Television

True crime series such as The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness feed our appetites for fear, while shielding us from the crimes of which we should really be afraid.

By Sarah Krasnostein.

The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness

A scene from the Netflix series The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness.
Credit: Courtesy Netflix

The confessed serial killer David Berkowitz is and is not the Son of Sam. That’s the name by which Berkowitz has been known for the past four decades, by those who remember the indiscriminate killing of young people in New York City that started in the summer of 1976. The literal son of Sam was Berkowitz’s neighbour – a man named John Carr who lived with his father, Samuel. Nearly 45 years after Berkowitz pleaded guilty to six counts of murder, a new Netflix true crime docuseries – The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness – explores the evidence that he did not kill alone: that he acted not only in concert with John Carr, but as part of an international Satanic cult.

The spine of this series – which is appetisingly set in the grittiest iteration of Gotham (pre-AIDS, pre-Yuppies, pre-Disneyfication) – is the life’s work of an unlikely man named Maury Terry. It happened that Terry, a suburban editor for IBM’s in-house magazine, was converted into an investigative journalist through his personal scepticism about the New York Police Department’s line on Berkowitz. Terry’s obsession with exploding that neat narrative failed to gain legal traction, but before he died in 2015 he met director Joshua Zeman, a self-described “debunker of things that go bump in the night” and true crime enthusiast. In this four-part series and “companion podcast”, Zeman retraces Terry’s journey down “the rabbit hole”.

“Every night across this country, 70 to 80 million Americans sit down in front of the television and a large part of their evening escapism is crime,” says the anchorman in the archival clip that kicks off episode one with self-conscious irony. Today, the “bingeable true crime” buffet is crowded; its offerings are many, its flavours few. Besides Sons of Sam, recently released serial killer docuseries on Netflix include one about the 1970s Yorkshire Ripper and another about LA’s 1985 Night Stalker. These factual offerings are not as interesting to me as Spike Lee’s 1999 drama, Summer of Sam, which portrays life in one neighbourhood during the stifling summer preceding Berkowitz’s arrest. In Lee’s film, the faceless killer is beside the point. The point is much more familiar – it’s uncertainty, lack of control; the subcutaneous social flow of fear and the crazy-making ways in which that infects our behaviour.

These concerns are largely unexplored in the docuseries. This is true generally of the genre to which it belongs, which buzzes with the escalating energy of resolution and is therefore closer to fiction than to fact. It’s particularly disappointing given that this case changed the function of crime reporting in America.

In terms of archival newspaper and audiovisual broadcast material, Zeman not only had an enormous amount to work with, he also had an enormous amount to think about because he had an enormous amount to work with. Instead of meaningfully exploring the increased appetite for human trauma, the series serves up the congealed tropes of free-to-air true crime television. There’s the undulating synth soundtrack (this is EERIE) and lingering shots of typewriters and leaves blowing into grates (there is MENACE IN THE MUNDANE). Most unforgivingly, the storytelling is structured to fit interstices between commercial breaks that don’t exist. Individual passages rise to auditory crescendos or fade to black in perfunctory cliffhangers that should have been so much more.

This is about ethics, not aesthetics. The format of ad-free, discretionary viewing is an opportunity to transcend traditional limitations on the form and serve rich, thick, factual storytelling that deals with the context and complexities of human behaviour. Think how masterfully Making a Murderer set its own pace, allowing it to raise questions about Steven Avery’s convictions, and to explain why such questions matter and how difficult they are to answer. The Jinx didn’t land many of its choices, but it made space for meaningful character study. Sons of Sam lacks the craft to do justice to its material.

Six random murders four decades ago is not nothing, but over the years these and other statistically aberrant crimes have received much airtime. There is something wounded in the selectivity and magnitude of our attention to subject matter such as this. If we’re going to talk about the dark, let’s talk about the dark.

I read about this series at the time that I read an April 17 article on the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd. It reported that since testimony had begun on March 29, at least 64 people had “died at the hands of law enforcement nationwide, with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead”. That’s an average of three killings a day. In Australia, since March 2021, seven Aboriginal people have died in custody. Also here, on average, one woman is killed by a current or former male partner each week. As I was writing this, Kelly Wilkinson was murdered in front of her children. Yet it is the statistically exceptional crimes that we keep alive in the collective consciousness. Other names and numbers recede into darkness.

In investigating the Son of Sam, the NYPD acted sloppily and illegally, as they would later in forcing false confessions from Black children in the Central Park jogger case. Zeman’s presentation of Terry’s argument – that the crimes had not been resolved with Berkowitz’s arrest – is mostly plausibly made. Still, I don’t think that’s the real story here.

The real story isn’t Terry, seen dimly through the recollections of those who knew him, contemporary footage and the slightly silly narration of Paul Giamatti. Though I wanted to know more about this journalist who wrote one continuing story. What type of person makes a pilgrimage to where a couple was shot while making out in their car on the anniversary of the crime, on his first date with his future wife, and then makes out with her in his car? This is who we should trust to return us across the River Styx? The questions around Terry’s personality go unaddressed, his “quirks” combed into the narrative of his unrelenting drive for truth.

The real story isn’t Berkowitz, disciple of Satan turned self-reflective Raskolnikov and disciple of Christ. However, his compelling biography – glossed over – is relevant to the question of why obedience to a Satanic cult was attractive to a man in his early 20s, and here we get closer to the real story.

The real story should have been institutional cultures generally, and the Murdoch press specifically. It makes no difference whether it’s a band of devil-worshippers or the New York Police Department or the prisoner population in Attica or a tabloid city newsroom or the readers that have made Murdoch transcendentally wealthy – no moral or legal law is as influential as what “everyone” around you does: no fact is truer than what the tribe believes. Nothing is as powerful as the need to belong. And where that is threatened, the creation and consumption of fear – bringing with it the illusion of imminent threat and the narrative of who is us and who is them – functions as a synthetic substitute.

The series too-briefly discusses how Murdoch was relatively unknown in America when he purchased the formerly left-leaning New York Post in 1976. The next year – after a city-wide power outage and a night of arson and looting which was worst in the poorest neighbourhoods where Black and Latino children lived, literally, amid rubble – the dog-whistling, fear-mongering racism in his “Blackout Edition” would make him.

That year, the Post and the New York Daily News didn’t simply capitalise on the economies of fear; they permanently distended them. With their reporters communicating directly with Son of Sam, the competing dailies became part of the narrative they perpetuated. So ravenous was the appetite they whetted for stories connected with the killings that tabloid reporting infiltrated the previously staid TV network newscasts. It’s a line that runs directly to the “bingeable true crime” streaming from TVs today.

Or perhaps it’s less a line than a circle, the Murdochiavellian Ouroboros where fear is selling “content” and “content” is creating fear. It’s a distraction from the true true crimes of daily life, which would require change in our social, legal and economic paradigms to prevent. More than that, it’s a distraction from what terrifies us most: our inescapable vulnerability. How much easier, especially in the time of Covid-19, to feast separately, together, on our dark – but nowhere near our darkest – fears.

The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is showing now on Netflix.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Dark distractions".

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Sarah Krasnostein is the author of The Trauma Cleaner and The Believer and is The Saturday Paper's television critic.