The spooky season is upon us. In celebration of pumpkin spice and terror in the air, we’ve compiled a list of the best true crime documentaries to watch this Halloween. From murderous husbands to hidden identities, we’ve got something you’ll love to view for the holiday. As of this writing, each of these films is available to stream.
Murderous husbands make some of the best true crime documentaries
In the annals of terror, husbands capable of murder loom large. Netflix’s brilliant The Staircase documentary explores that scenario in unbearably suspenseful detail across 13 sections.
The documentary takes viewers behind the scenes of wealthy novelist Michael Peterson’s trial. Peterson couldn’t explain the death of his second wife, Kathleen Peterson, who met a violent end down a staircase in their North Carolina home.
It covers every possible angle, including a strange theory involving murderous owls. However, someone in Peterson’s past also died of head wounds sustained by falling down a staircase. Even more fascinating, he had lurid secrets to hide.
At the next level are men who are willing to harm their children to keep secrets safe. Chris Watts killed his wife Shannan and both their small daughters when she correctly suspected infidelity. Shannan was pregnant at the time of her death.
American Murder: The Family Next Door on Netflix explores what happened in August 2018 that led to the deaths. Something about this 82-minute documentary is particularly dreadful. To sum up, Chris Watts’ unfeeling attitude befits a crime both nightmarish and irredeemable.
Some of our favorites are urban legends that came true
By nature, urban legends aren’t true. But some of the most disturbing of our best true crime documentaries are about legends that became true — either by discovery or by crimes designed to legitimize them.
The latter is true of Beware the Slender Man from HBO. Slenderman is a faceless, suited creature born out of an age of anonymity and confusion. So when two 12-year-old girls took another 12-year-old girl into the woods and stabbed her 19 times — then attributed the violence to pleasing Slenderman — nobody was sure what to make of it.
Director Irene Taylor Brodsky admirably gives shape to the juvenile crime. But the lingering feeling of dread you get is frankly as scary as the idea of Slenderman itself.
This brings us to Cropsey — a legend so unthinkable that society dismissed it as urban legend. However, the 2009 documentary on Amazon Prime reveals Cropsey to be unsettlingly real.
The Joshua Zeman/Barbara Brancaccio film examines the New York lore of Cropsey. Before long, you’re knee-deep in the history of convicted child kidnapper Andre Rand. And while you don’t want to continue listening to this chilling tale (especially if you have children), you’ll find yourself paralyzed with interest.
Serial killers are the ultimate subject matter for the best true crime documentaries
While all these scenarios add a double-chill to your October night, nothing could be more terrifying than the mystery that kills its investigator.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is HBO’s riveting account of writer Michelle McNamara’s investigation of The Golden State Killer. McNamara, the wife of actor Patton Oswalt at the time of her death, is renowned for her True Crime Diaries blog. She chronicled the serial killer’s crimes and her investigation on the blog. She began a book about her discoveries. And she lost her bearings, ultimately succumbing to an overdose in an attempt to manage the pressure of such a dark pursuit.
Ultimately, McNamara had a hand in the resolution of The Golden State Killer’s identity. But she wouldn’t live to see it. McNamara was responsible for giving the legendary serial killer his enduring nickname, though. And like his victims, she slipped into the darkness of death as well.