When it comes to true crime documentaries, 2021 was a banner year. Streaming services and networks alike dug deep into the world of real-life atrocity, highlighting serial killers, cold cases and missing persons.
The true crime docuseries and documentaries struck a chord among true crime aficionados, contributing to the success of the genre and propelling new cases into the spotlight. The popularity of true crime documentaries comes at a time of growing interest among the United States demographic. In the last five years, search volume for true crime has roughly tripled, according to Google Trends, reflecting the growing desire among information consumers to obtain true crime content.
That rise in interest hasn’t gone unnoticed by academic institutions, with many adding true crime-related courses to their offerings. The North Dakota State University (NDSU) Criminal Justice Department is slated to offer a 2022 spring semester course on serial killers. While still months away, the course has already filled up.
The popularity of the upcoming course came as no surprise to Dr. Carol A. Archbold, Chair of NDSU’s Criminal Justice Department and co-professor for the upcoming course.
“I think that true crime podcasts and docuseries are primary contributors to students’ interest in the serial killer class and the criminal justice discipline in general,” Archbold said. “When I meet with high school students who tour NDSU during their college visits, I ask them how they became interested in criminal justice. Nine times out of ten, they will reference a docuseries or television program focused on crime, policing, law, courts and corrections.”
As true crime documentaries continue to ride that wave of popularity and influence, even those who don’t consider themselves to be true crime junkies might be enticed to dive into the world of murder and mayhem.
Here are a few places to start:
Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness (Netflix)
This four-part true crime documentary series highlights the quest of journalist Maury Terry to expose the truth behind the Son of Sam killings. Inspired by Terry’s book, “The Ultimate Evil: The Search for the Son of Sam,” the docuseries sticks closely to a plotline that propels Terry to the role of protagonist as he chases his journalistic hunch that the one-man killer theory doesn’t quite add up.
When the Son of Sam first began to make headlines, Terry was working as an editor for an internal IBM publication — yet his interest in the case took over, particularly after the arrest of David Berkowitz. Convinced the killings were connected to a satanic cult, Terry rejected the initial notion that Berkowitz was the sole killer.
Left with a box of evidence following the 2015 passing of Terry, Joshua Zemen, director of the series, tells the story through the eyes of Terry, and continues to take viewers down the trail he traveled while investigating the Son of Sam killings.
North Dakota connection: In 1978, that road led Terry to Minot, North Dakota, where he traveled to report on the shooting of John Wheat Carr. Terry believed Carr was working with Berkowitz, citing the two as having been involved in the same satanic cult.
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (Netflix)
One of the most notorious serial killers of the 1980s emerged in sunny Los Angeles, leaving a trail of death and confusion. This true crime documentary takes viewers into the terrifying world of those who were terrorized by the Night Stalker, including law enforcement agents who worked tirelessly to find — and stop — the killer.
Dubbed The Night Stalker because he regularly attacked his victims in their homes at night, this Netflix series touches on the rare randomness of this particular serial killer, with victims ranging from children to the elderly.
While Richard Ramirez was convicted in 1989 and died in prison in 2013, this documentary is still capable of sending a chill down the spine — and inspiring the average viewer to get up a few times to make sure the door is locked.
This four-part true crime documentary series takes a different twist, focusing on one of the most famous murder trial cases involving repressed memories. The series focuses on Eileen Franklin, who in 1989 was confronted with a repressed memory of her father sexually assaulting and murdering her childhood friend.
The crime in question occurred in 1969 — the victim, Susan Nathan, was just eight years old at the time. Nathan was initially declared missing from her hometown, located just outside of San Francisco. Her body was discovered 10 weeks later, yet her murder remained a cold case up until Franklin’s recollection.
It was the repressed memory that led to the trial of George Franklin, despite a lack of physical evidence.
The series goes on to examine the trial and the role memory plays in criminal procedures, while also focusing heavily on Eileen Franklin’s media tour that captivated the nation.
Confronting a serial killer (Starz)
This five-part docuseries profiles Sam Little, the country’s most prolific — and unknown — serial killer, whose victims largely included disenfranchised populations, including sex workers and drug addicts.
While the series itself does focus on Little, the real story includes the relationship developed between him and author Jillian Lauren — and what Lauren is able to uncover through her interactions with Little.
Before his death, Little confessed to strangling 93 women, many whose deaths were initially declared overdoses, according to the FBI. That wasn’t a confession he was willing to make when Lauren initially interviewed him in prison. Despite serving prison time for the murders of three women based on uncovered DNA evidence, he initially maintained his innocence.
While the docuseries does focus on Lauren’s history in the sex trade, making for an emotional journey for the true crime author, the docuseries also examines flaws in the criminal justice system that allowed Little to get away with murder, in 19 states, over a span of 35 years.
Little had been no stranger to law enforcement throughout the country, yet he managed to escape convictions and harsh sentences, allowing him to continue his killing spree up until 2005.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (Netflix)
Centered around Los Angeles’ iconic skid row Cecil Hotel, this story examines not only the notorious history of the establishment but also the recent mysterious death of Canadian college student Elisa Lam.
The Cecil Hotel itself has become famous for its dark history and rumors of its alleged dark energy. It was once home to one of Los Angeles’ most notorious serial killers, Richard Ramirez, also known as The Night Stalker. In all, more than 80 people have died at The Cecil Hotel from suicide, overdose or murder.
In this true crime docuseries, Lam’s death — and the events preceding her death — take center stage. Her Tumblr page, along with compelling elevator security cam footage, paint an eerie portrayal of the last moments of her life. With the elevator footage released to the public, it also became the obsession of internet crime sleuths, who attempted to put together the pieces of Lam’s last moments — and figure out what it was she appeared to be fearing.
This true crime docuseries differs from many others in the sense that it doesn’t focus on one killer, but rather takes a look at a location that has inspired so much death.
Trisha Taurinskas is a reporter for The Vault. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.