In the past several years there has been an explosion in the true crime genre, causing a revitalization of interest in the cases of yesteryear that shocked the world. Netflix has been riding this wave of interest, producing numerous documentaries about some of humanity’s darkest moments. The latest release in this craze is entitled The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness, a four-part series made by filmmaker Joshua Zeman. In it, Zeman draws on the work of Maury Terry, an author who became obsessed with the Son of Sam case, spending the majority of his adult life arguing that the case involved more than just a lone-crazed killer. His theory was considered largely conspiratorial for the most part, and he died in 2015 without ever really being believed. This new docuseries reexamines his theories and in doing so asks the question: Could Maury Terry have been right?
What is the Son of Sam Case?
The Son of Sam was the nickname given to serial killer David Berkowitz, whose indiscriminate killings in New York City during the 70s induced a culture of fear within the community. Berkowitz was apprehended in 1977 and proceeded to confess to the killings— garnering him six life sentences. Berkowitz claimed that his neighbor’s black labrador had been possessed, and was ordering him to kill.
However, while the NYPD was satisfied with the confession, Maury Terry felt like something was off. This led him to develop his theory… That Berkowitz was part of a massive, national satanic cult that had forced him to confess to cover up the murders. This theory, which seems ridiculous on paper, was substantiated by a wide array of physical and testimonial evidence, including a confirmation from Berkowitz himself. However, even with this substantiation, the NYPD refused to believe Terry, circumscribing his research to conspiratorial thinking. The book he published about the case in 1988, entitled The Ultimate Evil, was largely discredited— and Maury Terry’s reputation was irrevocably tarnished.
But although the police may have been quick to discredit The Ultimate Evil, the press took a different route. The book posed a compelling argument, a narrative that would easily sell newspapers and boost TV ratings. Thus, the press chose to cling to Terry’s theory, a move which ultimately formed a kind of precursor to the Satanic Panic that gripped the nation in the 80s and 90s, according to Time Magazine. So in the years that followed the publication of The Ultimate Evil, Maury Terry became a central figure of tabloid press and daytime television; appearing on shows such as Geraldo Rivera’s 1980s talk show, where he droned on about theories that had yet to be substantiated— further reducing his research to conspiratorial thinking. By the time of his death, the case had totally consumed Terry’s life, leading to his divorce and a gradual descent into alcoholism. While the Son of Sam never shot Maury Terry, it would be fair to say that he ultimately became one of his victims.
While the new Netflix doc doesn’t try to convince the audience that Terry was right, what it does do is try to illustrate how highly emotionally charged situations can sometimes obscure the truth. When the press latched onto the Satanic Panic angle in the 80s, they did little more than cause immense fear in the public, while simultaneously cloaking the real instances of evil that were occuring in the world. Beyond that though, the docuseries forces the audience to ponder why we need an answer as to why with these cases, and why we are so quick to accept certain answers as inalienable truths. The hardest thing in the world is to recognize that bad things can happen to good people; and sometimes, these ‘bad things’ don’t really have an explanation to go along with them. Thus, it is simply easier to believe that a man would kill because a dog told him to— because sometimes the truth can be too dark to comprehend.