terry became convinced that Berkowitz was part of a Satanic cult, a theory he pursued for decades in newspaper articles, television appearances, and his 1987 book The Ultimate Evil: An Investigation of America’s Most Dangerous Satanic Cult With New Evidence Linking Charlie Manson and the Son of Sam. Terry, who died in 2015, was friends with Zeman, and over the course of four hour-long episodes, The Sons of Sam presents the basic story of the killings and Berkowitz’s capture, Terry’s theories about what happened, and the disastrous effect his obsession with the case had on his life and work.

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This show argues that the Son of Sam killings were committed by a Satanic cult with ties to Charles Manson?

Sort of! Zeman tries to split the difference between presenting Terry’s theories as fact and telling a cautionary tale about obsession and conspiratorial thinking, and at times you can feel the show collapsing under these opposing pressures.

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So what was Terry’s theory about the Son of Sam killings?

Terry believed that David Berkowitz was a member of a chapter of a satanic cult that met in Untermeyer Park in Yonkers, New York, and that members of this cult assisted him in carrying out the Son of Sam killings. According to Terry, the taunting letters Son of Sam sent to authorities contain clues pointing to at least two of the cult’s members: brothers John and Michael Carr, whose father Sam owned the dog Berkowitz initially claimed had commanded him to kill. John Carr died in 1978, in what was either a suicide or a murder committed to cover up his involvement with the cult; similarly, Michael either died in a car accident or was run off the road by Satanists in 1979, depending on whom you believe. In 1997, Berkowitz told Terry that he was right about John and Michael Carr, claiming they had pulled the trigger in several of the killings he had previously confessed to. He went on to claim that there were other surviving members of the cult he refused to name lest they harm his family.

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Terry went on to draw connections between the Son of Sam killings and Charles Manson’s “family” on the west coast, linking both to a group called the Process Church of the Final Judgment.

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That all sounds a little tenuous!

Yeah. Paul Giamatti narrates the show in character as Maury Terry, and although some of the nuances of Terry’s argument were doubtless lost while compressing it for television, the voiceover is a cavalcade of motivated reasoning. Terry’s gut plays a big role, as in, “My gut was telling me there was more to this demon dog story,” or “My gut tells me that there’s probably two other people, maybe three other people involved—and it makes sense to go another step and say John and Michael were possibly involved in the Son of Sam shootings.”

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Are those the most ridiculous thing they make Paul Giamatti say?

Nah, he also gets this monologue:

Zuckerman couldn’t see it, but I did. Sisman’s Halloween murder! The filming of Melonie Haller! The drugs! The depravity! The chaos!

That’s right up there with anything in Sideways.

This doesn’t sound like a story with many heroes.

Not traditional ones, but there is a shot of an NYPD spokesperson providing the following on-the-record, on-camera response to a room full of reporters asking “which idiot” coordinated Berkowitz’s chaotic initial police booking:

Hey, fuck you! You wanna argue about idiots, I’ll argue personally with you, you son of a bitch, so don’t put this shit on me! We’ve made more fuckin’ opportunities than you’ve had in a hundred years, you piece of shit. And don’t pull it again!

Are there plenty of extreme close-ups of primary source documents and period props, plus vintage footage of Geraldo Rivera?

I did say this was a true crime show, didn’t I?

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