For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with true crime. Obviously I am not alone when there are so many documentaries on this subject being made. When researching details for this list I found it hard, especially finding ones I watched a long time ago; now most internet searches show Best True Crime on Netflix. I love Netflix as much as the next person but it does not have the monopoly on good crime docs, as you’ll see.
True Crime programmes are big business these days, but more and more I find myself post-watch wondering, what was the point? These are real people’s lives. Nothing reminded me of that fact more than reading Sue Klebold’s account of her son Dylan’s part, and death, during the Columbine massacre. In her book, A Mother’s Reckoning, Sue reasons that her story is already out there and she has no control over it, then proceeds to give her side.
Sometimes it feels that true crime programmes, especially if the family is involved, only serve to reopen old wounds.
There are ethics that documentary makers should follow that we fiction writers don’t have to. Like, is there a point? Are they hoping to right a wrong? To show another side other than what the media has given us? Or, to just regurgitate a case that has been told before for viewing figures? To be salacious, even?
In the past I blogged about the problem of victim’s becoming footnotes in their own murders in such documentaries. Even Louis Theroux admits that victims interest him less than perpetrators. Yet, there can be fascinating insights into the criminal mind through these explorations. They teach us something about the world, society, or the human condition.
Like reading crime fiction, we can learn about the dark side of humanity from a safe distance.
This list will be a countdown of my ten favourites. I am not claiming that they are the best ever ever ever, but they have stood out the most to me in a sea of the hundreds I’ve watched, albeit with compelling cases and characters, there is something a bit more special about the ones on my list.
So here goes…
Ten True Crime Documentaries I urge you to check out
Unmasking a Killer: The Golden State Killer
After reading Michelle McNamara’s book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, I was intrigued. But I’m a chronic researcher -spoiler? – and although I’d read who was eventually caught for these crimes, the lines get blurred when you watch as many crime docs as I do. So I invested time in this documentary, a seven parter.
The first five episodes show the extent of the horrendous crimes, the final two show the criminal, unmasked.
There are bloodcurdling details, law enforcement officials give their accounts, there are wider issues in society exposed, and also how, in the long run, laws were changed to help protect women, and then all victims. Something positive.
This documentary has more than ‘a point’. It is compelling on many levels.
When the killer is at last unmasked it dissolves all his power, and it’s interesting to see how frail he suddenly becomes – no doubt an inspiration to Harvey Weinstein tottering into court every day about now with his zimmer frame.
There is quite a bit of recapping and repetition. This doc could definitely be shorter but is still well worth the investment.
The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell
This is a more recent doc, aired lately on Sky’s new channel: Crime, a channel that has shown a few others that have not impacted me quite the way this one did.
Susan is a young wife and mother of two boys when one night she disappears – like the title says. Her husband is suspected. The case goes on in a truly shocking turn of events – a creepy father in law, to put it mildly, with an obsession for Susan – and much more tragedy. This documentary will break your heart.
I often doubt the balance in these films but I was glad that Susan was given a voice and who knows, maybe if someone watches and sees their story in it, and escapes their current situation, then that too is a good thing.
Okay. Lots of people will think this is not a true crime documentary but I think that locking your seven growing children in an apartment for fourteen years is definitely a crime.
Homeschooled, due to paranoia about their safety in the outside world – New York after 911 – these kids have little else to do but watch movies. They start to make movies too, of themselves reenacting flicks by the likes of Tarantino, dressing up and replaying the dialogue, until one day, one of them has had enough of being kept captive.
This is fas-cin-ating! And like most on the list, it is a story about control, though with a much happier ending.
The young people in this movie are amazing, full of imagination and empathy for their mentally unwell father.
Written in Blood (CBS Reality)
Right up my street, this series marries crime fiction novels and true crime.
Simon Toynes, author of The Boy Who Saw, takes crime writers to the location of a crime that inspired one of their books. As they travel around the area, the writer tells Toynes, and us, a bit more and a bit more, until we have all the details about the case.
I woke late one night and found this one by chance. Clare Mackintosh was talking about the Howell case in Castlerock, where I holiday every year, so I was hooked.
Then there was Tess Gerritsen talking about a case in America of a killer family. And many more.
Crime readers, check it out.
Mommy Dead and Dearest
A young girl, Gypsy Rose Blanchard, has been told that she is ill all her life. Her mother Dee Dee becomes a local figure off the back of her daughter’s condition; people are incredibly kind to her. Only she is the one who is unwell, with, you probably guessed it… this is a prime example of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
Gypsy Rose is growing up despite her mother’s best attempts to keep her young and defenceless. Gypsy gets a boyfriend and the two plot something awful. You can probably guess what too.
The stand out moment for me is when the girl’s father comes to visit her, and she is so sweet and childlike, you realise how damaged, stunted, or good at acting she has had to become because of her mother. Chilling stuff.
If the purpose of the film makers was to show that nobody is what they seem, they succeeded.
I’ll check in soon with my top 5 favourite true crime documentaries.
What are yours?