Every Shocking True Crime Documentary You Need To Watch Now
True crime is an endlessly fascinating genre to delve into, and it’s unsurprising there are so many documentaries out there that explore this darker underbelly of the human experience.
Crimes involve real lives and real people, and those who choose to tell these stories do so best when they focus on the humans behind the tabloid splashes; the lives that unfold long before the fateful moment of no turning back.
In my opinion, the greatest true crime docs look beyond the who’s and the how’s of the bloody crime scene, going deeper into the psychological and social conditions which shape a person’s motivations and life choices.
And so, here are 10 of the most shocking true crime documentaries ever made. There are of course many, many others out there, but I believe each of the following offers food for thought along with the initial shock factor; lingering in your mind long after you finish watching.
10. Imposter (2012)
I watched this one at the cinema at the time and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. There are layers upon layers to this story, which is honestly so baffling that I struggled to believe I was watching the retelling of real events.
At first glimpse, the story appears to bear a similar basis to various other true crime docs you’ll have seen time and again. A young boy by the name of Nicholas Barclay goes missing in Texas, never to be seen again. His family search for him, but to no avail.
But then, one night, there is a fateful phone call. Nicholas is apparently alive and living in France, with a long and complicated tale to tell as to where he’s been.
However, despite being warmly welcomed back into the family fold, there’s something not quite right about Nicholas. His eyes are a different colour, and he appears to be much, much older than his birth certificate would suggest…
You can watch the trailer for The Imposter below:
9. Into the Abyss (2011)
As one would expect from a film directed by cinematic auteur Werner Herzog, this is one of the most thought provoking true crime docs you’ll ever see.
Into the Abyss wrestles with various weighty issues, namely the ethics of the death penalty and whether or not such a punishment should ever be handed down from one human being to another.
It’s a haunting and at times very difficult watch, with stark parallels to Truman Capote’s infamous true crime novel In Cold Blood (1966).
The story follows two young men who were found guilty of murdering Texas mother Sandra Stotler as she baked cookies at home, as well as her son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson. Their heinous crimes were apparantly motivated by the theft of a red Camaro car from Sandra’s garage.
One of the men, Jason Burkett, was given a life sentence, while the other, Michael Perry, was put on death row. Herzog approaches the case from an anti-death penalty stance, fixing his philosophical, fiercely intellectual gaze on a divisive and deeply uncomfortable moral dilemma.
Check out the trailer for Into the Abyss below:
8. Don’t F*ck With Cats (2019)
I found this to be so much more than simply a true crime documentary. This is a story about what brilliant, determined people can achieve when they put their heads together, even when faced with great evil.
I was personally left in complete awe at the stellar keyboard detective work shown by Deanna Thompson and John Green, a pair who truly are the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson for the internet age.
After a horrifying animal abuse video went viral in 2010, Thompson and Green started a Facebook group of amateur detectives, with members working tirelessly to compile evidence and track down the perpetrator.
Things take an even more horrifying turn when it emerges the man in the video has committed a despicable murder, having moved on from torturing animals to killing humans.
The painstaking attention to detail from the sleuths – from analysing Google Street View analysis to tracking down blankets on ebay – makes this an absolute must-watch for those fascinating by the process of pulling together clues.
Watch the trailer below:
7. Mommy, Dead and Dearest (2017)
On the outside, Dee Dee Blanchard was a doting mother to her sick child Gypsy Rose Blanchard, devoting her every waking minute to tending to Gypsy’s various medical needs. In reality, she was harbouring a secret far darker than could be dreamed up by any crime novelist.
Dee Dee told the world that Gypsy had the cognitive age of a seven-year-old, as well as various serious health issues and physical disabilities; subjecting her daughter to various intrusive surgeries and treatments.
In reality, Gypsy was a healthy, mobile young woman with normal cognitive function, trapped by her mother’s web of lies which had fooled doctors and members of the community alike. In 2015, Gypsy kiled Dee Dee in a desperate escape bid for freedom, in a crime that shocked all who knew them.
In July 2016, Gypsy was given a 10 year prison sentence after being charged with second degree murder, having been spared a life sentence on account of the severe and lengthy abuse she had suffered.
This documentary series sheds some much needed light on Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, a condition whereby a parent exaggerates, lies about or deliberately causes symptoms of illness in their own children.
Check out the trailer below:
6. Lorena (2019)
In 1993, after many years of alleged domestic abuse, Lorena Bobbitt sliced off the penis of her husband John, in what was to be one of the most shocking and widely discussed crimes of the early ’90s.
The story was ripe for tabloid sensationalism, with Lorena endlessly mocked by comedians and stereotyped by news reporters. This was a case which was debated on talk shows, and which even led to crass t-shirts and merchandise being flogged in the Bobbitts’ home city of Manassas, Virginia.
This is a really excellent documentary series which digs deep beneath the lurid headlines of the time, shining some much needed light on the issues surrounding marital rape and domestic abuse.
A tale of the American dream gone horrifically, painfully wrong, Lorena examines the different ways this crime was perceived and interpreted at the time, with contemporary reflections from both Lorena and John.
Watch the trailer below:
5. I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter (2019)
This two-part documentary looks at one of the most upsetting cases I’ve personally ever read about: the death of 18-year-old Conrad Roy.
Conrad, of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, tragically died by suicide in 2014. His 17-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Carter, was then accused of having had a hand in his death, after it emerged she had sent text messages encouraging him to kill himself.
This documentary delves into issues such as mental health in the age of advanced digital technology, and addresses the extent to which an individual can be regarded as having been responsible for someone else’s suicide.
I Love You, Now Die is sensitively handled, and raises important points about the ethics of medicating teenagers, the lasting effects of child abuse and the complicated nature of suicide.
Here’s the trailer:
4. The Witness (2015)
Anyone who has ever taken a psychology class will no doubt be familiar with the infamous, and very sad, case of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who was stabbed to death outside her own apartment building in Queens, New York.
Two weeks after her murder, The New York Times published an article alleging that 38 witnesses had either seen or heard Kitty being murdered, but that not a single one had come to her aid or rang the police.
Her murder prompted investigations into the ‘bystander effect’, an extremely bleak social psychological theory which posits that people are less likely to help a victim when there are others around. However, the full story of Kitty’s death is far more complex than its dark legacy would have you believe.
Narrated by Kitty’s brother, William Genovese, The Witness sets about debunking the widely held notion that nobody tried to help Kitty that night, getting to the truth of the matter in a thoughtful, profound and respectful way.
Perhaps most notably, this documentary gives a loving and human portrayal of Kitty, a lively and well-liked bar manager whose life should be marked and celebrated far beyond a few well-trodden sentences in a sociology textbook.
Watch the trailer for yourself below:
3. Time: The Kalief Browder Story (2017)
This six-part documentary mini-series sheds light on the horrors of the American justice system through the life and incarceration of one teenager; delving into issues such as institutionalised racism and social inequalities.
Bronx high school student Kalief Browder was arrested in 2010 after being accused of stealing a backpack. His family were unable to afford his $3,000 bail, and so he was sent to the notorious Rikers Island, a prison complex known for the neglect and abuse of inmates.
Kalief was imprisoned for three years, two of which were spent in solitary confinement, without ever being convicted of a crime. During his time in Rikers Island’s adolescent wing, he suffered horrifying acts of physical violence, abuses which were captured on CCTV footage.
Made after Kalief died by suicide in 2015, this documentary series is a harrowing account of the toll a broken criminal justice system can take on a young person’s life, future and mental health.
You can watch the trailer here:
2. Tell Me Who I Am (2019)
This is a truly chilling meditation on childhood trauma, and asks the audience to consider whether or not uncovering the truth about one’s past and family is necessarily always for the best.
Tell Me Who I Am follows the story of Alex Lewis who, after awakening from a coma as a young man, is unable to remember anything of his past life, apart from his twin brother Marcus.
With Marcus’ help, Alex is able to recall an idyllic, privileged childhood of holidays, parties and fun, with an eccentric but ultimately loving mother.
However, it eventually becomes apparant that Marcus is painting an idealized and ultimately hollow portrait of what life was really like for them both growing up.
The documentary sees a fraught dynamic between the pair. Alex is desperate to fill in the gaps in his memory, whilst Marcus longs to keep him blissfully in the dark about the horrors they endured together at the family home.
You can check out the trailer for yourself below:
1. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark (2020)
This is an absolute masterpiece of a true crime documentary series, drawn from Michelle McNamara’s extraordinary 2018 book of the same name, which was published two years after her death.
Over the course of six episodes, we follow McNamara’s painstaking efforts to track down one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, the Golden State Killer, whilst hearing from those involved with the case.
Just two months after McNamara’s book was published, the Golden State Killer – sometimes referred to as the East Area Rapist – was named as 74-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer who had evaded justice for decades.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark has been widely praised for its focus on the victims, sensitively avoiding the sort of serial killer mythologising which so many lesser documentaries fall prey to. It’s also a wonderful tribute to McNamara and her fierce, caring determination.
Find out more in the following trailer:
As frightening as such topics can be, I will always love true crime and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained a far greater appreciation for the worthy educational merits of such documentaries.
It’s important that we all strive to have a solid understanding of how criminal justice systems work, that we are able to form opinions on the weighty social issues that affect the treatment of victims in courtrooms and in the media alike. Only then can we work towards a safer society.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact the Rape Crisis England and Wales helpline on 0808 802 9999 between 12pm–2.30pm and 7pm– 9.30pm every day. Alternatively, you can contact Victim Support free on 08 08 16 89 111 available 24/7, every day of the year, including Christmas.
Male Survivors Partnership is available to support adult male survivors of sexual abuse and rape. You can contact the organisation on their website or on their free helpline 0808 800 5005, open 9am–5pm Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays; 8am–8pm Tuesdays and Thursdays; 10am–2pm Saturdays.
Most Read StoriesMost Read
CreditsThe New York Times
The New York Times