For a little over a year, from July of 1976 to August of 1977, New York City lived in fear of a killer.
Carrying a .44 caliber handgun, this killer — or, some thought, killers — preyed on the young. Though one victim was shot while walking by herself, the rest were all gunned down while sitting in parked cars, often while kissing at the end of a date. It was said that the killer’s main targets were young women with dark hair, leading to a run on blonde wigs and dye jobs. While the media originally called him the .44 caliber killer, he wrote two letters in which he requested to be known as the Son of Sam. He was one of America’s first celebrity serial killers, a dark force who moved through the night and inspired nightmares.
When he was arrested, the fearsome Son of Sam turned out to be a rather goofy-looking postal worker named David Berkowitz. Berkowtiz confessed to all of the shootings, with the initial story being that he believed he was ordered to do it by a dog named Sam. Even at the time, though, there were doubts as to whether or not Berkowtiz acted alone. Some witnesses claimed that they had seen more than one gunman at a few of the shootings and the pudgy Berkowtiz didn’t look anything at all like some of the early sketches that had been released on the gunman. Were the witnesses just confused or was Berkowitz a part of a larger conspiracy?
Journalist Maury Terry believed that Berkowitz was a part of a bigger conspiracy. He dedicated his life to trying to prove that Berkowitz was a part of a Satanic cult. Terry claimed that the cult was not only responsible for the Son of Sam murders but he also claimed that they were connected to everyone from Charles Manson to Arliss Perry, a 19 year-old college student was brutally murdered in a California church. Eventually, Terry wrote a book about his investigation and his theories. The Ultimate Evil was a best seller during the Satanic panic of the late 80s but Terry’s conclusions were never taken seriously by the NYPD. Even after Berkowitz himself gave Terry a televised interview in which he said that he wasn’t the only gunman, the case remained closed. Terry spent the rest of his life obsessing on his theories and with that obsession came a litany of self-destructive behavior. Terry died in 2015. Berkowitz remains in prison, claiming to be a born again Christian. The murderer of Arliss Perry apparently committed suicide in 2018 after DNA linked him to the crime. Among his possession was a copy of The Ultimate Evil.
Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness is a four-part Netflix docuseries about the Son of Sam murders and Terry’s investigation. Featuring archival footage, interviews, and Paul Giamatti reading excerpts from Terry’s work, the documentary details not just Terry’s theories but also the way his relentless quest to prove them took over his life. We hear from detectives and reporters and Maury Terry’s ex-wife. There’s also plenty of footage of Berkowitz, both from his initial arrest and his subsequent interviews.
The documentary itself clearly believes that Berkowitz was a member of a cult and that he worked with other gunmen. Myself, I came away from the series unconvinced. Some of the evidence that Terry uncovered was indeed compelling. Particularly when it comes to the mysterious Carr brothers, two shady men who Terry believed were involved in the shootings, it’s hard not to feel that Terry was right to feel that there was more to the story than was officially accepted. Far too often, however, one gets the feeling that Terry allowed himself to be motivated more by what he wanted the evidence to show than what was actually there. The attempt to connect Berkowitz to Manson especially feels vague. As is the case with most conspiracy theories, we’re expected to consider only the evidence that confirms that conspiracy’s existence while ignoring anything that might suggest an alternative solution. We’re asked to believe in a conspiracy that could apparently take out everyone except for the one journalist who was very publicly trying to reveal its existence. At times, the Cult is portrayed as just being a bunch of maladjusted losers and, at other times, they’re at the heart of a massive drug, pornography, and human trafficking cartel. Terry’s own conception of the cult and their plans seems to change as each new piece of a “evidence” is uncovered. Finally, as happens with many conspiracy theorists, Terry refuses to accept the simple truth that coincidences are a huge part of life.
When Berkowitz finally does give an interview to Terry, it’s hard not to notice that Berkowitz allows Terry to lead him to the answers that Terry wants to hear. Instead of answering Terry’s questions immediately — as someone with firsthand knowledge should presumably be able to do — Berkowitz instead waits until Terry has offered up enough details for Berkowitz to know in which direction Terry wants the answer to go. Often it seems that Berkowtiz is just agreeing with what Terry says or simply answering Terry’s questions by rephrasing them. Berkowtiz isn’t particularly clever or slick about it, either. One gets the feeling that, by the time the interviews happened, Terry had allowed his obsession with the case to cloud his instincts as a journalist.
Terry’s obsession is the most compelling part of the series. Much as with Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, Sons of Sam works best as an examination of how one person can become so obsessed with exposing the darkness that they allow that darkness to take over their lives. At times, Terry is described as almost being an Ahab-like figure, obsessively pursuing the prey that he insists is somewhere waiting for him. Much as how McNamara obsessively pursued a version of the Golden State Killer who didn’t actually exist outside of her own theories, Terry spent the final decades of his life trying to expose a conspiracy that may not have actually existed outside of his own mind. His obsession may have been self-destructive but, the series argues, his motives were sincere
As you may have guessed, my feelings about Sons of Sam are mixed. Maury Terry is a compelling figure, even if his theories don’t really hold together. I guess the ultimate lesson of Sons of Sam is that, eventually, every conspiracy will get its own Netflix series.