7 Essential True Crime Documentaries
By Olivia Armstrong
Channel your inner sleuth and stream these compelling picks — including a few that changed the course of justice.
True crime documentaries, series and podcasts have taken pop culture by storm — prompting audiences to ask unraised questions, tap into their own theories, and, in extreme cases, scour for clues in the darkest corners of the internet. These non-fictional explorations have not only provoked viewers to question the circumstances surrounding a case, some have also led to appealed sentences, and even exonerations.
Here’s a list of must-watch documentaries and docu-series that have helped shape the genre and, in some cases, changed the course of justice.
Beware the Slenderman (2016)
Directed by: Irene Taylor Brodsky
When Payton “Bella” Leutner was found on the side of the road in rural Wisconsin, she had been stabbed 19 times and left for dead. The suspects were her friends Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, who asserted that Slenderman — a mythical online figure — had willed them to commit the crime. Brodsky (Open Your Eyes) seeks to understand why an urban legend born on the web had such a devastating effect on impressionable young minds.
Stream Beware the Slenderman.
The Cheshire Murders (2013)
Directed by: David Heilbroner
On July 23, 2007, two ex-convicts broke into the suburban home of the Petit family, resulting in a triple homicide that sent shockwaves through the normally crime-free community of Cheshire, Connecticut. Heilbroner probes into why the crime occurred, how it could have been prevented and the ripple effect the trial had on the state’s relationship with capital punishment.
Stream The Cheshire Murders.
Directed by: Andrew Jarecki
Robert Durst, the scion of a New York real estate empire, has long been a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his wife. Further suspicion was raised with the unsolved killing of his confidante, Susan Berman, as well as the subsequent killing and dismemberment of his neighbor, Morris Black. Durst has maintained his innocence but over this six-part series, director Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) and his team gather intel that suggests otherwise.
Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)
Directed by: Erin Lee Carr
Things are not always as they appear, especially in the case of Dee Dee Blanchard and daughter Gypsy Rose. After Dee Dee is brutally murdered, a grisly tale of matricide morphs into a rabbit hole of deception. Carr (Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop) interviews family members, friends, neighbors and Gypsy herself to understand the case that put Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy in the national spotlight.
Stream Mommy Dead and Dearest.
Directed by: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
In May of 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found beside a woodland creek in Arkansas. A month later, three teenage boys were arrested on counts of rape, mutilation and murder. Through news footage, interviews with the accused and access to physical evidence, Berlinger and Sinofsky peel back the layers of a case that spans decades and three feature-length accounts, including Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which eventually aided in the exonerations of the notorious “West Memphis Three.”
Directed by: Liz Garbus
After a camping trip in upstate New York, working mom of two, Diane Schuler, said goodbye to her husband and proceeded to drive her son, daughter and three nieces home to Long Island. The trip — normally 45 minutes — took roughly four hours and resulted in Schuler driving the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway, killing herself and seven others. In the aftermath, Schuler was portrayed as a reckless drunk and a mother who cracked. But was she the monster the public made her out to be? Director Garbus (A Dangerous Son) investigates.
Directed by: Dylan Farrier and Dylan Reeve
After stumbling upon “competitive endurance tickling” videos online — wherein young men are paid to be tied up and tickled — Australian-based reporter David Farrier reached out to the company behind it and discovered a web of deceit and blackmail. While conducting interviews with those involved and those affected, Farrier and co-director Reeve soon realize, they too, have a target on their backs.