The Son of Sam murders were solved on Aug. 10, 1977 when New York police arrested David Berkowitz for a series of shootings that had terrorized the city for over a year. But a new Netflix documentary series poses the question that has long fascinated true-crime enthusiasts: what if Berkowitz wasn’t the only Son of Sam? Directed by Joshua Zeman, The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness pulls at threads first investigated by journalist Maury Terry, who went to his grave believing that other killers stalked the New York streets — killers who were connected to a larger story involving a Satan-worshipping cult. (Terry died in 2015.)
“I like to think of this as my own little Marvel universe,” Zeman tells Yahoo Entertainment, revealing how one of his previous true-crime tales, the 2009 documentary Cropsey, led him to re-opening the Son of Sam case for Netflix. “I had been looking at missing children in that film, and there were rumors floating around that they were connected to the Son of Sam. More specifically, that Berkowitz didn’t act alone and there was some kind of cult that was behind it.”
“At first, I completely thought it was Satanic Panic, and I didn’t believe it,” Zeman continues. “But then a couple of veteran NYPD detectives sat me down and said, ‘There’s some truth to this.’” Those officers then recommended he pick up Terry’s 1987 book, The Ultimate Evil, where the journalist assembled all of his evidence. “That book scared the crap out of me, and I don’t scare easily,” the director says. “I am a debunker of all things that go bump in the night, but for some reason, this hit a sweet spot.”
The four-part Sons of Sam series is both a re-evaluation of the case to convict Berkowitz, and a portrait of a journalist who eventually lost the plot of his own story. Zeman depicts how Terry’s fascination with the case inevitably tipped over into obsession, a narrative not unlike one of his favorite movies, David Fincher’s Zodiac. “You just brought a tear to my eye when you mentioned Zodiac,” the director says. “That was the model, and I honestly felt that Maury Terry was one of those characters: it’s only now in this kind of true crime obsessed world do I think that Maury story takes on an especially important relevance.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Zeman discussed why the Son of Sam case continues to loom large in New York’s collective memory, and why he didn’t interview Berkowitz for his series.
Yahoo Entertainment: We should talk about your own history with the Son of Sam murders: is it a case that’s always fascinated you?
Joshua Zeman: I grew up in Staten Island, which is filled with the sons and daughters of people who were teenagers in the 1970s, and moved there from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. So the story held a special significance to people who I grew up with, and I felt it never got its due. New York in 1977 was an incredible time that I think has been lost on subsequent generations: it was super interesting and super dark. There was a level of debauchery and gravity, along with the rise of the punk and the disco scene, that was really fascinating. But most importantly, the case never sat right with me. There’s always a “why” to every crime, and the “why” in this case — the idea that David Berkowitz was somehow commanded to kill by a demon dog — seems funny in retrospect. Looking back, it’s ridiculous that it’s been the accepted notion for over 40 years.
How much of that is due to the fact that Berkowitz seems like such an unlikely mass murderer?
I think that’s definitely part of it; Berkowitz is an enigma. But in 1977, you had a New York City that was on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy, with a devastating blackout and a serial killer shooting couples in parked cars. Suddenly, here comes the most incredible perp walk ever — a 24-year-old postal worker smiling for the cameras and saying, “Yeah, I did it. A demon dog told me to.” How could you not believe it? At the same time, when I went back and spoke with people, I found that that NYPD did the most minimal post-arrest investigation. They never interviewed the literal Sons of Sam; they never spent even a half-hour to talk to the guys whose names happened to be mentioned in all the letters.
We’re having a larger conversation right now about policing in America and officers doing due diligence in investigations. Do you see a connection between then and now?
People have asked me, “What makes you think you’re going to be able to do what Maury couldn’t do?” And I’ve said, “Probably the biggest difference is that we have a lot more transparency in how police investigations are done. We understand the nuances of why things sometimes get shut down, because politics come into play.” So I think people are ready to accept that maybe Maury was right, and the police did prematurely shut down the case and politics had a lot to do with it.
Would you go so far as to describe it as a cover-up?
I have asked certain police officers whether it was cover-up. Some will say, “Yes,” while others say, “It wasn’t a coverup, it was just deciding not to go further.” This is not about the rank and file: this is about big city politics during an incredible time in New York City history. The NYPD needed to catch the Son of Sam to save the soul of the city. There was a need to have those answers, and I can understand people not wanting to suggest that there might be other killers out there, especially when Berkowitz himself admitted to it. Honestly, I don’t think that the people of New York City could have emotionally accepted that.
It’s noted in the documentary how Maury’s investigation coincided with the rise of tabloid television in the 1980s. Do you think his message was obscured by that medium?
I like to say that Maury made a deal with the devil. Once the police called him a crackpot, he had nowhere else to go but to the tabloid media. They took his story, and it became a symbiotic relationship. That’s probably his real tragedy, that he doubled down when the police called him a crackpot and told his story in arenas that made his initial investigation far less credible. It allowed all those people who called him a crackpot to continue doing so, if that makes sense. Also, it really became a test case where tabloid journalism — and people like Rupert Murdoch — learned that sex doesn’t sell. It’s fear that sells better. You can actually chart the rise of tabloid journalism from the Son of Sam case. As a journalist who loves stories about journalism and true crime, it offers a rich tableau of how we tell true crime stories, and the responsibility we have.
Satinic Panic was the big story in the ’80s, and now we have series about contemporary cults like NXIVM. Is there a link between the two?
I think it’s a very different thing. For me, I don’t tend to believe it’s all organized. I think that’s where Maury Terry really went down the rabbit hole, and never found his way out. I tend to believe that evil people somehow find each other in the darkness, and gravitate towards each other, but it’s typically not quite so organized. People want to believe these things are organized, because that allows there to be some order to it. It’s far more terrifying if it’s unorganized mayhem.
That describes the QAnon phenomenon to a certain extent: that desire to see a grand organized conspiracy behind random events. Had he lived, do you think Maury might have been susceptible to something like that?
I think the series becomes a very important cautionary tale of true crime and conspiracy. You can find connections everywhere, if you want to. As Maury got older, he realized that things aren’t as connected as he originally thought, and I think the happens to a lot of people who fall down rabbit holes until they spin themselves out. And when they finally climb back out, they say, “Oh gosh.” I have a feeling that we’re going to start to see a lot of people spent themselves out and climb out of the rabbit hole fairly exhausted.
For those who choose to stay in cults, what is the power these groups have over them?
To me it’s less about the power of the cults, than about the need and desire of the follower. Cults would never be as powerful as they are, without people who allow them to be powerful. And I’m not victim-blaming here: what I’m saying is that people are searching for something, for somebody to help lead the way. They are searching for focus, and they are searching for meaning. The problem is, you need to be skeptical of anybody who claims to offer you the “full truth.”
We should talk about Berkowitz himself, who is still alive and serving six consecutive life sentences in upstate New York. Did you reach out to him for this series?
I did try and reach out to him. I didn’t want to know anything about the crimes or anything — I just wanted to get his opinion on Maury Terry. He did not share his thoughts.
How available does he make himself for interviews now?
I’d rather not answer that question. [Pauses] I’ll be honest, I don’t like serial-killer stories. I’ve never liked serial killer stories. When I was making Cropsey, one of my parents made me promise that I would never do another serial-killer story. And then I went and did a show called The Killing Season, about sex workers in Long Island, and now The Sons of Sam! I feel like somebody needs to explain to the world why these cases don’t get solved, and my job is to tell an alternative story to the typical kind of salacious true crime story.
You do include footage of Terry’s interview with Berkowitz in the 1990s. How do you think viewers will react when they see that conversation?
I think the irony here is how underwhelming he is. That’s when you realize, as a filmmaker, the power we ascribe to people. My goal is with the series, very honestly, is to change the history books. To go back and to look at this case with a different lens, and understand that there are victims out there who are still searching for the person who shot them. We have a need to right the wrongs of the past, especially when it comes to such investigations.
Is there a particular thread that you think they should start pulling on?
To me, the most promising thread is to start looking at the Carr family. One of the most amazing things to me is that the police spent tens of thousands of man hours looking at every possible lead, yet once Berkowitz was arrested, they never sat down with the actual Sons of Sam to ask any questions. That would probably not fly in today’s police department.
Are you concerned that Berkowitz could potentially be released based on any of this new evidence?
As far as I know, David Berkowitz does not want to be released. He has admitted to killing people and feels like he still wants to pay his debt to society. Though I can’t speak for him, so you should be asking him.
What’s the aspect of the documentary that you think will most surprise younger viewers, those who were born long after the murders happened?
It’s interesting: growing up in New York in the 1980s, I knew who David Berkowitz was — he was one of our childhood boogeymen. But for this generation, I don’t think they know who he is unless they watch shows like Mindhunter and start to go down their own little rabbit hole. I’ve been thinking about how you possibly translate to somebody what New York City was like back then, when there was sheer panic in the streets and nobody was going out. And I say, “It was like the pandemic in some respects.” Nobody went to restaurants or to bars or theaters for 13 months. I think that’s a fairly interesting analogy.
The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is currently streaming on Netflix.
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